The ASEAN Community: A Lofty Historical Challenge


May 11, 2017

The ASEAN Community: A Lofty Historical Challenge

by Michael Heng

“As an economic power, ASEAN is small by international standards. Given the level of development and technological base, ASEAN is unlikely to make a big impact on the global economy.” Do you agree with Professor Heng’s observation)?

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The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was founded in 1967. Its 50th anniversary this year is a good time to take stock and to look ahead. ASEAN was established with the goal of preserving long-term peace in region at a time when the First Indochina War was raging, even though its explicitly stated goals were economic growth, social progress, and cultural development. One of its guiding principles is to abide strictly by the modern international system of sovereign states where countries do not interfere in each other’s internal affairs. ASEAN’s leaders have chosen to make decisions by consensus, and to avoid airing their differences in the public.

ASEAN has scored significant success as an economic community, due largely to the activities of global production networks in the region. In the assessment of a senior Chinese official speaking at a workshop in 2009, ASEAN is the healthiest and most integrated regional organization in Asia and it should be the center and platform to promote Asia’s economic integration.

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However, one cannot ignore the failure of ASEAN to resolve significant intra-ASEAN problems such as the Thai-Cambodian border dispute, the annual haze originating from Indonesia, and the blatant violation of human rights in Myanmar. Such problems cannot be resolved within ASEAN because of the strict non-interference policy in each other’s internal affairs. But conditions in the international arena today are different from when ASEAN was formed half a century ago. Environmental pollution, climate change, epidemics, terrorism, and transnational crime cannot be solved without close international cooperation. In the event of large scale violations of human rights, sovereignty cannot be used as a cover for the state to fan off interference by the international community. With the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, the concept of state sovereignty in the past few decades has acquired subtle but important new interpretations. ASEAN’s strict insistence on non-interference is out of sync with prevailing international norms.

Before the 1997 Asian financial crisis, global capital had focused on gaining market access and investment in Southeast Asia. In the wake of the crisis, it began to be disenchanted with the region’s failure to respond effectively to the crisis. Meanwhile, critical examination of the financial meltdown revealed some serious flaws among the political leadership in most ASEAN member states. This period also saw the rise of China and India as new economic powers next door. Between them, these events prompted soul-searching within ASEAN.

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Driven by internal and more so by external developments, ASEAN has strived to deepen and widen its integration and has set its sights on becoming a community of nations. To do so, it has to look beyond the geopolitical and economic dimensions, and widen its scope to include the social and cultural dimensions. Though some progress has been made in this direction, especially in their agreement to the terms of the ASEAN Charter, it remains to be seen whether the member states will be able to live up to the ideals as enshrined in this document. Even if they do so, they need to go further than this document in order to be in tune with prevailing international norms as adopted by the United Nations.

Unity in Diversity

One of ASEAN’s achievements has been its ability to group together ten member states with different political systems, population sizes, geographical sizes, languages, religions, historical backgrounds, and stages of economic development. It should come as no surprise that the ASEAN Charter has adopted as its principle the concept of “unity in diversity.”

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Unity in diversity is the concept of “unity without uniformity and diversity without fragmentation” — thereby moving and raising the focus from unity based on mere tolerance of physical, cultural, linguistic, social, religious, political, ideological and/or psychological differences towards a more complex unity based on an understanding that differences enrich human interactions. One should add that this understanding should go beyond the utilitarian aspect to one founded on the basis of appreciating and cherishing differences. No wonder that unity in diversity is said to be the highest possible attainment of a civilization, a testimony to the noblest potential of the human race.

ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint

Just like unity in diversity, the concept of social justice is found in many ASEAN documents. For example, the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint of 2009 claims that “ASEAN is committed to promoting social justice and mainstreaming people’s rights into its policies and all spheres of life, including the rights and welfare of disadvantaged, vulnerable and marginalized groups such as women, children, the elderly, persons with disabilities and migrant workers.” The reality in the ASEAN countries however shows clearly that there is a wide mismatch between such lofty statements and what the people experience.

A close reading of the ASEAN Charter will reveal that it has some lofty and high sounding concepts. For example, ASEAN and its Member States shall act in accordance with, among others, the principle of “adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government.” This sounds hollow when its member states undermine the independence of their judiciaries, allow corruption to run wild, pay scant attention to protect their environment, indulge in gerrymandering, and harass their political opposition.

Same Journey but at Different Speeds

ASEAN may be seen as a fine example of unity in diversity. But to strive towards the goal of a community of nations, they must live up to the goals and aspirations as written in their own official declarations. One way to do so is to emulate the best among them in a given area. For example, Indonesia has made significant progress in democratic transformations, and can fairly be said to be the most democratic of the ten. While Indonesia should continue to make progress, the other nine should be inspired by the success of Indonesia and follow its example. Similarly, Singapore’s achievement in economic development and clean government should spur the other nine to do the same.

The common struggles of the ASEAN peoples across the region will be a firm foundation for the growth of ASEAN solidarity, shared consciousness, sense of common interests, and an ASEAN identity.

It is of special importance that Indonesia can carry out democratic reforms, and Singapore can practice clean government. It means that these institutions and practices are not alien to Southeast Asia or in a wider context to the non-Western world.

Unity in diversity here may take on additional meanings: united in pursuing the goals of social justice, economic prosperity, clean government, human rights, democracy, etc. but with different member nations proceeding at different speeds. Those moving ahead should nudge and help those trailing behind.

Promoting Knowledge at the People-to-People Level

According to the Charter, community building is to be intensified through enhanced regional cooperation and integration via the means of the security community, economic community, and socio-cultural community. The first two have enjoyed the lion’s share of official attention. The third deserves to be given its due attention.

A recent study reveals that the general public in cities in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore perceive the formation of the ASEAN Community as beneficial, but they see the formation as elitist and state-centric as it did not involve the people. This is a disturbing finding. City residents are generally more well-informed and involved in the political life of their countries. If they do not feel so involved in the formation of the ASEAN Community, one can imagine how low the sense of involvement can be in the rural areas. Much more must be done therefore to create and nurture a sense of participation by the citizens.

There is a useful role to be played by ASEAN’s professional bodies, like the ASEAN Associations of Lawyers, Engineers, Doctors, Accountants, Architects, Journalists, Writers, Teachers, etc. Through their regular contacts and sharing, we have new channels for evolving ASEAN styles of landscaping, architecture, paintings, music, and so on. The Association of Doctors could also be a good forum for them to develop a teaching program on traditional medicine based on research and as practiced by their ancestors.

In additional to the above are regular exchanges of cultural troupes. Their works should be featured on national television channels, and tickets should be subsidized by sponsors. For those more inclined to intellectual discussions, their interests can be served by local think tanks hosting talks and seminars by public intellectuals and thinkers on topics concerning the broader and long-term future of the region.

Looking Ahead

From its humble beginning, ASEAN has grown into a regional body that is courted by major world powers. Given the different historical backgrounds, cultures, political systems, and their lack of complementary economic activities, its endurance and success might come as a surprise. Credit must be given to its political leaders for being able to respond well to the emerging challenges and opportunities.

The success of ASEAN can also be seen as a clever response to the challenges posed by globalization. This is clearly seen in how the Asian financial crisis prompted ASEAN to speed up and deepen its integration. The same was again seen in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. The latest is how global production networks have integrated the ASEAN economies with that of China, forming the basis for the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement.

But the imperatives for regional integration need to be combined with an awareness of the limitations arising from inter-state competition and divergent domestic capabilities within its member states. Here there is a need to work for the greater common good and with a long-term perspective. There are at least four areas where this approach is needed. The first concerns industrial policy. The member states need to sit down and formulate industrial policies which are complementary to each other. Doing so will increase intra-ASEAN trade, which currently constitutes only 25 percent of ASEAN’s trade. The second concerns protection of the environment, a point that was touched on earlier. The third concerns supporting local cultures and intellectual activities, so that Southeast Asia can boast its own world-class writers, painters, thinkers, musicians, and architects. The fourth and arguably the most difficult, is to translate into real practice the paper commitment of ASEAN member states to democracy and social justice. It includes protecting and respecting the rights of minorities, appreciating the political opposition as assets of the countries, and guaranteeing freedom of the press and association.

As an economic power, ASEAN is small by international standards. Given the level of development and technological base, ASEAN is unlikely to make a big impact on the global economy.

Perhaps the most important area which ASEAN can contribute to the world is to bring about the ASEAN Community with cultures and historical backgrounds different from those of the European Union. The new global conditions present Southeast Asia with opportunities and challenges. The greatest opportunities are the big avenues for economic growth in the region, and long-lasting peace. Territorial contestation leading to war is for most countries a thing of the past. Some challenges are persistent — nationalism, ethno-religious parochialism, discrimination against women, massive natural disasters, diseases, and poverty. Some challenges are new — climate change, environmental degradation, depleting natural resources, transnational crime, and terrorism. The challenges call for political, religious, opinion, and business leaders to re-orientate their courses of action toward the greater common good of the people in the region.

What is more crucial and effective is for the citizens of ASEAN countries to render support to each other in their struggle to realize the ideals of the ASEAN Charter such as environmental protection, rights of migrant workers, human rights, and social justice. It would be difficult for the governments to suppress these struggles because these are struggles inspired by a document crafted and endorsed by the government leaders themselves. The common struggles of the ASEAN peoples across the region will be a firm foundation for the growth of ASEAN solidarity, shared consciousness, sense of common interests, and an ASEAN identity.

Like other historical processes, the journey to the formation of the ASEAN Community will take time and will not be easy. There is still a wide gap between the deeds and words of the government leaders of ASEAN. If and when the realities on the ground are in line with the lofty proclamations of the ASEAN documents, then and only then will the ASEAN Community be no longer a dream but a reality. It will be an ASEAN with a new identity, for it will represent a new moral and political order, able to articulate global issues in international forums with moral authority and coherence.

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