Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was in his element at the recent launch of the Asean Business Club in Kuala Lumpur.

Working the room filled with top business leaders from the region, he mingled easily, stopping to chat with Indonesian property tycoon Tan Kian and his two sons before moving on.

Other leading Indonesian tycoons present included Budi Hartono from Djarum, Teddy Rachmat from Triputra, James T. Riady from Lippo Group, Eddy Sariaamatdja from SCTV and Sri Prakash Lohia from Indorama.

The Jakarta Globe is affiliated with Lippo Group.

Blair was in Malaysia to deliver the keynote address at the launch of the Asean Business Club, the brainchild of CIMB Group chief executive Dato Nazir Razak. His speech titled “Lessons from Europe: Regional Integration in a New World Order,” was timely and appropriate.

Recounting his time as a young man, Blair said it was because of the free movement of labor within the European Union that he got a job as a barman in Paris and received his first lesson in politics. The experience lit the fire of his thinking on the policies of his New Labor Government almost 20 years later.

“That was my first lesson in practical socialism and it stayed with me throughout my life,” he noted. Those were the first tentative steps Europe took toward full economic integration that culminated in the creation of the euro.

That experiment, however, has come under intense scrutiny in recent months over the mounting sovereign debt crisis that has gripped the euro zone. European leaders are debating the size of the bailout for Greece and how to prevent other major economies such Italy and Spain from failing.

Acknowledging that Europe had a long, hard road in store as it tried to recover from the crisis, Blair defended the decision taken long ago to move toward economic integration. He said it was not the decision that was flawed but the subsequent implementation and the rush to expand the membership.

“Asean can learn the lessons from the European experience,” he noted. “It must forge its own path, but it is clear that open markets and free trade benefit everyone.” As such, he gave his backing to the regional grouping’s slow and steady move toward economic integration.

Under the Asean Economic Community blueprint, the 10-member association will create a single market and production base that will allow the free movement of goods, services, investment, capital and labor throughout the region by 2015.

“Integration needs political as well as economic vision,” Blair said. “At the end of the day, openness is better than being closed as free trade provides far greater benefits to all of society than protectionism.”

Source: The Jakarta Globe: Former British PM makes case for ASEAN economic integration, November 1st 2011