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September, 25, 2016

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Asia heading toward seismic shift

BANGKOK -- In a decade's time, visitors to ASEAN, South and North Asia may find their personal experiences in their respective destinations differ quite drastically.

Each Asian nation is busy operating at its own pace, plotting a new stage of economic development and growth — despite ongoing global economic uncertainty.

In the process of this seismic shift, some countries have chosen to work in partnerships while others are tackling the challenges alone. All of them reflect Asia's unique aspiration to take on global competitive pressure. Some nations aim to get out of the middle-income trap, while others want to secure a higher standard of living for their people.

In ASEAN, leading the pack are Malaysia and Singapore — the dual trackers — with the much-heralded high-speed train project linking Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, at an estimated cost of US$17 billion. Once completed, train travel between these two destinations will take just 90 minutes.

This will deepen links between the two high-income ASEAN members and expand scalability, especially for Singapore, with its limited land and manpower. It could well be that Kuala Lumpur will join Singapore as another world-class city to work in and ease the latter's vulnerability to being priced out as the world's most expensive location.

A Single Market

The other two ASEAN dual trackers are Thailand and Myanmar. Although more humble, there are plans to bring the 120-million population market closer together. One day, they may even form a single market! Underway is the construction of special economic zones along the border between the two countries. This would facilitate freer flows of workers, businesses and communications. It would merge the border areas' sub-economic zones, such as Mae Sot in Thailand's Tak province and the Myanmar city of Mawlamyine.

During the decades that Myanmar was shut off from the world, the area was arguably, aside from Yangon, the most high-income generating part of the country, revealing the benefits of being adjacent to a complementary higher-income country. On a grander scale, some economic sector mergers between Thailand and Myanmar could be a game changer to help fast-forward the development and income of the latter. Together, they have scalability, complementary economies and strategic geography. And let's not forget the Dawei Special Economic Zone further south, which both countries are determined to make work despite the odds.

Of the other sizeable ASEAN member nations, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam are on a single track but in equally dynamic mode, with most efforts being spent on "putting the house in order."

There is not a day that goes by when Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo doesn't try to energize the bureaucracy, government policies and private investments. With a population of 200 million, Indonesia is a huge market. We can't say that Jokowi is not doing his best to put Indonesia back where it belongs. He has repeatedly called on his government coalition partners to back him.

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