ASEAN Urged to Free Up Services Sector

SINGAPORE ~ Southeast Asian nations should turn their attention to opening up the services sector after accomplishing much in removing tariff barriers to trade in goods, Singapore’s trade minister said this week.

Liberalizing the sector, which generally accounts for 40-50 percent of total economic output among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), would raise competitiveness and help spur growth, Trade Minister Lim Hng Kiang said on Wednesday.

He said tariffs on more than 99 percent of products under the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) had been slashed to between zero and five percent in the bloc’s six more-developed members.

Tariffs are to be abolished by 2010 for the six and at a later date for the group’s four less developed members.

“We now need to turn our attention to services,” Lim said, referring to the sector that covers among others telecommunications, tourism, transport and banking.

“No country today can prosper without an efficient services infrastructure that is free from barriers and burdensome restrictions. Economic performance depends on it,” Lim said at a forum on raising the competitiveness of ASEAN’s services industry.

“Producers and exporters of goods from edibles to electronics will not be competitive without access to efficient banking, accountancy, telecommunications or transport.”

While ASEAN members have made great strides in reducing tariffs, reforms in the services sector have lagged behind, analysts have said.

Freeing up restrictions in services was crucial for ASEAN to attract foreign direct investment amid stiff competition from Asian giants China and India, Lim said.

“Liberalizing ownership requirements, guaranteeing access to local markets and easing business operations are therefore important for business to flourish,” he said.

Lim cited a decision by Vietnam to allow the entry of Singapore-based healthcare group Thomson Medical into the Vietnamese market and give the Vietnamese people a wider choice.

Lim said ASEAN should stick to commitments under a “roadmap” to fully liberalize the services sector by 2015.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

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