ASEAN members learned lessons of 1990s and now provide 'safer haven' for global investors

As world markets face a continuing period of volatility international investors should look to South East Asia, is the advice of Surin Pitsuwantold, Secretary General of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

"If they are looking for a safer haven, this is it," he told The Wall Street Journal in an interview. "The Chinese and the Japanese that are worried will want to look around for better prospects for their investments and this is one of the hopeful regions."

Foreign direct investment into the region jumped 38% to $75.8 billion last year, he said. ASEAN has a combined population of nearly 600 million people and its gross domestic product of $1.7 trillion ranks ASEAN ahead of India.

The region had a set-back following the Asian Monetary Crisis of 1997-98 and the five-year recovery was difficult and often painful. "You have to bite the bullet. We went through tremendous pain and suffering trying to follow the prescription of the International Monetary Fund but we had to do it," he said. "Now we have become more resilient, we've learned our lessons and we manage ourselves better."

He agrees ASEAN would also be hurt if the global uncertainty slows exports and investment in the region. But this will, he hopes, encourage its members to depend more on their neighbors for business and less on the USA and Europe. "This underscores the need for regional integration to cushion ourselves against the vacillations of economic waves abroad," he said.

Only around 25% of ASEAN's exports and imports are within the group and Mr Pitsuwantold says members wish to see that ratio jump to 35% as trade barriers are lowered and infrastructure improved.