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Gearing up for the AEC

With the Asean Economic Community (AEC) becoming operational at the end of next year, it is important to know the basics about each of the region's 10 members. In this column, we will cover Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos and Malaysia.

Brunei

Brunei (Negara Brunei Darusallam or the abode of peace) is the smallest country in the region in terms of population, but it has large supplies of oil and natural gas, making it the region's second wealthiest country.

It is one of four monarchies in the region, and its current dynasty (the House of Bolkiah) is perhaps the longest in the world going back to 1368. Centuries ago at its peak, Brunei was a powerful sultanate controlling substantial parts of Borneo (the third largest island in the world) and parts of what is now the Philippines.

Brunei was a protectorate of Great Britain until 1986 and is a member of the Commonwealth, with many of its best students aspiring to study at Oxbridge (Oxford or Cambridge). Brunei, like Iran, is noted for a high participation rate of women in higher education.

Cambodia

Another small country in the region is the Kingdom of Cambodia. It impossible to think of Cambodia without thinking of Angkor Wat, the largest complex of religious monuments and one of the man-made wonders of the world. It also reflects the power of Khmer aesthetics.

Siem Reap, which means the "defeat of Siam", is the gateway to Angkor Wat and now has a growing number of modern hotels including the classic Grand Hotel d'Angkor. In 2014, it was ranked the No 4 city for tourists.

An important personality in Cambodian history is Prince Sihanouk, who became King Sihanouk in more recent times. As a leader during the Cold War, Sihanouk successfully kept his country neutral and out of the Vietnam War. Chilean author Julio A Jeldres has written extensively about the life and accomplishments of King Sihanouk.

Cambodia also suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and the "killing fields". Though this was a horrific part of Khmer history, those who survived are in many ways special, as they and their offspring are now contributing to the rapid modernisation of contemporary Cambodia.

In recent years, Cambodia has seen rapid expansion in its higher education system with increasing numbers of private institutions.

Indonesia

In comparison with Brunei and Cambodia, Indonesia is massive, the largest country in the region both in terms of population and area. It is comprised of more than 17,000 islands and is a demographic powerhouse with the world's fourth largest population of 249.9 million.

If a map of Indonesia was transposed on Europe and the Middle East, it would show the country stretching from Ireland (Aceh in the west) to the borders of Afghanistan (Irian Jaya in the east).

Ironically, this huge country was colonised by tiny Holland. The novel "Max Havelaar", which was turned into a film in 1976, provides an excellent overview of Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia. It is described as the "book that killed colonialism".

Owing to its large supplies of oil and many natural resources, Indonesia has a hefty foreign exchange reserve of US$83.5 billion, ranking 27th in the world.

Culturally, Indonesia is one of the most diverse countries, with the Javanese representing only 40.1 per cent of the population. There are over 300 distinct ethnic groups in Indonesia.

Sukarno was one of Indonesia's best known political leaders. He led the fight for independence against the Dutch and later showed great vision in making Bahasa Indonesia (similar to Malay spoken in Malaysia and Brunei), the national language rather than settling for a language of one of the major ethnic groups such as the Javanese.

Laos

The Lao People's Democratic Republic is the only land-locked country in the region, and unlike many countries in East and Southeast Asia, Laos is sparsely populated.

Its political-economic system is highly eclectic being a mix of capitalism and socialism. Plus, it is very Buddhist, making it the land of Buddha, Scottish philosopher and pioneer of political economy Adam Smith and revolutionary socialist Karl Marx.

Luang Prabang possibly has more Buddhist monks per capita and Vientiane has more temples per capita than any other country in the world.

Given Laos' low population density, China with its soft power, is exporting nationals to Laos and acquiring increasing amounts of land. It is also building a high-speed train link to Laos.

A major controversy in Laos relates to dam building. The country has been referred to as the potential "battery of Southeast Asia", but many international environmentalists are strongly opposed to the building of any more dams on the tributaries of Mekong River or on the river itself.

Cambodia and Vietnam, both downstream to the Mekong, are also concerned about such dam development. With a lack of export commodities, Laos is desperate for foreign exchange that can be generated from its great hydroelectric potential.

Malaysia

Like Brunei, Malaysia has an abundance of natural resources in relation to its population. Also like Brunei, Malaysia is a monarchy with sultans. They rotate from being a sultan of a state to assuming the national throne every five years.

Malaysia has a well-developed federal system, which gives local states considerable autonomy.

A major historical problem in Malaysia were racial tensions among the three major ethnic groups - Malays (bhumiputra or children of the soil), Chinese and Indians. Malaysia's response - probably the world's most active affirmative policy ever undertaken - was raising the educational and occupational opportunities of indigenous Malays.

Malaysia aspires to become a fully developed country by 2020 - a vision of its previous leader Dr Mahathir Mohamad. It if succeeds it will not be subject to the middle-income trap, which is currently threatening Thailand.

A major challenge will be for the AEC to foster unity, harmony and solidarity among these highly diverse nations.

Gerald W Fry, distinguished international professor at the Department of Organisational Leadership, Development and Policy College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. Email: gwf@umn.edu


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