Intellectual property and development: the ASEAN story

August 2017

by Ambassador Evan P. Garcia, Permanent Representative of the Philippines* to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva.

*The Philippines is the current chair of ASEAN.

A group of five countries with a common dream of peace: this was how the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, began 50 years ago on August 8, 1967, in Bangkok, Thailand. This historic milestone in regional relations formalized the rather loose community of countries, originally composed of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, which until then had been exploring different region-building options.

In August 2017, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) celebrated its 50th anniversary. Intellectual property has been at the heart of efforts to transform the region into a highly innovative and competitive bloc (photo:© OldCatPhoto).

From the outset, member states of ASEAN have been diverse in language and culture, strengthened nevertheless by different but shared histories and a common desire to improve the lives of their people. Back in 1967, the world was riding on the promise of a relatively young United Nations forged from the tragedy of the Second World War. And while the conflicts of a bipolar world played out, casting a cloud of uncertainty across the globe, ASEAN began carving a path of collaboration to secure its future. At that time, the combined GDP of ASEAN was just USD 23.7 billion, political institutions were still evolving and infrastructure was underdeveloped. The birth of ASEAN was indeed a defining moment, born of the courage and foresight of the region’s leaders. 

The membership of Brunei Darussalam in 1984, Viet Nam in 1995, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Myanmar in 1997 and Cambodia in 1999 completed the organization and further consolidated its institutions. Economic integration, anchored by extensive dialogue and cooperation in the political-security and socio-cultural fields, continued to galvanize relations within ASEAN and between its member states and other major economies in the region.

Such integration was further strengthened with the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015. The Community had by then grown to a population of 629 million with a combined GDP of some USD 2.4 trillion, making it the sixth largest economy in the world and the third largest in Asia. In 2015, ASEAN trade also rose to USD 2.3 trillion, the fourth largest share in the world after China, the United States and Germany. Meanwhile, foreign direct investment totaled USD 121 billion, accounting for 7 percent of global inflows.

This remarkable growth did not come about by chance. Rather, it was the result of the systematic implementation of comprehensive measures in support of economic integration, including harmonized procedures on customs, immigration and trade. It was also thanks to a strategy that clearly acknowledged the varying levels of development of member countries and that actively sought to create opportunities for less-developed members to catch up. At a time when the world is increasingly toying with protectionism, ASEAN continues to shine a bright light on economic integration, inclusion and openness.

Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) link arms in the iconic ASEAN way during the 30th ASEAN Summit Opening Ceremony at the Philippine International Convention Center on April 29. (Left to right) Malaysian Prime Minister Dato, Sri Mohd Najib bin Tun Abdul Razak; State Counsellor for Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi; Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha; Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc; Philippine President Rodrigo Roa Duterte; Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong; Brunei Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah; Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen; Indonesian President Joko Widodo; and Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith (photo: ASEAN Secretariat).

Intellectual property for development

ASEAN has identified intellectual property (IP) as a fundamental element of the ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint 2025, which sets out specific steps to be taken by member countries to transform ASEAN into a highly innovative and competitive region.

ASEAN recognizes that IP provides a good starting point for member states to encourage innovation as part of a comprehensive package of national and regional economic incentives. Countries like Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Viet Nam have launched IP awards that lend prestige their best innovators and innovative practices. By protecting original ideas and works, IP laws and regulations allow businesses, entrepreneurs, inventors, artists and creators to flourish in a fair environment that enhances public access to a competitive market of goods and services. Moreover, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) presented the WIPO Global Leaders Award to His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej on January 14, 2009 in recognition of his dedication to using intellectual property to help Thailand develop: more than 4,000 Royal Projects utilizing IP have benefited not just Thailand but other countries as well.

The development of a balanced and well-founded IP strategy – one that frames policies and programs in support of national development priorities – is a significant step toward ensuring that IP works for everyone. In this regard, countries like Indonesia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, the Philippines and Viet Nam have ongoing cooperation with WIPO to enhance their respective national IP strategies. This is a long-term process that requires the active support of all stakeholders, including the private sector, government and the individual purveyors of original ideas themselves. From technology that converts mango waste into commercially viable products to a resurgence of ASEAN motifs in global designs, IP provides the incentives required to ensure a constant flow of original creative works that ultimately contribute to social well-being and the public good.

ASEAN countries use intellectual property to protect their national
patrimony and ensure a constant flow of original creative works that
contribute to social well-being and the public good. Technology
developed by researchers in the Philippines to transform mango waste
into marketable products now underpins a business employing
60 people (photo: ASEAN Secretariat).

ASEAN countries use IP to protect their national patrimony. In Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Viet Nam, this means the creation of a range of geographical indications. Thailand, for instance, takes advantage of the IP protection available for wines, spirits, rice and silk not only to safeguard the quality of those products, but also to reinforce its national identity in the global marketplace. In addition to certification and collective marks, Viet Nam is developing geographical indications to control the quality and promote the visibility of its products, and to ultimately improve the lives of its farmers and harness its agricultural export potential. Likewise, Cambodian geographical indications, which include Kampot pepper and palm sugar, are gaining worldwide recognition. In the Philippines, national authorities are using IP to support the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities through a regulation that mandates the establishment of a registry of indigenous knowledge systems and practices and requires the disclosure of traditional knowledge used in patent applications. With diverse ethnic cultures, customs, value systems and genetic resources, Indonesia is strengthening its legal landscape for traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions and is leading international discussions in this regard.

ASEAN countries are developing IP as a platform for institution-building. The establishment of Technology and Innovation Support Centers (TISCs) in some countries is helping to complete the journey from product conception to commercialization. Building hubs for interaction between and among inventors, academia and the private sector is crucial in fostering robust linkages between research and development and the market. To this end, Brunei Darussalam is rolling out a series of intensive public awareness campaigns to educate the general public about IP and promote greater use of IP systems and services. Singapore, in its capacity as an International Searching Authority and International Preliminary Examining Authority under WIPO’s Patent Cooperation Treaty, is also raising the bar for the quality of patents and patent applications across the region. Meanwhile, the Philippines facilitates dispute resolution through its alternative dispute resolution services and has achieved a high settlement rate. The Intellectual Property Office of the Philippines recently successfully mediated an application for special compulsory licensing involving public health, a case that ended with a win-win solution for both the government and the pharmaceutical company involved.

Institutional support

The diverse political, economic and socio-cultural landscape of ASEAN means that close, purposeful and meaningful collaboration is necessary to fully harvest the region’s potential and bridge any gaps within and among countries. This is where the ASEAN Working Group on Intellectual Property Cooperation plays a key role. Composed of the heads of the IP offices of ASEAN member states, the Working Group meets regularly to review and enhance IP regulatory frameworks with a view to spurring innovation-led growth and helping the region move higher up the technology ladder.

Global institutional engagement is crucial in strengthening the web of national programs and the region’s IP strategy. For ASEAN and WIPO, formal relations began in 1993 with the establishment of a regular consultation mechanism. WIPO subsequently supported the crafting of the ASEAN Intellectual Property Strategic Plan for 2016-2025. The Plan lists four broad goals: strengthening offices and building infrastructure; building regional platforms; expanding ecosystems; and enhancing regional mechanisms to promote asset creation and commercialization, particularly for geographical indications and traditional knowledge.

The ASEAN Secretariat building in Jakarta, Indonesia. ASEAN countries have identified intellectual property (IP) as a fundamental element of the ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint 2025 (photo: Asean Secretariat).

The Strategic Plan is playing an important role in bolstering the region’s innovation and competitiveness. In general, over the past decade ASEAN member states have recorded upward performances in the Global Innovation Index. Singapore, in particular, is recognized as the seventh most innovative country in the world, while Viet Nam has registered one of the biggest leaps by any country in the Index in recent years.

With its economic optimism and prospects buoyed by a population where more than 50 percent are under 30 years of age, ASEAN provides a fertile environment in which ideas can be created, nurtured and made accessible for the public good. Its welcoming borders help germinate ideas fit for an international audience. In 2016 alone, 108.8 million tourists visited the region, of whom 42.4 percent were intra-ASEAN, indicating robust people-to-people exchange.

Evolving narrative

Over the past 50 years, ASEAN has consistently transformed itself from an economic backwater to a major player with influence in global politics and economy – this is the story of ASEAN. The 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, which the Philippines hosted on August 5, 2017 as current ASEAN Chair, continued this resolve and reaffirmed the region’s tradition of constructive engagement and consensus building. Yet the narrative continues to evolve. Even as the region’s economic dynamism brings about immense opportunities, development gaps persist within and among its member states. Recent global trends add new challenges that must be addressed. Effective and coherent institutional and policy support needs to be sustained to steer broad, synergistic growth in intellectual property, innovation and related sectors.

In the ASEAN context, the business of IP goes beyond protection. It is about ensuring that the benefits of innovation and competition are enjoyed by everyone, from the largest megacities to the smallest villages. It is about spurring innovation, protecting national patrimony, building institutions, and protecting and preserving the knowledge and traditions of indigenous peoples. It is about increasing the quality of life.

It is, ultimately, about the people.

The WIPO Magazine is intended to help broaden public understanding of intellectual property and of WIPO’s work, and is not an official document of WIPO. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of WIPO concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. This publication is not intended to reflect the views of the Member States or the WIPO Secretariat. The mention of specific companies or products of manufacturers does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by WIPO in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.