August 18, 2012
Ready for ASEAN Community by 2015?
By Farish Noor@http://www.nst.com.my
ARE we really ready for an ASEAN Community by the year 2015? The question has been asked several times of late, by seasoned commentators and veteran ASEAN-watchers who were taken aback by the developments during the last ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Phnom Penh which, for the first time in ASEAN’s history, had failed to issue a joint communiqué on shared aspirations and goals.
That ASEAN seems to be sailing through choppy waters at the moment is doubly ironic considering the fact that some of the internal disputes among ASEAN members have precisely to do with contested maritime territories; and yet if ASEAN is to be recognised for its achievements at all, it surely has to be how it has managed to prevent conflict over territorial claims in the past.
But ASEAN also must evolve, and it has to evolve quickly for in 2015, the ASEAN Community is destined to greet us, and the nations of ASEAN must begin asking themselves the question of what such a community would look like, and what it means to be an ASEAN citizen, even at the most abstract conceptual level.
Such a question, however, may seem ever so distant in both the temporal and ideological sense for many ASEAN citizens today, beset as they are by more pressing concerns about the state of their respective economies, the trajectory of their development and their social security in the future. ASEAN’s present state of growth is uneven, with some countries like Indonesia racing ahead of others. By 2015 at least two ASEAN countries would have gone through elections — Malaysia and Indonesia — and in these countries, domestic politics have come to the foreground, relegating everything else to the rear.
But politicians and policymakers need to remember that concerns like domestic elections are the mundane stuff of governance anyway, and that a grander project like the ASEAN Community of the near future cannot, and should not, be taken lightly. For what the future will probably reveal to us, living as we do in an increasingly integrated and interdependent global economic system, is that the fate of singular nations will become increasingly tied to the fate of regional groupings; and that no country can stand on its own without the support of its neighbours, big or small.
To answer the question of whether we are ready for an ASEAN Community by 2015, therefore, has to begin by identifying what we expect such a community to be and mean to us all.
At present, there is no talk of a common ASEAN citizenship, and it is highly unlikely that such a thing will materialise in our lifetime. Nor is there serious consideration of a common ASEAN currency, and the lamentable state of the eurozone would only reinforce the view held by some that hasty economic integration of unequal economies is never a good idea in the first place.
What then is the ASEAN Community to be, and do? For a start it takes off from the familiar premise that the nation-state will remain the dominant paradigm and the leading actor on the stage of regional politics for decades to come.
The governments of ASEAN will have to lead the way in the building of this community, and the sense of communal fellow feeling that has to emerge not only between governments and elites but also among the region’s business community as well as the ordinary people of ASEAN’s member states.
In the long run, it ought to address some basic but crucial objectives, such as inculcating the feeling of familiarity and commonality to replace former apprehensions and misunderstandings between neighbouring nations. Through history books, teaching and exchange programmes, a communicative infrastructure that will allow ASEAN citizens to travel freely in and across the region, and such like, ASEAN states can build the sense of trust and homeliness among ASEAN communities so that no ASEAN citizen should feel alien or foreign in another ASEAN country.
It is this dimension of soft diplomacy that may, in the very long run, provide ASEAN with the social capital and symbolic “glue” that brings the region together, so that the various nations of ASEAN come to realise that the fate of their neighbours will invariably impact on them as well. If building an ASEAN Community on a people-to-people basis creates more solidarity, empathy and respect among ASEAN nations, then so many other realpolitik concerns such as security and defence will be addressed as well.
But for any of this to work, ASEAN must have such a vision in the first place, and must come to agree upon common shared goals that bind us together, and not drive us apart. That political will has to be found from within ASEAN, and from a sense of purpose that is organic and not imposed by external non-ASEAN states, which may only see Southeast Asia as a maritime conduit for resources or a staging post for military power projection.
For non-ASEAN states that view Asia as a strategic chessboard, the ASEAN region may be nothing more than a conveniently located landing strip, and ASEAN countries as little more than pawns in some grand game of chess. But for us, ASEAN citizens, our region has to be more than that: it has to be home to all of ASEAN’s citizens, the place where our identities and destinies are intimately bound.