After more than 10 years of development, last week saw the introduction of a new fully automated travel card for the citizens of Brunei and Malaysia. While the new system will simplify travelling between the two countries in the short-term, it is also expected to have wide-ranging implications for the region as a whole as economic integration will become a reality in the coming years.
The so-called Frequent Travellers Card (FTC) completed its first day of full operation on September 10 and is now the first such smart immigration scheme to be successfully implemented in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The system aims to speed cross border movements for the citizens of both countries, exempting carriers of the FTC from filling out entry and exit forms. In effect, the process is designed to make traveling completely paperless for FCT carriers.
Moreover, the system could provide a welcome boost to the Brunei tourism industry. The Brunei government views tourism as one of the key sectors in its drive to diversify the economy beyond the oil and gas sectors and to reduce unemployment, which currently stands at 4%. On average, Brunei receives around 1m visitors a year and the vast majority of those arrive in Brunei through land entry points from Malaysia. The government is looking to increase visitor numbers by 7% a year and a simplified and smarter immigration system could help reach that goal.
The system has initially been installed at the Sungai Tujuh border checkpoint between Miri in Brunei and Kuala Belait in the Malaysian province of Sarawak. It will later be replicated at Kuala Lurah immigration post in Brunei, Tedungan in Limbang in Malaysia, and at immigration control posts in Puni-Pendaharuan on the Brunei side of the border.
It is now hoped by the governments of the two nations that the system will be adopted by other countries in the region. As well as direct access from Malaysia, Brunei shares a border crossing with the Indonesian province of Kalimantan, which can be reached by road, air or boat via Sarawak or Sabah. The country is also well serviced by many international and local airlines and it is hoped that a similar system will apply to all visitors from across the region.
While the new scheme could boost the Brunei and Malaysian tourist industry in the short-term, the regional implications are potentially much greater. The ASEAN block comprises 500m people with a combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $700bn, which is a sizeable market should the free trade aspirations of ASEAN grouping be fulfilled.
The stated goal of ASEAN's Vision 2020 is "to create a stable, prosperous and highly competitive economic region where goods, services, investment and capital can flow freely."
If an integrated common market is to become a reality, the streamlining coordination of the different Customs and immigration services in each country will be invaluable.
Meanwhile, the FTC has been welcomed by the Malaysian and Brunei governments for increasing border security between the two countries. Many analysts view the technology as a vital development in a region which has witnessed an upsurge in religious extremism in recent years. The new system, which utilises the latest biometric data technologies, has been designed to identify travellers who are considered to be potential security threats through a rigorous screening and application process. Effective and targeted border security will become increasingly important across the region in the coming years as ASEAN nations forge greater economic ties and further integration will inevitably lead to growth in population flows from country to country.