[Editor’s Note: Keith Richburg is the director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong. He spent more than two decades as a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post covering Africa, Europe, China and Southeast Asia, making his first visit to Cambodia in 1986, during a stint when he was based in Manila. As a reporter, Richburg extensively covered both the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), including attending the first ASEAN summit after Cambodia’s accession to the bloc in 1999. In a recent interview by phone, VOA Khmer’s Sopheak Hoeun asked the veteran journalist about the lessons Southeast Asian nations could learn from Britain’s momentous decision to leave the E.U. in a referendum on June 23. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
From your experience of covering both Europe and Asia, what are your thoughts about “Brexit”?
Well the interesting thing is when I covered the European Union, I always thought that there was what I called a deficit of democracy. There seemed to be a lack of buy-in or a lack of support from average people for this constant move in the E.U. towards more integration or towards giving up more sovereignty from the nations, and putting more power in the hands of this super-national organization in Brussels, the European Union. And when I was in Southeast Asia the first time, from 1986 until 1990, and even in Southeast Asia the second time I was there from 1995 until 2000, and I covered the expansion of the ASEAN, when they included the new members—Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar—I was always thinking that ASEAN moved way too slowly compared to the European Union. That basically ASEAN was more of a talking shop. They just talked a lot and didn’t do a lot because they believe that everything has to be done by consensus of all the members of ASEAN, that things would not get done quickly.
What I came to learn after being in Europe and going back and looking again at the situation was: Maybe the Asians had it right in a sense, because I think without rushing for political integration, without giving up sovereignty, possibly made it a little bit easier for people to agree to the principles of ASEAN. I think one of the mistakes that the European Union made was rushing ahead and forcing countries to give up more and more of their sovereignty, without actually first making sure the people of the countries agreed to that. The very slow-going approach of ASEAN has been criticized. They are not able to make any decisions quickly. A lot of issues like the plight of the Rohingya—the ethnic minority from Myanmar—cannot get addressed quickly in a forum like ASEAN, where one country, being Myanmar, can veto discussion of any issue.
On the other hand, the Europeans, I think, rushed into this kind of situation where they were forcing countries to kind of give up a lot of their sovereignty before the people in those countries were really ready to. I think that’s was actually part of the issue that happened in the Brexit. A lot of people in Britain didn’t like being told what to do by Brussels. They never voted to give up their sovereignty. They never voted for the right of other Europeans to move into the United Kingdom, so they always felt a bit resentful of having to comply with these rules from Brussels.
Do you think that kind of resentment would be felt by some of the richer ASEAN members?
I think it could be felt by some of the richer countries if they found that ASEAN was trying to force them to adopt policies that they did not want to adopt. If, for example, the richer country, say Singapore, was suddenly being forced to take in free movement of people, to take in all kinds of people from Indonesia or the Philippines which they weren’t ready to take in, then a richer country like Singapore—or even Malaysia perhaps, or Thailand—might feel a little resentful, saying, “Why do we have to take in all of these people who are unemployed from Indonesia or the Philippines or Myanmar?” So I think by not having some of these policies like free movement of people, ASEAN is actually making itself a little bit stronger than the European Union. So, yes, I think you could find that resentment, but I think it’s not happening yet because ASEAN doesn’t have this kind of borderless community that the European Union has.
At the moment the flow of labor has been mainly an outflow from Cambodia to other countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. Is there a risk of the flow of labor being imbalanced in ASEAN?
It could become that way. I mean what happens now, as I understand it, is that people are flowing there now from Cambodia or Myanmar to some of these other countries like Thailand because they need the labor. They need labor for construction, they need labor for other things. But it’s not an open flow like it was in the European Union. In the European Union system, anybody within the E.U. could move from one country to another country, and that’s what the British voters were actually rebelling against: this idea that anybody could move anywhere. And the British people, the voters who voted for Brexit, were actually saying that they wanted the right to determine who could live in their country, and they couldn’t. They had to take in anybody from the European Union, which meant that sometimes they had to turn down someone from the United States or Australia—who might be someone they needed because that person has an advanced degree or some skills that they needed—because they were obliged to take people from the European Union.
I think one of the things that I’m seeing in ASEAN now, as they’re going to ASEAN as a common economic zone, is to try to open up the movement of people for skilled workers. That means an accountant or a banker or someone with special computer skills from the Philippines might be able to move and work in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia. So, they keep it a lot more restricted in ASEAN at the moment. But, I think as long as these countries do have a shortage of labor—Thailand is one, Singapore obviously being a smaller country than others—they are willing to take in a lot more people. But when the project that the laborers are working on has finished, the laborers have to go back home, and so I think that’s one of the key differences at the moment. So, I think that’s one of the lessons that ASEAN might be able to take from the European Union is that immigration and control of your borders is something that countries don't like to give up. They want to be able to control who comes in and how long they can stay.
In Cambodia, where the number of skilled workers is not that high, do you think ASEAN integration could become a challenge for the economy?
It could, actually, yes. That’s something to think about. If all the skilled laborers, for example, decided to leave, a country like Cambodia could face a lot of problems. So, Cambodia is going to always see the outflow of skilled labor or workers who want to go work elsewhere because the wages might be higher somewhere else. The other lesson that we can take from the European Union is that people are going to move where labor is needed, where jobs are more readily available and where benefits are higher.
A lot of people were moving from around the European Union to Britain because Britain offered good healthcare, good unemployment benefits. And so you could see the situation where a lot of people would be leaving Cambodia and moving into a place like Thailand—if they think they can get a better life there—or even Singapore, which would be overwhelmed. But the other problem on the other side would be in Cambodia because they are facing a shortage of skilled labor, be it workers or be it the intelligentsia, the people that are going to keep the economy running, the people who are going to keep the computers running. You don't want all those people to leave, and so that’s why this kind of movement of labor within Southeast Asia is a bigger problem.
I guess the biggest problem is that the disparity in incomes and economies between the countries in ASEAN is a lot greater than within Europe. The disparity of income between Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, between those countries which are very poor and the wealthier countries, like Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore is great. And so that’s why you might have this huge problem there. That’s why a country like Cambodia might really suffer if you ever open the borders entirely.
So, in your opinion, what should Cambodia do?
What they are doing now is actually quite smart. They are positioning themselves as an alternative to China because wages have grown so high in China now, and costs of doing business in China are growing so high that a lot of businesses decided that they can do, for example, textile manufacturing cheaper in Cambodia. A lot of small electronics manufacturing can be done cheaper out of Cambodia than out of China. So, I think by keeping wages low and by advertising itself to the world, you know, as a cheaper alternative to China, that Cambodia can prosper a little bit. So, that’s one thing that Cambodia is doing very well, and you’re starting to see a lot of companies relocate their factories from China, from southern China to Cambodia.
I think the other thing Cambodia needs to do, though, is really try to clamp down and get a handle on the corruption problem, because people like to do business in a place where they know that they don't have to pay a lot of money in bribes.
And what about Cambodia’s human capital?
I think the human capital actually is quite good in Cambodia. I think the people are very hard-workers and they’re very smart. They can do very well, that’s why they are taking so much business out of China, and people are starting to realize that they can actually have their garments or electronic parts for their television sets or radios made in Cambodia, because the quality of labor is actually very, very high there. The problem has been because of Cambodia’s history as a poor country, people have not had much education. The next generation will be a lot more educated than the current generation. It’s getting better and better every year, but it’s going to take a little bit more time. Cambodia is kind of at the bottom rung now of the countries in ASEAN—along with probably Laos, and maybe Myanmar—but they’ve got to really invest in their education system to get people up to that next level.
In ASEAN, who do you think could be the one to do a Brexit?
The first one that try to leave? Well, that’s a good question, actually. I hate to speculate. I would say probably that might be a country like Singapore, which might see itself more attuned, more linked to Western countries. It’s a major financial center. The population is very educated there. If you had a free flow of labor, they would be just overwhelmed by their neighbors, which are much larger in terms of population. They might be the first one to think that they might not be getting so much out of ASEAN as they were giving to ASEAN. But I think ASEAN is not like the E.U. They’ve adopted a policy that all the members have to agree, that they have to have this consensus. I think it’d be a lot easier for ASEAN to hang together as a group.