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VIETNAM: Idea of an ASEAN Community Taking Root

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam, 30 Sep (Reporting ASEAN) – Ha Nguyen, 35, is an IT engineer who had worked for over a decade for big enterprises in Vietnam before he became a regional manager in an Australian-based tourism company in Bangkok, Thailand.

By that time, he had travelled to almost all the countries in ASEAN, an experience that showed him the attractiveness of the idea of a huge ASEAN market – and encouraged him to take up the Bangkok-based job. Besides being an employee for the tourism company, he operated his own Internet service in the field of travel and hospitality with the ambition to compete with Agoda and Booking.com in the Southeast Asian market segment.

Ha Nguyen is not the only one in his family who loves the idea of going beyond the local national context.

His sister, 38-year-old Minh Nguyen, who holds a masteral degree from the United Kingdom, decided to set up a human resource company in Yangon, Myanmar three years ago. She has been recruiting foreign experts and local employees for big companies and hotel services in Myanmar, since human resource services are still new to the country. Drawing from her own success, Minh firmly believes in the opportunities for business in the newly opened market that is Myanmar.

Dr Tran Dinh Lam, director of the Center of Vietnam-ASEAN Studies at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University Ho Chi Minh, encourages Vietnamese young intellectuals who have the professional and language competence to think of new opportunities in ASEAN.

In contrast to the old ways of viewing the idea of working overseas as “brain drain” and the loss of intellectuals by a home country, the country should be delighted if its young intellectuals are qualified for high-profile positions or successful with running business in ASEAN, Tran Dinh Lam believes.

In fact, he added, Vietnam should no longer be proud of the competitiveness of its cheap low-skilled workers. Now, it needs a long-term strategy in national education to enhance its young intellectuals’ qualifications so that they can work and live everywhere and not just be contracted domestically, he emphasized.

Most of the Vietnamese young intellectuals going to other parts of the region have gone to Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia to work in the information industry. Many are also learning ASEAN languages.

Already, there have been hundreds of Vietnamese people registering to learn ASEAN languages such as Thai, Indonesian, Khmer in recent years, data from the Center of Vietnam-ASEAN Studies show. Mastering a regional language besides English is an advantage for ones who would like to reach out to neighboring countries.

Most of the avid language learners are young, including graduate students or children of families who would like to open businesses in countries such as Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar. The demand for studying the Thai language has led to the opening, a year ago, of a separate center in the university for Thai studies. This is different from the Center of Vietnam-ASEAN Studies, which has nearly 20 years of researching regional issues and teaching languages.

In 2014, the International Labour Organization estimated in a report that under the Mutual Recognition Agreements for freer movement of skilled labor being set up under the ASEAN Community, there would be up to one percent of Vietnam’s labor workforce potentially moving about in the intra-regional flows of selected professionals. Because this proportion is low compared to some other countries in the region, it alarmed policymakers and educators in Vietnam at that time.

There is no full record of the number of skilled professionals from of Vietnam working in ASEAN, but local labor experts say most of the Vietnamese young intellectuals going to other parts of the region have gone to Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia to work in the information industry.

In sum, nearly two years after the launch of the ASEAN Community at the end of 2015, the idea of freer movement for professionals in ASEAN and having access to better paid jobs in the regional market has been attracting young intellectuals willing to spend years working away from home.

However, not all barriers have been lifted to encourage the labor mobility. Ha Nguyen complains that the procedure for applying for a long-term visa is not simple. For him, the ASEAN Economic Community for the moment does not make for much beyond an interesting subject for media campaigns.

Although some sectors of the ASEAN population are aware of the ASEAN Community and see potential in it, after nearly two years of the AEC there have been not many changes in the real world in terms of simplifying the procedures to ease the labor mobility of professionals. “Sometimes I even feel there is a discreet discrimination with the passport I hold,” Ha Nguyen said.

For her part, Uyen Diep, a 22-year-old intern at a Malaysia-based IT company, confirmed that while the mechanism for travelling from Vietnam is easy, the procedures for getting a permit to start work in Kuala Lumpur in October are quite complicated.

“The local government’s approval for a foreigner to set up business is complicated and time-consuming,” Ha Nguyen explained. This might not be a big deal for bigger companies, but time means money for an individual with small capital. “I have to pay the salary of my own employees and office rent while waiting for the business license. The longer time process took, the more money I have to spend without the ability to fundraise in the meanwhile,” Ha Nguyen added.

Tran Dinh Lam commented that young people need to understand that the AEC has just started as a framework for ASEAN countries, so that differences among countries in labor and investment policies are unavoidable. Vietnamese people need to get more information about the ASEAN and the AEC through multi-level national education programs and the media to be better prepared for diversity in the region, he added.

But despite all the difficulties, the awareness of an inter-linked ASEAN Community and the ASEAN Economic Community within it has become an attractive selling point for young professionals in Vietnam who like the challenge of new environments.

Ha Nguyen, the only son of a traditional family, intends to work in Bangkok or Singapore for an indefinite time – although his parents often encourage him to go back home, get married and settle down. “Now I am used to, and able to overcome, the technical administrative barriers,” said Ha. “I believe in the development of this region.” (END/Reporting ASEAN/Edited by Johanna Son)


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