Which ASEAN country is the top trader?

Mark Jones
Head of Digital Content, The World Economic Forum
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Ahead of the World Economic Forum’s East Asia Regional Meeting on April 19, we’re looking at how countries in the ASEAN group compare on key issues. Most ASEAN members have built their economies on the back of trade. But how well are they set up for future growth? The World Economic Forum’s Enabling Trade Index (ETI) suggests Singapore is the most trade-friendly nation, not only for the region but for the entire globe. However, no other ASEAN member gets into the top 20 and most are in the bottom half.


Singapore saw the combined value of its imports and exports climb to nearly three times its GDP in 2012. The country leads the world in border administration, it established the world’s first national single window for trade (TradeNet) in 1989, bringing together more than 35 border agencies. As a result, Singapore Customs estimated that in 2012, the cost per Singaporean dollar of duty it collected was just 1.15 cents, a margin of 98.9%. However, the country scores comparatively poorly on foreign market access (13th) and in the use of information technology (8th).

Malaysia is the best-performer among developing nations in Asia. In a region afflicted by red tape, corruption and lack of infrastructure, Malaysia is an outlier. It ranks a remarkable 14th for the availability and quality of transport infrastructure. Maritime connectivity is among the world’s best (5th) and measures to streamline border administration mean the fees for exporting a container from Malaysia are the lowest in the world, according to the World Bank. However, paperwork for exporters remains much higher than in neighbouring Singapore, and corruption is an issue.

Thailand comes third within ASEAN and 57th in the world. It is particularly strong on foreign market access (12th) and on the availability and quality of transport infrastructure (28th) and transport services (39th). The costs to export are consequently very low (5th). But imports are more problematical. While costs to import are relatively low (21st), a complex structure of tariffs damages domestic market access (113th). Thailand’s performance on the operating environment for trading is weak. Scores on physical security are generally low with the business costs of terrorism (110th) notably so.

Indonesia scores well for market access (20th) with a trade-friendly tariff regime. Indonesia exporters enjoy some of the lowest rates in the world (8th) and costs to import are also low (9th). But border administration presents challenges. Irregular payments in exports and imports (86th) and the Customs transparency index (101st) head the list of concerns on this measure. Weak take-up of information technology (81st) and the business costs of terrorism (109th) drag down what is otherwise a relatively good performance for the operating environment (61st).

The Philippines does well on domestic market access (19th) and foreign market access (26th), but border administration (71st) is mired by corruption and red tape, two factors also contributing to weakening the general operating environment (82nd). Like many countries in the region, the Philippines’ biggest weakness is the lack of adequate transport infrastructure (96th). The shortcomings are the most severe in the airport (105th) and port (107th) infrastructure.

Vietnam does well on foreign market access (28th) has very low costs to import and export (5th, 9th)but is generally weak on border administration (86th) due to complex administration and a notable issue with irregular payments in exports and imports (123rd).

Cambodia comes top globally for foreign market access as a result of facing very low export tariffs. But the reverse is true for domestic market access (133rd) as a result of high import tariffs (125th). Border administration scores poorly (108th) due to the volume of paperwork and irregular payments in exports and imports (119th).

Lao PDR also does well on foreign market access (4th) due to low tariffs (3rd) and poorly on domestic market access (121st). The country is let down by weak border administration (114th) and infrastructure (115th) — particularly the use of information technology.

Myanmar is in line with the ASEAN trend and has strong foreign market access (6th) but weak domestic market access (97th). Border administration is ranked low (117th) and transport infrastructure (138th), transport services (133rd) and the operating environment (134th) are all towards the bottom of the league tables.

Author: Mark Jones is Commissioning Editor for the World Economic Forum

Image: Cranes operate in a container storage area at Singapore port February 8, 2014. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne 

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