Pushpanathan Sundram understands the necessary confluence of policy, government and business and intends to harness it to drive change in ASEAN
Successfully crossing the floor between government and business is a rare achievement, but one that Pushpanathan Sundrum has conducted with aplomb. Winner of the 2013 Prospect Gold Standard Award for Professional Excellence, his recognition has been earned in a little over 18 months. Currently Managing Director of food, health and nutrition consultancy EAS Asia, he had served for 16 years in the ASEAN Secretariat, which culminated as Deputy Secretary General for the ASEAN Economic Community.
A coveted senior diplomat and pragmatist who understands the necessary confluence of policy, government and business, Nathan brought a fresh perspective to communications in ASEAN through his deep understanding of the region’s public policy, communication, government relations and regulatory landscape. Speaking with PublicAffairsAsia, Nathan provides his perspective on the growing co-dependence of business and government in the region.
Nathan joined the ASEAN Secretariat a year before the Asian Financial Crisis broke in 1997. Inarguably the AFC was ASEAN’s watershed moment. It was a seminal event that made the ASEAN nations realise that the only way to exit the crisis was to come together to become a coherent economic entity. Seventeen years later the region stands on the brink of fulfilling that reality with the advent of a Single Market and Production Base under the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015. Yet a single market constitutes a paradigm shift from economies built independently in the post-colonial era and the challenges for both business and government are novel.
Indeed, the challenge of integration is that a surfeit of regulations can impede trade, escalate costs for business and be detrimental to other aspects of a regional economic pact. Public affairs professionals are already grappling with rapid regulatory changes across the region as nations move to both better integrate and protect their industries. “The deluge of technical regulations can also create considerable problems country by country,” Nathan explains, especially when there may also be a lag in alignment between national and regional laws and their implementation. “There must be better alignment and this can only be best brought about at the regional level.”
Nathan’s experience comes first hand. His nomination in this year’s Gold Standard Awards was consequent to his work with Food Industry Asia (FIA) to launch the ASEAN Food and Beverage Alliance (AFBA) in April 2013. Advocating a partnership among food companies under FIA, national food industry associations from the 10 ASEAN countries and SMEs representatives were united under a model for new regional industry associations that will be sustainable and effective in the AEC.
Coordinated and collaborative representation will be essential in the AEC as it should not be confused with a single economic and political bloc presented by such organisations as the European Union, “It is a ‘Free Trade Area ++’ concept,” Nathan explains. “An integrated ASEAN market characterised by free-flow of goods, services, investment, skilled labour and freer flow of capital, but implementation will still be subject to national laws.” With ten member states, “This is what will affect the market’s functionality.”
Presenting a united business front to regional bodies and national governments is indeed integral to success in ASEAN and, “One of the ways the private sector can play a greater role is to get its act together to coordinate and develop industry-positions on issues of concern to them,” Nathan told PAA.
This is all the more crucial in Asia and ASEAN because of the dominant role that governments in the region have long maintained over both national development and policy, to the exclusion of business and civil society stakeholders. It is a legacy of national history, culture and traditions. Yet the policy landscape is slowly changing.
While governments from all over the world see policy making as their exclusive right, Nathan explains, there is a growing recognition of the role that business can participate in policy making. “What I have seen in the past two years is that businesses do have the knowledge, expertise and capabilities to be more involved in policy making so long as they can appreciate the governments’ position on certain issues and views. I am not saying that the mandate of policy making should be taken away from government or shared with government, but give the private sector more space because they have what it takes to play a part in the process.”
The growing appreciation for private sector inclusion in policy formulation is in fact a consequence of ASEAN’s success. Growing affluence and the drive to attract investment is moving governments to create more space for the private sector in policy discussions as well as to enable supportive legislative changes, Nathan argues. Moreover, in the pursuit of stronger economies governments are increasingly aware that policy affects different groups and that these must be taken into account. “Effective policy will require the involvement of the stakeholders – business and civil society included,” Nathan opines. Yet it is not always an easy task.
Keen to engage
Governments may be keen to engage the private sector, but both parties can share limitations, namely that neither know how best to conduct this process. Many governments have not had intensive engagement or consultation with the private sector previously. This is an opportunity for trained public affairs professionals to play the interlocutor role and the environment is slowly gearing towards this.
“Governments are keen to engage the private sector, but need to find the right counterpart,” Nathan told PAA. “Engaging with just one company may not be representative of the sector or industry. For this reason I see a greater role for business councils and industry associations, such as the FIA or AFBA.” Indeed the AFBA White Paper on the five leading challenges to food harmonisation in ASEAN countries is such an example. By identifying common issues the food industry has been able to create a strong dialogue with respective governments to create complementary policy initiatives.
The advantage certainly lies in industry’s favour. All countries are competing for foreign direct investment, a process that is creating more and more attractive investment laws and regulations; which is helping to tackle some of these issues. There remains some distance to be travelled in this regard, however, Nathan cautions. “While the processes are becoming more open and the role of government is also shifting, it is not yet adequate. The processes need to open up and soon.”
Coherent industry positions in such circumstances are indeed critical because the process of influence in Asia is culturally distinct. “In more developed countries where the rules and regulations are more transparent, the rule of law prevails. In other countries where these elements are not present or are inadequate I think that industry faces a challenge,” Nathan argues.
Affecting the entire governance process, this poses unique challenges for many businesses unfamiliar with the political landscape, particularly in terms of how policy formulation and consultation is conducted. Yet what will emerge in the coming decades, Nathan explains, is a growing space for industry in policy dialogue beyond the current norm of information exchange.
Indeed, by 2015 ASEAN will have achieved 80% of what it wants to do, but the remaining 20% will take some years to achieve. In order for it do so, both government and business will need to build closer ties and move beyond the current approach of information exchange that currently defines bi-lateral co-operation. This is critical to building a competitive, sustainable and thriving Economic Community.