It is important to know about Free Trade Agreements, such as the ASEAN Free Trade Area (better known as AFTA) which covers the ASEAN region. Before we even get into the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership), ASEAN Plus, and other groupings, it makes sense to know first about ASEAN — the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Who are the member states? You will be surprised that some people do not bother to know what countries belong to ASEAN. Ambassador Delia Albert, a staunch advocate of regional cooperation, taught us the basics which are as follows:
1. Learn to say “ASEAN” properly. Say “AS-YAN” not “EY-SIAN.”
2. Know which countries are called member states or AMS — ASEAN Member States.
3. Find out about cultural and religious differences. For example, when entertaining ASEAN delegates, be sensitive about offering halal food. Also serve many vegetarian choices.
4. Consider prayer rooms. While Catholics only look for churches, our Muslim brothers and sisters need a place for quiet prayer, a few times a day.
5. Be punctual even if the others are not. It is best to correct the notion and reputation about Filipino time.
After learning the basics of cultural complexities, know what networks there are:
1. AWEN — Asean Women Entrepreneurs Network. Now headed by Indonesia, it rotates leadership or chairship every two years. It started with Vietnam in 2014-2016, the Philippines in 2016-2018, Thailand in 2018-2020, and now Indonesia until 2023 (there was an exception to extend the term due to the COVID-19 restrictions in 2020).
2. ASEAN-BAC — the ASEAN Business Advisory Council, a private sector led business leaders’ group which also includes Joint Business Councils (JBCs) and AWEN.
3. ASEAN Coffee Federation — a coalition of national coffee organizations across the ASEAN member states. The Philippine Coffee Board, Inc. Has been our country’s representative for the last 10 years now.
4. AMEN — the ASEAN Mentors Network. Established during the Philippines chairship in 2017, it has over 100 mentors that cross geographical boundaries, with senior executives mentoring younger leaders and entrepreneurs.
5. ASEAN Young Entrepreneurs Council (AYEC) — for those younger CEOs, those who are below 40 years old.
These are just some of the many networks for private sector involvement in ASEAN affairs, business cross-matching and optimizing business connections and opportunities, like the Free Trade Agreements, among other regional non-tariff issues.
The ASEAN headquarters is located in Jakarta, Indonesia and is the main office for all the many departments under the political, economic, and social pillars of the regional authority. It is worth looking at the organizational chart of the ASEAN to find out how your business can benefit from cross-border connections.
In the Philippines, Philwen, or the Philippine Women’s Economic Network, representing the concerns of women business organizations, is the AWEN representative organization and has been tasked to implement regional programs such as the grant from OXFAM. Non-profits and grantors find it expedient to deal with coalitions in lieu of single country groups, as the initiative then becomes region-wide. If your sector has a need for policies that can be discussed in ministerial meetings, then the way to go is to band together, so your concern is regional and not just national.
In the case of the ASEAN Coffee Federation, for example, it was recognized by the ASEAN as a vital coalition with coffee being a major export of Vietnam and Indonesia. Vietnam is now the No. 1 producer of Robusta coffee in the world while Indonesia remains one of the top 10 producers of both Arabica and Robusta in the world. Even if the Philippines is currently a net importer of coffee, it bodes well for us to join the ranks of the top producers of ASEAN, having access to important data and opportunities in the coffee sector that we otherwise may not have had.
And this is the same for private business in any industry. For you to optimize opportunities offered to only ASEAN member states, it may be good for you to explore joining an organization which figures well in ASEAN matters.
There also are programs like ASEAN Access, which allows business people to find other important connections vital to their business sector, company, or organization. There are many initiatives and all you need to do is get invited. But for you to get that precious invitation, your business must be open to collaborations, even partnerships, across the member states.
We started by visiting each of the member states. It is not expensive when you think of the distance of each country from Manila. You can visit all nine other member states on a mission to find your business opportunity. The other way is to join the delegation to ASEAN conferences. It may be your most economical investment to get to meet other business people from nine other states, and explore opportunities.
There are many examples of regional players who have made it big from the Philippines — Universal Robina, Oishi, Penshoppe, to name a few. But one need not be as big as they are to find your potential ASEAN partner. All you need to do is be present at the events and establish your network of like-minded potential business partners.
The next event is in Cambodia this October and the handover in November. Check out the website of the ASEAN for more information but go ahead and start learning about the ASEAN.
Again, learn how to say it: it’s AS-YAN, not EY-SIAN.
This article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines or MAP.
Chit U. Juan is a member of the MAP Diversity & Inclusion Committee, and the MAP Agribusiness Committee. She is Chair of the Philippine Coffee Board, and Councilor of Slow Food for Southeast Asia.