The Prime Minister had been in a marathon of back-to-back meetings stretching nearly 12 hours daily over the course of the two-day summit, which ended on Thursday night with a ceremony where he received Malaysia’s chairmanship of Asean for 2015.
One could sense that he was making an extra effort to properly explain Asean issues due to its importance. Najib then suddenly asked one of the reporters about the thrust of coverage for the next day’s newspapers.
It is something journalists on the PM’s beat say he rarely does. When the reporter indicated that explaining Malaysia’s vision for Asean was on the cards, there was no hesitation in Najib’s response this time.
“We have to appeal to the people in Asean. Many still cannot relate to Asean and its significance, they still are unable to appreciate Asean,” he said.
Creating a greater sense of pride and belonging to Asean must be at the top of Malaysia’s to-do list as Asean chairman.
As Najib had emphasised earlier at the summit, it will be tough for Asean’s plans to drive future economic growth if there is apathy and little buy-in from the people.
Despite its potential and rapid growth, with Asean today being the world’s seventh largest economy, there is still a lack of excitement over Asean among many people, including Malaysians.
The Asean Economic Community (AEC), one of three pillars in the Asean Community integration blueprint and which is scheduled for a rollout at the end of 2015, aims to create a single market and production in the region.
But how many young or rural entrepreneurs in Malaysia, for instance, know about the AEC’s potential to give them access to a bigger slice of the market in Asean?
How many consumers know that the AEC’s gradual tariff reductions since 2007 have been benefiting them in terms of lower prices for products in the region?
How many people realise the contribution of Asean’s open skies policy in making regional air travel much more affordable, with the main beneficiaries being Malaysia’s very own AirAsia?
The honest answer is not nearly enough.
As Najib puts it, what Asean needs is an effective communication plan to explain its importance and benefits.
Raising awareness is, however, just the start. Asean also needs to engage stakeholders and get their input on what is needed to make Asean policies succeed.
Malaysia will do this by increasing the number of engagement sessions between Asean leaders and officials with target groups and stakeholders ranging from parliamentarians to women and young entrepreneurs.
Capacity building will also be on the agenda to create a people-centred Asean, which is the theme that Malaysia has chosen for its Asean chairmanship.
Malaysia, said Najib, would offer programmes that stakeholders in all Asean countries would be invited to.
They include training courses for new entrepreneurs conducted by the Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre.
After the press conference ended, the Prime Minister was soon back to his usual more cheerful self.
He joked about how the Asean Summit was a challenge not just for reporters but for him as well due to the packed schedule of sessions that gave him almost no time to catch his breath.
With Najib himself taking up the cudgel, one can only hope that Malaysian officials and other parties responsible for carrying out the country’s programmes next year as Asean chairman will also roll up their shirt sleeves and get to work.