ASEAN: The Meanings Behind Words


June 6, 2017

ASEAN: The Meanings Behind Words

by Bunn Nagara@www.thestar.com.my

AUGUST 8 this year is the 50th anniversary of ASEAN.

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ASEAN season is already upon us, with member nations busily hosting international seminars, workshops and conferences about the regional organisation.

Some of these events were held in close succession in Kuala Lumpur recently. As a prime mover and founding member of ASEAN, how can Malaysia and Malaysians do any less?

Chief among these was ISIS Malaysia’s Asia-Pacific Roundtable (APR), the largest annual event of its kind in the world: a Track Two (non-official conference on official security matters) convention on current regional concerns.

Anything concerning ASEAN would involve concepts, terminology and inevitable layers of diplomatic nuances behind and between them. It is an established ASEAN sub-culture.

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Thus, the first APR session saw two former ASEAN Secretaries-General on the panel concluding by looking back on the term “constructive engagement.” One of them denied a suggestion that he had coined the term.

Participants seemed to have forgotten that “constructive engagement” was the positive spin President Ronald Reagan gave to continued US dealings with Apartheid South Africa, in the face of international criticism and calls for a boycott.

Later, when Western criticism was aimed at ASEAN members for dealing with the pariah nation of military-ruled Myanmar, ASEAN leaders replied by calling it constructive engagement too. Verbal jousting runs both ways.

However, this did not sit well with a younger and more idealistic generation of ASEAN leaders at the time. A cabal of younger ministers then, including the one on the recent panel, cast around for another term.

One called for ASEAN’s “constructive intervention” in Cambodia which seemed then to have a disintegrating coalition government. It was a bit much for ASEAN’s Old Guard, strictly abiding by the principle of non-intervention.

Another ASEAN leader called instead for “constructive interactions,” which would soften the interventionist element. However, it did not seem to go anywhere. Yet another ASEAN leader advocated “flexible engagement.” But then it seemed too wobbly to be effective.

Finally, ASEAN and its leaders settled on “enhanced interaction,” which contained all the right positive notes without any conceivable setbacks. And so the work of regional diplomatic wordplay was done.

However, the situation on the ground in Myanmar, Cambodia and elsewhere remained much the same. The problems abated only with time, and with these countries’ eventual accession to ASEAN membership.

More ASEAN terminology arose from attempts to bring ASEAN to the people of south-east Asia. ASEAN’s albatross had long been the closed intergovernmental nature of its being, operating essentially for elites to sustain the status quo.

In time, a sense of ASEAN’s mortality prompted efforts to make ASEAN “people-oriented” or “people-centred.” Unfortunately, undue confusion reigned.

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A view persists that “people-oriented” came first, which then developed progressively with Malaysia’s urging into the more substantive “people-centred.” Another view presumes the opposite.

These terms originated in the recommendations of two separate panels appointed by ASEAN to provide inputs for the prospective ASEAN Charter: The Eminent Persons Group (EPG) and the High-Level Task Force (HLTF).

Some academic references add to the confusion by tracing these terms only to 2008. Others cite how several hopeful civil society groups responded positively by offering their views, but found the EPG indifferent and only the HLTF was encouraging.

A closer examination would reveal the opposite. The HLTF seemed officious while the EPG, chaired by former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Tun Musa Hitam, was more positive.

The result was the 2006 EPG document “Report of the Eminent Persons Group on the ASEAN Charter.” This 49-page report contains one reference to “a people-oriented ASEAN” and three subsequent references to “a people-centred organisation.”

This may have served to credit Malaysia for spearheading a humanistic approach to a new improved ASEAN. But it was also enough to worry undemocratic ASEAN regimes, only too mindful that their leaders were occupying positions that were not the will of the people.

These leaders could just about tolerate “people-oriented,” which would still mean top-down changes they could control, but “people-centred” would be too much for them. Ordinary citizens could well get the idea that they could choose their government.

Upon closer inspection, however, a serious tussle within ASEAN between the two terms did not develop into a full-blown affair. Documents such as the 2015 “Kuala Lumpur Declaration on a People-oriented and People-centred ASEAN” contain both terms.

The terms that would unite all ASEAN leaders, whether budding democrats, residual autocrats or hybrids somewhere between, relate to ASEAN’s “centrality” in occupying the “driving seat.”

This involves ASEAN’s aspirations to exert an influence outside its immediate region. Such ASEAN-led institutions as the 18-member East Asia Summit and the 27-member ASEAN Regional Forum already exist for this purpose, even when sometimes seeming rudderless.

The problem may not be in the choice of metaphors, but in what the metaphors unwittingly imply, reveal or foretell.

Centrality (leadership) may not come with being in the driving seat, and driving the vehicle may not mean deciding on the destination. This is as true of a chauffeured VIP limousine as of a common taxi or a bus.

Passengers who pay decide where they wish to go, and passengers who pay more also decide on how to get there. Not least among ASEAN’s concerns is whether member nations have sufficient economic clout to decide on the region’s destiny.

South-East Asia as a region is a subset of the larger East Asia, where major global powers roam. How do AAEAN members measure up in a time of growing interest from China, Russia, India and Japan, besides the US?

Then came a term for this region not unique to ASEAN: “arms race.” Typically, it was from conference participants unfamiliar with the region’s security situation. Government officials everywhere dislike the term either because it calls undue attention to their arms trade, with or without shady deals, or it alarms and scares off investors for fear of regional instability.

But seriously, is there an arms race in this region? There are clearly increased defence budgets for several countries, but does that necessarily amount to an “arms race”?

The same question had been asked some 25 years before with even greater intensity. And the answer, from the late Australian security specialist Prof Des Ball, was a firm no.

I then published a paper in Singapore explaining why there was no arms race here. There is still none today, not even after half a century of ASEAN – perhaps partly because of Asean.

As some conference participants explained, increased defence budgets do not equate squarely to increased arms purchases. The bulk of defence expenditures typically pay for the salaries, allowances and benefits of personnel.

A “race” is a competitive relationship between two or more players. Even when arms purchases grow, the motivation could just be having more to spend, or some threat perception or contingency – whether justified or not.

Unless and until the sole or primary motivation is to outdo the other country or countries in arms acquisitions, there is no race to speak of. There is still no reason for such a race.

Even if all the 10 ASEAN countries can put their military strength together, and double it, that would still be no match for the major global powers in East Asia.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

 

America and China–Managing the Possible


May 21, 2017

America and China–Managing the Possible

by Tan Sri  Dr. Munir Majid@www.thestar.com.my

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The  Go It Alone Eagle and The  Globalist Dragon

THE contrast could not be greater. While United States President Donald Trump raves and rants – and belts this or that person – China’s President Xi Jinping looks measured and assured as he offers an alternative global future to the world.

Xi is no angel of course, as his political opponents would know, but his system conserves and protects him, as Trump’s would not. If only Trump were the leader in a centrally controlled political order – but even then his temperament would blow it apart.

Leadership, like politics, is the art of managing the possible. Trump does not understand this, and does not know how. Xi does, knows why, and knows how.He has a growing economy too behind him, whatever the hiccups. Trump only promises one, without any clarity or logic.

His plan to boost the American economy, based primarily on slashing corporate tax from 35 to 15%, is likely to flounder in an American Congress seriously concerned about its causing the fiscal deficit to balloon.

Already Trump has had to climb down from trying to secure funds from Congress for his dreaded border wall with Mexico in order to avoid budgetary shutdown in September.

The stock market has fallen back from the boost to the price of banks and industrial products following his election. Interest now has returned to what might be termed “American ingenuity stocks” such as Google, Apple and Microsoft on Nasdaq – a proxy for much that is great about America, which Trump’s immigration and closed-door policies threaten to destroy.

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Meanwhile Xi has been rolling out his “Belt and Road” plans – something he first envisaged at the end of 2013 – for greater world connectivity and development, committing funds from China and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and engaging global financial institutions such as the World Bank.

Malaysia, for instance, will be an actual beneficiary with additional projects thrown in. China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner. But the US has not been a laggard, being Malaysia’s fourth largest trading partner. And indeed the US remains the largest foreign investor in Malaysia, both new investments and total stock.

A staggering statistic not often recognised is that total American investment in ASEAN is more than its investment in China, Japan and India COMBINED!

The point, however, is that this position is being eroded. Trump’s policies are hastening this process. Abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) means there is no American strategic peaceful challenge to the Chinese economic juggernaut in Asia-Pacific.

Balance is important to afford choice. Absence of choice means serious exposure to risk. Price, quality and after-service standards are affected, not to mention a new geo-strategic economic underlining.

Over-dominance by China in the region is a price not only countries in the region will pay, something that most probably is on Trump’s mind. It is a price that America too will sooner or later have to pay.

China’s Belt and Road proposition is not without its challenges, of course. India is deeply suspicious of the connectivity with Pakistan which cuts across India-claimed Azad Kashmir, about 3000km of it.

The link to the Pakistani port of Gwadar, in southwest Baluchistan on the shores of the Arabian Sea, is seen by India as a Chinese presence at the entrance to the Indian Ocean and a hawk eye on the Indian sub-continent. With the Chinese also in Sri Lanka, India is circumspect on China’s Belt and Road initiative.

There have also been commentaries on some uneconomic linkages which extend right across the English Channel.

All these reservations, however, do not take into account the benefit of connectivity to economies, the time it often takes to get those economic benefits and, most of all, the patience, persistence and long view of history of China and its leaders.

One of the most striking things about the Belt and Road map is that America is not there. Of course, Xi Jinping does not preclude America just as much as the US did not say that China was not permanently excluded from the TPP. And of course, in the Old Silk Routes and shipping lanes, the New World – America – had not been discovered.

But in their revival, led by now rising and then ancient China after 150 years of national humiliation to the present time, there is the irony that the last three quarters of a century of America world dominance is on course to be marginalised, if not supplanted, by the old Eurasian world centred in an ancient civilisation.

Trump does not seem to understand history. The art of the deal is purely transactional. Short-tempered and short-term gratification does not a strategy constitute.

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So we have leader, system and economic promise distinguishing the two leaders – and the two countries.

Instead of America first, what we are seeing is Trump hurrying America’s decline relative to a rising China. We are not seeing a world changed from people wanting to be like a kind of American to being people wanting to be a kind of Chinese. Actually, the Chinese people themselves want to be like a kind of American, with all that wealth, influence and power.

What we are seeing is China – not America – leading the way to that desired, if not always desirable, end. It is China that is driving the next phase in the evolution of world economic development.

Under Xi Jinping, China appears to be heroically moving towards an epochal point in its Peaceful Rise. With Donald Trump, America is being led backwards and inwards, with all the problems of its governance now all coming out. It is in grave danger of losing in the peaceful competition.

Not knowing how to play that game – certainly under its current President – there remains the danger of the status quo power lashing out against the rising one.

The Greek historian Thucydides observed: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” A Harvard professor has studied what is now called the Thucydides Trap and found in 12 out of 16 cases in which this occurred in the last 500 years, the outcome was war.

There are many potential flash points against the background of China’s rise – the North Korean Peninsula and the placement of THAAD missiles in the south, the South China Sea – where Trump may temperamentally find cause to lash out. This is the trapdoor he might take the world down because of failure to compete peacefully.

The End of the Left/Right Divide?


May 13, 2017

The End of the Left/Right Divide?

by Ian Buruma*

http://www.project-syndicate.org

*Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College. He is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance and Year Zero: A History of 1945.

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Marine Le Pen defeated by Ensemble,la France

After the French Revolution of 1789, deputies in the National Assembly who supported the revolutionary gains sat on the left, while those who opposed them and hankered after the old order of monarchy and church congregated on the right. Hence the political terms “left” and “right.” Many commentators on the French presidential election have pointed out that these categories no longer fit contemporary politics in France – or, indeed, anywhere else. Emmanuel Macron prides himself on being neither right nor left.

Marine Le Pen, whose National Front is associated with the far right, disagrees: to her, Macron, who was a minister in a Socialist government, is a leftist. But, like Donald Trump, it was Le Pen who ran as the “voice of the people,” whereas Macron, like Hillary Clinton, was depicted as a puppet of bankers, cultural elites, and international plutocrats.

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So what do left and right still mean, if anything at all? There is little doubt that something shifted in the last decades of the twentieth century. Left-wing parties began to lose – in some countries more quickly than others – their base in the industrial working class. Redistribution of wealth became gradually less important than the social emancipation of ethnic and sexual minorities. The old alliance between intellectual idealists and trade unions gave way to rainbow coalitions of intellectuals, non-whites, feminists, and gays.

Meanwhile, right-wing parties, like the Republicans in the United States, paid lip service to the social conservatism, and sometimes outright bigotry, of less privileged voters in rural and provincial areas, while doing what was best for big business once they were in power.

What was good for big business – international cooperation, pan-national institutions, and openness to immigration – was not always against the interests of the evolving left-of-center parties. Big business benefited from cheap labor, and the left favored multiculturalism.

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The EU gets a reprieve from France’s Emmanuel Macron

It made some sense, then, that European social democrats frequently ended up in coalition governments with moderate pro-business conservatives or Christian Democrats. This trend was boosted by the collapse of the Soviet empire, because Western liberal democracies no longer had the same pressing need to counter the Communist model with egalitarian arrangements of their own. The electoral successes of Bill Clinton in the US and Tony Blair in the United Kingdom had much to do with their deliberate tilts towards the pragmatic, neoliberal, business-friendly center.

In this respect, distinctions between left and right have indeed collapsed. The old idea of a left representing the downtrodden proletariat against the interests of big business and the bourgeoisie is gone. One reason why the British Labour Party is in such disarray is that it is led by a man, Jeremy Corbyn, whose politics haven’t changed since the 1970s.

But the traditional distinction between left and right is not simply economic. There has been a deeper divide within the National Assembly in France, defined by that between the Dreyfusards and the anti-Dreyfusards in the 1890s, or Léon Blum’s Popular Front and the Action Française in the 1930s. This division still holds in the age of Macron and Le Pen.

Defenders of the French Republic, who took Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity seriously, thought of citizenship as a legal concept, not one based on blood and soil. They believed in institutions more than in hallowed traditions, and in internationalism rather than chauvinism. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish officer falsely accused of treason in 1894, was such a polarizing figure in France because his opponents saw him as symbol of national decadence, of a nation whose sacred identity was being diluted by alien blood.

Anti-Semites, and others with a blood-and-soil view of society, invariably see “cold-hearted bankers” (Le Pen’s term for her opponent in the presidential debate) as the enemy of “the real people…the ordinary, decent people” (Nigel Farage’s words at a campaign rally for Donald Trump in Mississippi). In this sense, Macron, who was indeed once a banker for Rothschild, and who believes in open borders and international institutions, is a man of the left. And Le Pen, the champion of La France profonde, the “real France” of rural Christians and angry white people who believe that to be French and Muslim is a contradiction in terms, is a true descendant of the anti-Dreyfusards and the Action Française.

Macron managed to defeat Le Pen this time around. But the social-democratic left is still in a state of crisis. The UK Labour Party is moribund. The Dutch Social Democrats were wiped out. And Trump, an ignorant narcissist with no political experience, managed to become President of the US by whipping up popular resentment against educated elites, bankers, foreigners, immigrants, and international institutions.

The problem for social democrats nowadays is how to survive if large numbers of underprivileged people turn right instead of left. Is it possible for a new alignment to be forged? Can the growing gap between rich and poor bring at least some of the white working class back into the same tent as immigrants and other minorities? Is another New Deal feasible? How might this be reconciled with the interests of internationalist businessmen and bankers?

The crisis on the right, however, is no less serious. Trump may have surrounded himself with Goldman Sachs alumni and corporate titans, even as he claims to serve the interests of the common people. And many Republicans still cling to him in the hope of achieving their policy goals. But he has effectively hijacked the old conservative party of business and internationalism. Will his brand of chauvinistic, nativist populism be able to coexist with the kind of capitalism that thrives on continued immigration, freedom of movement, and global institutions?

While France has dodged the xenophobic bullet this time, the dust has not yet settled. Left and right may be in flux, but the old divisions that emerged after 1789 are still there, perhaps more than ever. Macron is full of good intentions. But if his politics fail, the latter-day anti-Dreyfusards will be back with a vengeance.

Malaysian Indians deserve Recognition, Respect and Reward, not Fawning MIC Politicians


May 12, 2017

Malaysian Indians deserve Recognition, Respect and Reward, not Fawning MIC Politician

by P. Gunasegaram@www.malaysiakini.com

“Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible.”

– Maya Angelou

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If the government is truly serious about helping the Indian or any other minority oppressed group, then this is what it has to do. It has to come down hard on anyone who does otherwise and perpetuates the continued oppression of the minority community. It is never all about handouts. It requires genuine effort at inclusion – nothing else works.–P. Gunasegaram

QUESTION TIME | Perhaps the title should have been just “Apa India mahu?” because the word “lagi” implies that you have too much. The fact is that Indians in the country have too little of everything except for their relative shares in such things as the extent of gangsterism, number of people in jails, number of people killed in custody, unemployment and so on.

Although the per capita income of Indians in Malaysia is higher than that of the bumiputeras (includes Malays and others), they are the most disadvantaged group in the country as shown by other social indicators. In fact, even in terms of per capita income, Indians, who are now largely in the urban areas as opposed to bumiputeras in the rural areas, face higher living expenses. If this is adjusted for, they might become the most disadvantaged even in terms of income.

But who are the Indians?

Indians form about two million people accounting for some seven percent of the population in Malaysia with Malays about 50 percent, Chinese about 25 percent and other bumiputeras about 11 percent. But they are not a uniform community – many subgroups being far better off than the average in terms of income and social well-being.

Tamils from India (see table) form by far the vast majority, accounting for some 75 percent of those considered Indians and this is the group which has been the most disadvantaged largely because of historical and social reasons. They were exploited successively by the British, the Malayan and the Malaysian governments who gave and are giving scant attention to their predicament. This is the group that we are referring to here when we talk about disadvantaged Indians.

While Indians have a long presence in Malaysia, dating back over 2,000 years ago, most of them were brought in to work as indentured labour – a form of bonded labour which replaced slavery after it was abolished in the late 19th century. Bonded labour involved working to pay off a debt which is often not clearly specified with workers paid extremely low wages for very hard work.

Most of them worked in the rubber plantations and in labour intensive tasks such as building roads and railways. In fact, it would be true to say that in the years of British occupation and the early years of Malaysia’s independence, the Indians built not only the roads and railways, making Malaysian infrastructure among the best in developing countries, but made rubber the main export earner.

But their efforts were not rewarded despite them being organised in the plantation sector in 1954 under the National Union of Plantation Workers or NUPW, at one point one of the largest unions in the world. While their union leaders were chauffeured around in Mercedes Benzes and they did manage to bring some benefits to members, plantation workers remained mired in extreme poverty.

Eventually, the Indians, the majority of whom were then in estates, were dealt a severe blow when in the 80s, the government encouraged cheap illicit labour in the hundreds of thousands into plantations and other industries, halting any chance of higher income there.

A former finance minister and plantation owner, Tan Siew Sin, even said then that if illegal labour was removed from plantations, they would collapse. The NUPW, the MIC and the government stood by and watched this happen – a move that further impoverished an already impoverished community.

In fact, some in the government and in politics may even have clapped their hands perversely to watch this perceived Indian dominance of the plantation industry albeit at the labour level whittled away through the import of cheap, exploited Indonesian labour.

From the green ghettos, the Indians moved into towns and cities to earn a living, creating slums. Unemployment among them increased, they lived in squalor, they took whatever work they could get and as with any disadvantaged minority they took to crime as a means of living. They resorted to gangs for social inclusion and self-respect.

The MIB

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The Indians don’t deserve this extremist naturalised Malaysian Indian. He has become the Pope of UMNO Muslims

Now, on the back of an impending election, the government very publicly came up with a Malaysian Indian Blueprint, or MIB. The prime minister himself unveiled it. Considering that the government and the MIC have done precious little for the Indians, will the MIB make a difference?

From a brief look, the MIB is a pretty good blueprint in terms of identifying and documenting the Indian problem. It lists all the major problems backed with relevant statistics which show that Indian Malaysians are lagging behind and may slip further.

For instance, median household income for Indians per month rose 7.5 percent compounded annually (against 7.8 percent for Malaysia) for 44 years between 1970 and 2014 to reach RM4,627 compared to RM4,214 for bumiputeras and RM5,708 for Chinese.

Recall that Malays form about 50 percent of the population and that other bumiputeras form some 11 percent – the latter group includes indigenous people, and those from Sabah and Sarawak, are among the poorest in Malaysia. This could mean that Indian income is already lower than that of Malay income. I could not find standalone figures for Malay income.

The MIB also recognises that Indians in the top 60 percent of income bracket account for 83 percent of the Indian income. In the bottom 40 are 227,600 households or 1.14 million people; assuming five to a household – over half of Indians earn live with only 17 percent of the Indian share of income!

Here are some direct quotes from the MIB which starkly reflect the Indian predicament:

“In 2014, Indian families accounted for 21 percent of the total number of reported domestic violence cases. In that same year, a total of 518 Indian children or 12 percent of all reported cases were classified as children who are in need of care and protection. These statistics indicate a prevalent problem of dysfunctional family dynamics and broken family bonds.”

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The sacrifices of their hardworking ancestors mean nothing to these poorest among the poor in Malaysia

“It is estimated that about 70 percent of gang members in the country are Indians. Although some leave behind gang activities after their schooling years, field experts suggest that a number of them, particularly those from underprivileged and broken families, stay on in gangs and progress to more serious crimes. According to PDRM 2014 statistics, of all violent crime arrests, Malaysian Indians comprise 31 percent (against national population of 7 percent) compared to Malay and Chinese counterparts at 51 percent and 11 percent respectively.”

“The Malaysian Indian community has the challenge of ensuring its religious rights are preserved while working with the regulatory requirements and sensitivities of the majority group. At the same time, Indian religious institutions such as temples need to increase their contribution to their communities in areas such as education, values and welfare.”

“…while there are points of pride in being of Indian ethnicity, some aspects of Indian representation in Malaysian public life – such as associations to crime, gangs, alcohol abuse, violence, low education and poverty – impart a negative slant to the community’s overall image.”

And finally, for me the most important point the MIB makes: “If left unchecked, the economic, educational and social challenges highlighted above will solidify the existence of an Indian sub-class that is continually marginalised and excluded from the Malaysian mainstream. Not only is this a waste of human potential, it is a cost to the country’s economy and a threat to national inter-ethnic harmony.” Well said.

The 3Rs

But going beyond the thoughtful recommendations by the MIB, the Indian community has a far better chance of progressing if the government and the politicians are serious about helping them.

What is it that the Indians want and need? Apa lagi India mahu? Indians want to claim their right to this country through what I shall call the 3Rs – recognition, respect and reward.

Recognition means acknowledging the immense contribution of Indians to the development of the nation which was out of all proportion to their numbers through the growth and development of the rubber industry and infrastructure projects amongst others. This also means acknowledging that they worked under terribly unfair conditions and paid a major price for their systematic exploitation. It includes as well dealing once and for all with the issue of stateless Indians even as Muslim Indonesians, Bangladeshis and Filipinos are routinely given citizenship with few questions asked.

Trust this Prime Minister to faithfully implement MIB (Malaysian Indian Blueprint). I won’t even trust him with my cat. But I expect the Malaysian Indians to vote for him in GE-14. You want respect, start with self respect first. How about that. Remember the words, SELF RESPECT. Do not be like the UMNO Malays who are dependent on handouts.–Din Merican

Respect means to give them due consideration to practice their way of life without being ridiculed and discriminated against because of their colour, manner, background or way of life. It means honouring their religious tradition without being constantly harassed by fanatics who heap scorn on their beliefs and destroy their temples and places of worship. It means no stereotyping and attributing unfair cliches to Indians. Respect also means not being arrested at the drop of a hat, or being arrested, beaten up in the lock-up and sometimes killed.

Reward means to give them their due for the effort that they have put in by themselves to improve themselves. This means stopping racist administrators dispersed throughout the civil service who make it a point to make life difficult for some and routinely practice discrimination against other races and religions, and especially Indians. Reward means giving them their due without they having to constantly ask and fight for it in every sphere.

If the government is truly serious about helping the Indian or any other minority oppressed group, then this is what it has to do. It has to come down hard on anyone who does otherwise and perpetuates the continued oppression of the minority community. It is never all about handouts. It requires genuine effort at inclusion – nothing else works.

The Indian helped build this country, with his two bare hands. He wants to be recognised and respected for that. He wants to be given the opportunity for his children to progress beyond what he has been able to.

His ancestors and he himself have paid for that with their blood, sweat and tears. He is as good as any other Malaysian can be. If you deny him that, he will fight for it any which way he can for he has little left to lose.

ASEAN@50: The Challenge Post 50


May 12, 2017

Cambodian Global Dialogue–ASEAN@50: The Challenge Post 50

Featuring H.E. Dr. Sok Siphana, Advisor to The Royal Government of The Kingdom of Cambodia, Dean Amb. Keo Chea, Techo Sen School of Government and International Relations, and Prof. Dr. Din Merican, Special Assistant to The President, The University of Cambodia.– Courtesy of SEATV, Cambodia

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)?

http://ippreview.com/index.php/Home/Blog/single/id/433.html

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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.