Scots Lion can form alliance with the Asian Tiger

The financial district in Singapore. Picture: Getty
The financial district in Singapore. Picture: Getty
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Young professionals can be our ambassadors, says Roddy Gow

We may focus on the dominant economies and markets of China and India, but an often overlooked fact is that there are immense commercial and cultural opportunities within the countries comprising the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) group and many connections both past and with future potential with Scotland.

Often referred to as the Tiger Economies, these countries’ ambassadors and high commissioners were in Edinburgh last month to meet amongst themselves but also with a mission to explore a better engagement with Scotland. In a series of meetings organised by the city council, government, chambers of commerce and universities, their visit ended with a reception and dinner hosted jointly by the Edinburgh Military Tattoo and the Asia Scotland Institute. Earlier in the year the high commissioner of Singapore and the ambassador of the Philippines had been guest speakers at events organised by the Asia Scotland Institute.

The theme of the visit and discussions was engagement in the fields of commerce, culture and education. Exchanging students and young professionals emerged as the recurring theme of conversations, linked with the propensity of the Scots in history to have travelled to and impacted each of the ten different countries of Asean. Scotland seemed a natural partner for each of the countries, with its capabilities in infrastructure management, engineering, biotechnology, medical science and practice, water and environmental management and higher education. The ambassador of the Philippines reiterated a point made on an earlier visit that despite an acute shortage of engineers in the UK, his country had a surplus who would be attracted to working in the British Isles. The Singapore high commissioner and others shared a common view that while a fair number of students from the Asean countries were studying in Scotland, more of a case could be made to attract a greater proportion, although Scottish students should be encouraged to visit Asia to build an understanding of its richness and potential.

The Philippine ambassador expressed interest in the proposed initiative to begin a seed fund to enable exchanges by young people between Scotland and the Asean countries with matched funding from Scottish institutions and corporations. The youth of our countries are frequently our best ambassadors, the leaders of tomorrow for whom knowledge of overseas markets is critical.

In that context it is worth taking stock of the 600 million population of Asean that Scotland could and should be engaging with. This represents 8.9 per cent of the world’s population, larger than the European Union and nearly twice the size of the United States. Speaking at a recent meeting of the Asian Development Bank in Manila, its chief economist Changyong Rhee said: “A new growth force is coming in Asia,” The ten countries of south-east Asia that together make up Asean are Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Brunei, Burma (Myanmar) and the Philippines. Established in August 1967 by its five founding members, the group aims to achieve full economic integration by next year – a European Union without some of the issues of a Brussels based bureaucracy it is hoped!

Under this integration plan, tariffs on most goods coming from member-countries will be brought down to zero or near-zero, their financial systems will be integrated, and employment restrictions will be eased so that south-east Asians would find it easy to find jobs in any country within the region. Once integration is completed, the region will be able to corner more foreign direct investments, which now mostly go to China and India, said Rhee.

All of this presents a great opportunity for Scotland to engage effectively, targeting the infrastructure and other needs of the region. Companies such as Arup are already involved in major airport and other projects with hope to expand further and the visitors to Edinburgh last month were given details of progress on the new Forth road bridge construction and other impressive achievements. Beyond that it is Scotland’s ability to lead with its creative thinking and new ideas that gives the Scottish lion a real chance to engage with the Tigers of this Asean group, a fact stressed by Scottish Government minister Humza Yousaf at an evening reception that he hosted at Edinburgh Castle at the end of the visitors’ first full day.

• Roddy Gow is founder and chairman of the Asia Scotland Institute


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