JAKARTA (April 10) – Business leaders in Southeast Asia have been urged to help  move the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) forward in its goal of economic integration by working together to promote the region as a single market.

Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputeri, who met members of the newly formed ASEAN Business Advisory Council (ABAC) at the Presidential Palace today, said there is much to be gained through cooperation in trade and economic relations among ASEAN countries.

“Each ASEAN country should outline its potential so that efforts can be made to realise this potential by teaming up with its neighbours,” said President Megawati to the ABAC members, who are distinguished leaders of commerce and industry, chosen by their respective governments to provide feedback and advice on issues and policies that influence business.

“ASEAN countries can also expand its market to include member countries of the Non-Aligned Movement, which number more than 160,” the President added. “In the area of food and agriculture, for instance, there is potential to develop this sector of industry.”

Speaking at the inaugural meeting of ABAC, the ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong expressed confidence that the Council members can share their views and recommendations that will help invigorate and strengthen the economies of ASEAN.

“We need your business statesmanship and public advocacy to help move ASEAN towards a single market of more than 500 million people even as we modernize and globalize the individual economies and integrate them,” said Mr. Ong.

The Secretary-General said the aim of the Council is to engage business people from the region and enable them to provide input from the private sector into the policy-making process. The initiative to launch ABAC was made at the Seventh ASEAN Summit held in Brunei two years ago and the meeting held at the ASEAN Secretariat today, brought together some 15 eminent business representatives from Southeast Asia to discuss ways to facilitate and promote economic cooperation and integration.

“In this era of globalization and intense competition from around the region and beyond, it is imperative that we in ASEAN put our collective minds together to come up with effective strategies to deal with the challenges of the New Economy,” said Mr. Ong.

He said it is important for the private sector to include its perspective into the economic development and integration process so that government policies of ASEAN member countries and their dialogue partners can address the needs and concerns of the respective business communities.

“Private sector representation is increasingly a part of ASEAN’s economic cooperation with its dialogue partners,” said Mr. Ong.

“We already have the AFTA-Closer Economic Region Business Council (ACBC),” he pointed out. “We are working on a proposal for an ASEAN-India Business Council. You can expect more business councils to be set up as we strengthen our relationship with our key dialogue partners.”

The Secretary-General said the ACBC has contributed to economic cooperation between ASEAN and the CER countries like Australia and New Zealand by coming up with a number of recommendations to help double trade and investment flows between the two regions by 2010 and reducing transaction costs in the process.

“The establishment of the ASEAN Business Advisory Council is another key component of the overall strategy of increasing the private sector’s presence in ASEAN’s economic policy deliberations,” said Mr. Ong.

“Business Councils provide a platform for small and medium enterprises to get into this kind of deliberation where you can share your practical experiences and knowledge that will add great value to the work of our political leadership and bureaucratic agencies in positioning ASEAN as a single trade, investment and tourism destination,” he added.

In a message to the Council members at a luncheon talk, Indonesia’s Minister of Trade and Industry Rini Soewandi said there is still much work to do to raise the level of trade within ASEAN, saying that it is “a goal that would help many of our economies to achieve a pattern of international trade less dependent on our existing major partners.”

To achieve this, Ms. Rini said ASEAN needs to develop an arrangement on the complimentarity of products.

“The level of foreign direct investments coming to our economies can be raised further through improved synergy between our economies and the correction of the negative international perception of our region,” said Ms. Rini.

“The urgency of this task is being increased by globalization which is continuing to dramatically change the way in which the world conducts business bringing with it indiscriminate impacts and uneven and inequitable features,” she added.

The ABAC members discussed various areas of cooperation including market access and non-tariff barriers which are obstacles to free trade.

Chairman of the RFM Corporation of the Philippines, Jose Concepcion, said the issue of non-tariff barriers is of concern to businessmen as it makes it difficult to expand trade and investments in some protectionist markets.

“ASEAN countries must speak with one voice so that small players in the region are not left behind,” said Mr. Concepcion. “We must become a cohesive group like the European Union. And we must also help less developed ASEAN countries to progress so that they are not threatened by the bigger players in the World Trade Organisation that are aiming to open up markets around the globe.”

ABAC chairman Rudy Pesik, who is also the President Director of P.T. Birotika Semesta, said there is a need for the Council to work more closely with the various ASEAN chambers of commerce and industry to facilitate and promote trade and investments especially for SMEs.

The Bee Seng Group chairman, Lim Beng Tai, of Brunei expressed hope that the matters raised by the Advisory Council members will be assessed by ASEAN governments in the implementation of policies and plans.

“We hope that each ASEAN government will study our recommendations and implement them for the benefit of the business community and for the economies of the region,” said Mr. Lim.

The chief executive of Proton Berhad, a leading car manufacturer in Malaysia, said the first meeting among the ASEAN businessmen today provided an opportunity for the participants to look at regional issues and perspectives.

“How do we grow this market in ASEAN to make it larger and increase the incomes of small businesses and alleviate poverty in the process?” said Tengku Tan Sri Mahaleel Arif, Proton’s CEO. “This is the challenge and we are finding avenues to achieve this goal.”