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The short and long of Asean Acronymitis

The short and long of Asean Acronymitis

It’s the kind of scene you would expect in a David Lynch or Tim Burton film. You are walking down a long, seemingly endless corridor of signs bearing letters such as AMRI-TWC, IMT-GT and Zopfan. Confusion sets in, followed by despair.

Such is life for journalists covering meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean. While the 40-year-old group has long been acronym-crazy, its habit of abbreviating words in such a way that they form words themselves has gotten out of hand.

So much so that Asean even distributed a cheat sheet of the 87 most commonly used ones at its meeting in Manila this week. It’s often said that a journalist’s best friends are a well- written press release and an open bar. So you would think an acronym guide would be just the thing.

That is, until you go to Asean’s website. The list of “A" acronyms alone has almost 250 entries. Asean even has acronyms for its acronyms, such as ACCICG, which stands for something called AFTA-CER CEP Implementation and Coordination Group.

There’s also CCCA, or Coordinating Committee on the Implementation of the CEPT for AFTA. Huh?

So many acronyms, so little time. It’s enough to make the average reporter say AWGEE (Asean Working Group on Environmental Economics). It’s getting harder and harder to ACE the smorgasbord of initialized phrases. Clearly, there are FANS of such word forms. Yet they make it hard for anyone else to connect the DOTS and GRSP Asean’s mission.


Asean as a group isn’t a bad IDEA. It’s vital that Asia’s wealthier developing nations join hands with weaker LINKS for the good of the region. Closing the GAP will result in more trade, increased entrepreneurship and higher living standards. It will also pull more investment INTA a region that’s seeing less now than prior to the 1997 Asian crisis.

For all the optimism in the AIR about Asia’s future, a new TAC is needed to overcome poverty and modernize markets. Asia needs every TIPP it can get from more developed economies, which is why Asean invites policy makers from around the globe to make TRIPS to its confabs.

Asia needs to spread the benefits of growth ASAP to retain the ATTEN of global investors. The group says it AIMS to do just that, encouraging nations to put more emphasis on improving infrastructure, education and legal systems.

Strangely, Asean’s acronym fetish is an apt metaphor for why its ARC of success hasn’t been more impressive. It’s a reminder that such regional groups often seem to put more emphasis on process than substance—on peripheral things like the language it uses than the development policies it champions.


At a time when Southeast Asian nations need to strengthen financial systems, Asean is distracted by rewriting its charter. This week’s gathering has gotten bogged down by the formation of a human-rights body and feigned surprise that military-ruled Myanmar was opposing such a step.

The dustup is but one example of how efforts to deepen economic integration, make progress on FTAs (free trade agreements) and compete with China and India can get lost in bureaucracy. With any luck, Asean will at least have a new acronym for the process.

Granted, acronyms seem to have a special place in the hearts of many Asians. They often start out with the best of intentions—a simple way to get across big and complex names or issues with fewer syllables. The question is whether Asia has too much of a good thing on its hands.

Baffled in Manila, for example, carries a page listing Singapore’s most popular compound abbreviations. It mentions everything from ROM (Registry of Marriages) to SPF (Singapore Police Force) to LKY (Lee Kuan Yew). The Philippines also has its own Wikipedia acronym page, and its text-message-obsessed population can be quite creative with them.

Often, upon receiving an SMS there, visitors need to ask for help. Such was the case recently when a friend SMSed me to veto a restaurant I recommended as VLB (Very Low Budget) and SABENA (Such a Bad Experience, Never Again).

Ford Motor Co. might not be amused to find some Filipinos use its name to express Fast Only Rolling Downhill and Found on Road Dead. Bayerische Motoren Werke AG may not know BMW can mean Big Money Waste or Born Moderately Wealthy. Once in Manila, upon arriving late for a meeting, Alitalia SpA’s name was used to describe me: Always Late in Transit, Always Late in Arrival.


Perhaps it’s fitting the Asian Development Bank, which also suffers from acronymitis, is based in Manila. It even refers to its headquarters as HQ. Visiting the HQ, you sometimes hear staffers say something like “What’s the ETA for BOD at PNRM to discuss the MOU and possible TA project with GOV?" It’s always a good time to ask where the men’s room is. Oh, sorry, W/C.

Yet nothing seems to compare to Asean, which must employ a small army of acronym generators (acronymographers?). Amid such alphabet soup, one wonders if the message is getting muddled, if not misunderstood. If groups like Asean aren’t careful, they may fade into acronymity.

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