'Asean a long way from EU-style integration’
It will take 50 years or more for Southeast Asian nations to more closely resemble the European Union including the easing of border controls, according to Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew.
He said the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) was still a long way from being as closely integrated as the European Union, which in December admitted nine new countries into a no-passport zone.
"Well, I don't think they are comparable," Lee said late Monday on the day Singapore became the first Asean member to complete ratification of a landmark charter aimed at transforming the 10-member bloc.
"To expect us to make this leap into a European Union will be 50, maybe more, years," he told a gathering on the 40th anniversary of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS).
Lee, who retains an influential position in the cabinet of his son Lee Hsien Loong, said Asean nations were "very disparate" with differing levels of economic and cultural development.
"I think we make progress slowly. As we rise and we converge towards a more common level there will still be differences but not so stark. Then we can make the moves to free up the borders," he said.
The EU move means people will now be able to travel in 24 countries across Europe, from the Baltic Sea nation of Estonia to Portugal, without passport controls.
Asean's charter aims to commit the region's disparate nations to promote human rights and democratic ideals, and sets out the principles and rules for members.
It also transforms Asean, formed in 1967, into a legal entity, which will give the group greater clout in international negotiations.
But Tommy Koh, a Singaporean diplomat and chairman of the task force which drafted the charter, warned yesterday it was in some jeopardy because of threats not to ratify it.
He said Philippines President Gloria Arroyo warned her country's Congress might not approve the document if Myanmar did not honour the charter's provisions on democracy and human rights.
There is also a strong initiative in Indonesia to dissuade parliament there from ratifying the charter, Koh told the ISEAS Regional Outlook Forum. Koh said one of those opposing ratification is Jusuf Wanandi, a prominent Indonesian academic.
"I don't think that the charter is bold and visionary enough," Wanandi told the forum.
Koh countered that although the charter is not perfect, it is a good start and can be amended later.
He and Surin Pitsuwan, who began his term as Asean secretary general on Monday, said the charter will better position the bloc as it faces intense competition from China, India and elsewhere.
"The stakes facing Asean are very high," Koh said.
Among the charter's benefits, he said it will allow Asean to improve on its "very poor track record" of implementing decisions.
"Asean needs a truly new beginning," Pitsuwan said.
The Asean leaders are also fast-tracking integration of their economies with the goal of creating a single market of more than half a billion people by 2015 to help battle competition from giants China and India.