ASEAN: Less Talk, More Action

March 25, 2012

ASEAN: Less Talk, More Action

by Bunn Nagara@

After nearly 45 years, issues remain for ASEAN to sort out, ponder over and resolve satisfactorily.

SOME developments have lately resulted in multiple challenges confronting ASEAN. Chief among these is the lack of understanding of ASEAN, its origins and its purposes, notably within ASEAN member countries themselves.

Since its inception in 1967, ASEAN has tended to avoid calling a spade a spade for reasons of national sensitivities or avoiding controversy. The founding meeting in Bangkok that year was even described as an effort to improve economic relations, even though more serious geopolitical issues such as Indonesia’s relations with Malaysia and Singapore were at stake.

Another reason for the lack of an ASEAN awareness among ASEAN peoples is that official proceedings have been dominated and even monopolised by national elites. Even with economic development as a key issue from the beginning, the ASEAN Business Council took three decades to be established.

Social and cultural issues would have to take even longer. Everything had to undergo a laborious process of initial proposal, official consideration, outsourced study (such as an Eminent Persons Group), considered refinement, likely revisions, possible horse trading, formal approval and final adoption.

Even if the entire process is necessary, it could also be expedited. More important yet, parallel processes could occur to dovetail the sequential stages. That would mean involving more people and agencies than just the heads of government, key ministers and secretariat staff. And that would imply educating, engaging and empowering more people in ASEAN countries about ASEAN and its work.

Thus the third reason for the lack of awareness is that little or nothing has been done to inform and involve more people in the region. It might be said that an inherent danger lies in a new generation of ASEAN citizens growing up under-informed about regional imperatives, except that even the older generation is equally unaware.

Some critics have blamed the custom of consensus-reaching for the plodding pace, but other regional organisations like the EU have not experienced consensualism as a nagging problem. The respective agendas of individual governments, which change quicker and less predictably in some ASEAN countries than in others, could be a factor.

Nonetheless, ASEAN’s challenges of economic productivity and competitiveness, geopolitical confidence-building and comfort levels, and socio-cultural peace and stability remain. If anything, developments such as a rising China and India, a resurgent Russia and a revitalised US foreign policy focus on East Asia only make ASEAN cohesiveness more urgent yet also more fraught.

ASEAN itself has responded by scheduling an ASEAN Community by 2015 comprising three pillars: an Economic Community, a Security Community and a Socio-cultural Community. Could this goal be too ambitious, since it had taken 21 years just to convene the third ASEAN summit?

To help the process along, Malaysia’s Foreign Policy Study Group recently held a roundtable conference on Malaysia-Indonesia-Thailand-Vietnam relations in strengthening ASEAN Regionalism.

The non-official occasion was intended to complement, not compete with, formal ASEAN processes and proceedings. Still, a fundamental question asked by some delegates was why the event had to be limited to just four of the 10 ASEAN countries.

The answer should be obvious: limits on resources including time, and a limited effort such as this had to start somewhere. More ASEAN countries would participate in future roundtables, and ASEAN itself provides for small initial efforts in its “10 – x” formula.

There were reasons for the four ASEAN countries that participated through their retired officials and student representatives: Malaysia and Indonesia as the key founding members of ASEAN, Thailand as ASEAN’s origin in the 1967 Bangkok Declaration, and Vietnam in generally being regarded as the main country among the newer (CLMV) members.

Another question concerned more frequent use of currency swaps among ASEAN countries, and the prospect of greater reciprocal use of national currencies in bilateral trade. This would avoid exchange rate costs with the use of a third-country currency such as the dollar or euro.

Some participants thought the membership of 10 countries was sizeable and a likely source of problems in discouraging common agreement. If that is an issue now, it could grow since Timor Leste is poised to be the 11th member, with Papua New Guinea conceivably waiting in the wings.

Some foreign participants credited Malaysia with having achieved considerable success in economic and educational development. The disparities within ASEAN also mean that each country could excel in a particular area, so it would help all members if a panel of best practices for a variety of sectors could be established, with contributions from each country based on its experiences and achievements.

A reference was made to ASEAN’s policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of member nations by way of a criticism of its seeming inaction. However, that policy as derived from Bandung is a universal principle common to all regional groupings, without which unwelcome and hostile unilateral actions would be rife.

More to the point, ASEAN appears to have adopted non-intervention to the extent of not even remarking on the travails of a member country even when problems spill over into a neighbouring country. In practice, concepts like “non-intervention” are largely defined by ASEAN to begin with, so ASEAN can act without seeing itself as acting.

An underlying but unspoken issue was that ASEAN countries are fully capable of handling the problems within and between them. There is no basis for major power intervention, since that would unduly complicate and compound the original problem.

Cross-border issues are routinely managed, while rival maritime claims linger. The only enduring problem is an inability to form an all-ASEAN military force, even if that is desirable.

To help boost ASEAN awareness, ASEAN scholarships, student exchanges, an ASEAN Day in August, a Visit ASEAN Year promoting the region as a tour package, and a popular talent-entertainment programme appealing to young people are possibilities. But until today, even an ASEAN lane at airport immigration counters as proposed by a former Malaysian Foreign Minister more than 20 years ago has still not taken off.

In reshaping an ASEAN for the times, its basic ingredients of peace, freedom, neutrality, amity and cooperation need to be maintained while addressing current needs and challenges. But whether there is any ASEAN leader today with the requisite regional vision is still very much an open question.

2 thoughts on “ASEAN: Less Talk, More Action

  1. People are being paid to keep ASEAN growing horizontally. This will continue until we see the developments of the freedoms of the people in the grouping where the principles of democracy are being used to undermine its substance. The other day someone said that there will be no meaningful and sustainable development in China until there is a commitment by the Chinese government for the principles of democratric governance. How come the same is not said for ASEAN members?

    There is already serious talk in ASEAN countries to restrict the internet for fear that that instrument is showing too much sunlight on the devious policies of governments. I hope that the socalled learned people will not just publish articles to protect their rice-bowl and have the courage to call a spade a spade. Too much of water is already under the bridge and the people of ASEAN are fed up with the trend where sons, and family members have personalised nationalized affaires and nationalized personal affaires.. Even if I am a head of state I should not expose my wife or brother or sister or son by making him head the National Treasury or other conveniently created Government Investment funds.

    This is the plea by the silent majority in the region in which the haves spend the annual wages of a citizen in the working class even before that individual in the haves section wakes up for the day. Many members in ASEAN boast that theywill become a developed state in their mode by the year 2020. Yes, theve will be developed their mode. That is the good news. Bu the bad news is that only the spanking administrative capitals built by taxpayer’s money will qualify for that developed status ‘in our mode’.

  2. Pingback: ASEAN 2015 strategy | PRworks Online

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