Asean integration will require a new mindset
Thai business people are still struggling to grasp the change that looms in two years time
Ironically, even though we can hardly miss the acronym "AEC" when browsing through the newspaper each day, some Thai businessmen confessed to a survey recently that they don't have a true understanding of how to prepare for the regional integration which is due to come into existence in 2015.
In spite of the campaign to promote understanding of the AEC - ASEAN Economic Community - both in the public and private sectors, some Thai companies are not sure if they have a proper grasp of what this will entail and mean for their businesses.
For, while they are receiving pieces of information about the AEC from the media, they miss the big picture on how to prepare themselves to fully benefit from integration of the ASEAN market. Some of the businesses do not fully understand the extent of the market integration and what types of business sectors would be subject to liberalisation.
In addition, many Thai companies face limits in terms of language. Business people in other ASEAN countries can speak many languages such as English and Chinese or even Malay. But some Thai businessmen and women cannot efficiently communicate in English or Chinese. This limited language capacity will affect their opportunities to discuss business with others.
The AEC could offer both opportunities and challenges for Thai businesses. First of all, they will enjoy access to markets beyond Thai borders. It will no longer be limited to some 66 million people in Thailand.
Nonetheless, the AEC will also open up the local market to regional competition as corporates in neighbouring countries will want to tap the opportunities in Thailand. The Thai economy is attractive because it is diversified, with a variety of sectors such as manufacturing and services.
Even before the AEC, the ASEAN market has been increasingly integrated, thanks largely to the ASEAN Free Trade Area (Afta) formed in the early 1990s to cut tariffs on all manufacturing goods within the 10 ASEAN countries.
Asean consumers have been familiar with Thai products. Singaporean brands are also well-known in Thailand and other ASEAN countries. Many products have been crossing the border for years. Thais are familiar with Dao coffee from Laos, for instance.
In short, a positive perception has existed in the region. The AEC will not simply get rid of red tape and barriers to further promote a free flow of goods and services. This is in line with the vision that ASEAN people share the future. Advent of the AEC is also likely to promote understanding and make people in each nation value the uniqueness and diversity of different countries in the region.
To benefit from the business opportunities, businessmen have to understand not only the market but also the characteristics of our neighbours - know their character and preferences. Businessmen wishing to "go regional" need to understand other people within the region and their background.
Most Thais say they have learnt about ASEAN community via the media. But there should also be other channels of information. In fact, the education of ASEAN should start from institutions, so the new generation gain an insightful knowledge about their region.
The mentality that foreigners will be a threat should also be ditched. Local businessmen will have to look at others with an open mind to work and cooperate with people from different countries and help their corporations to cater to a regional market.
Gone are days when the local businesses would be protected. The regional market is inevitable and the AEC is simply part of the trend. It is a catalyst that will help businessmen realise that the best way to stay competitive is to be unique and reach a wider market by excellence and having an open mind.