Dr. Shawn Watson
CEO, Senescence Life Sciences
SME Chair, Canada-ASEAN Business Council

I recently attended the Canada – ASEAN Senior Economic Officials (SEOM) meeting on July 5th in Cebu, Philippines on behalf of the CABC as SME Chair. The event was attended by ASEAN delegations from each of the ten nations, as well as Canadian Ambassador to ASEAN, Marie-Louise Hannan, and Ian Burchett, Director General of Global Affairs Canada. These meetings serve as an excellent touch point for the Canadian government with ASEAN, as well as an opportunity for the CABC to highlight key updates, initiatives and advocacy points to the governments of ASEAN.

Having attended previous consultations in the past, I was delighted to see that the Canadian government broke from the traditional meeting format (where we simply update the ASEAN delegations) and instead planned a series of presentations on Canada and a short panel discussion on SMEs in the region. The result was an engaging series of discussions with delegates actively showing interest in the Canadian story, how our government and the CABC helps SMEs and some of the difficulties our smaller companies have in the region. It was the most active consultation I have been to, with clear follow-up items from the side of the CABC and the government(s).

Key items of discussion included: Canadian programs to help SMEs in ASEAN, the importance of gender equality in business, and initial free trade discussions between Canada & ASEAN. Multiple ASEAN delegates highlighted the importance of SME concerns in any discussions regarding free trade (not unexpected considering 51 – 97% of jobs in ASEAN are with SMEs). While trade was a hot topic, it was also interesting to note the interest from the ASEAN delegates to see Canada’s involvement in the region move beyond trade barriers, and into higher level engagements such as teaching Canadian best practices to local companies.

Regarding Canadian SMEs, many of the items discussed matched the concerns expressed by the CABC’s larger members. Items such as travel ease in the region, non-tariff barriers and consistency between government policy and ‘on-the-ground’ realities were discussed. The delegates were also quite impressed by the great work of the Canadian Trade Commissioner service and the impact the service has on globalizing Canadian SMEs.

Whether it is a MNC, or a company entering ASEAN for the first time, something I have learned repeatedly at these meetings however is that is we all benefit when we promote Canada first. The government of Canada did an excellent job representing our country at this event and it is great to see CABC’s continued role in helping shape future trade policy.