A better way to travel within Asean, please

JULY 16 — A few weeks ago, I found myself driving in Europe.

This was interesting for a couple of reasons: firstly and obviously because they drive on the opposite side, secondly because Europe is a large place (not like driving along the PIE) and thirdly, well there are no borders.

From France to Italy to Germany (and beyond), you just drive along and it is hard to know where one country ends and another begins.
Blink and you’ll miss it.

Now this is a rather stark contrast to borders in this part of the world.

The merits and demerits of the EU aren’t really my concern here but from the perspective of getting from point A to B, it certainly is handy.

This level of free movement clearly facilitates trade, commerce and general integration.

After all, Asean — like Europe — which is comprised of diverse nations linked by trade ties and proximity should look seriously at easing ease of movement.

While we no longer need visas to travel within Asean, it is still not as smooth as travel within Europe.  — Picture from commons.wikimedia.org
While we no longer need visas to travel within Asean, it is still not as smooth as travel within Europe. — Picture from commons.wikimedia.org

Of course the economic disparities are vast and we don’t have anything like the European legal, social and administrative systems that allows EEC level of integration.

On a practical level it wouldn’t be entirely practical for Singapore (GDP US$50,000 or RM214,737) to fully open its border to Myanmar (GDP US$1,000) but even within a more limited parameter there’s more that can be done.

Now Singapore does offer visa on arrival/via free entry to citizens of all Asean countries and in fact across the board visa requirement between Asean countries — at least for travel and business — are somewhat streamlined.

However, the visa is only half the battle — the physical difficulty of crossing regional borders with checkpoints, toll gates, boats, bridges and all manner of other hazards is another matter.

One only has to look at the Sinapore-Johor Baru causeway  — my bete noir — to see that even two of Asean’s wealthiest members can’t begin to manage a rational border crossing.

Three-hour jams, regular tiffs over fees and tariffs plus dysfunctional taxi and bus services.

The amount of man hours and money wasted on the causeway baffles me, yet the causeway is honestly a model of functionality compared to the bizarre and confusing border between Thailand and Malaysia (Bukit Kayu Hitam) and let’s not get into the haphazard crossing between Cambodia and Laos etc.

Also of course we don’t all drive on the same side of the road — making a seamless drive from SG to Bangkok less likely.

Compared to Europe’s smooth sailing, Asean still seems to be at the stage of jungle frontier with cowboy border towns; years into the 21st century, this is absurd.

But while it would be nice to be able to drive all the way to the north of Myanmar to the edges of China and India without a visa or crossings, for now I would settle for the ability to fly into Bangkok without dealing with the hour-long immigration queue.

Maybe there should, for now, simply be more use of preapproved border cards. The MAC card which allows (some) Singaporeans easy entry to JB is one model; it uses RFID chips and alleviates the necessity for a passport stamp when Singaporeans (with the card) travel to JB.

Though it’s a start, the MAC card leaves a lot to be desired; it only works in JB, doesn’t seem well integrated with the rest of Malaysia’s immigration system and it isn’t as automated as finger-print protected airport E-gates.

With the extent of biometric technology available, there has to be a better solution.

Pre-approved cards, more dedicated Asean immigration and border lines, general standardization of border checkpoints and customs across Asean along with a genuine commitment to getting people to move smoothly over national borders will go along way.

Ultimately regional leaders must simply recognize that trade and co-operation will never reach their true potential when we see our borders as fortress walls  or even simply mismanage them — letting them become cowboy frontiers.

While I’m not expecting to cruise unhindered to Hat Yai anytime soon, how about a MAC card equivalent that works in KL? That would be a good start.

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