Wednesday, May 5, 2010


29 APRIL 2010


I am pleased to be here with you this afternoon to share my thoughts on ASEAN.

As ASEAN is now coming to its 47th year, I believe it can be an example to other sub regional organisation in Asia. The issue of integration is crucial to ASEAN’s future development. The emergence of China and India as market and export driven economies will obviously be a core element in Asia’s economic growth and development. Can than ASEAN response to this new phenomena and development?

In term of its geopolitical position ASEAN can be a “regional hub” for a wider economic cooperation and integration within the context of East Asia and subsequently in the wider context of Asia.

Most of 10 ASEAN member states economies individually are small but as a group with a population of over 500milion people it will be a sizeable and economically powerful region. It is through integration that they can be considered as equal partner to other larger, more powerful economies of China, India, Japan and Korea.

The coming into force of the ASEAN Charter is one of the positive developments in ASEAN to realise integration. It was not easy but it was signed in Nov 2007. Formerly ASEAN’s consensus building and informal approach has been the cornerstone of ASEAN decision making process. Through evolution ASEAN moves its institutional framework to a rule based organisation.

I believe with the Charter, ASEAN will continue to take pragmatic steps, recognising national peculiarities and priorities especially in dealing with the question of the gap between ASEAN 6 and the newer members that are less developed. Definitely narrowing the development gap within ASEAN would be the greatest challenge for ASEAN. As ASEAN moves towards an economic community by 2015, the private sector has to be playing significant role in this process. For regional cooperation and integration to be successful ASEAN needs to position itself in developing cross border infrastructure, trade and investment, money and finance.

When ASEAN was formed on August 8, 1967, I was still studying law at The Inns of Court. I did not know about ASEAN, though I knew of Malaysia’s confrontation with Indonesia.

Malaysia’s emphasized in its foreign policy, the importance of regional cooperation. Thus ASEAN remains the cornerstone of Malaysia’s policy. There are challenges that the country has to face in the dynamics of international relations. The question is what can Malaysia achieve in promoting and fostering ASEAN cooperation?

The short answer to this, ASEAN member states is strengthened by the numbers, which will allow them to enjoy economic growth and development in the environment of regional peace and stability. I will not deny, as a former Foreign Minister, that peace and prosperity in ASEAN has to a large measure is achieved due to forging trust and confidence amongst its members.

This was not an easy task bearing in mind that at that time Indonesia had declared confrontation against Malaysia and Singapore and the world was divided by the Cold War. Further more diplomatic relations between Indonesia and Malaysia had been severed. Philippines had a claim on Sabah and Indochina on the other side was at war with US.

With that backdrop many outside observers expect ASEAN to falter and not being able to move forward. Nevertheless ASEAN has proved them wrong. They can look back with pride that ASEAN 5 now has become ASEAN 10 which completes all the countries in South East Asia. Its greatest contribution is to maintain peace and stability. The step by step approach in arriving at decision had brought about a successful confidence building measure process to enable ASEAN to become a recognised and respected organisation internationally. They started as a loose association without a legal personality. Today it has become a ruled based organisation with a legal personality with the adoption of the Charter. Two things will happen with the Charter it is expected integration will be exhilarated and with this ASEAN could become the driving force for East Asian integration.

What ASEAN and East Asia recognised is the diversity of our continent in term of culture, religion, language, politics and levels of development. Even in the area of trade, investment and economic cooperation, the traditional partners of Asian countries have always been the Americas and Europe. As this region is deepening their integration, there is an imperative need for ASEAN to integrate and also work for an East Asian integration.

ASEAN has to transform to the changing realities including its decision making process. The process based on consultation and consensus while it makes good sense need to be more flexible for attaining cohesiveness and effectiveness. With the Charter, many expect ASEAN to have a mechanism to enforce its members commitments for the wider regional interest.

Since Malaysia’s independence, the leaders had worked hard to develop the economy, society and governance. This is done with a view to improving the standards, quality of lives of the people to uphold governance, democracy and the rule of law. This will enable the citizens to exercise their rights and responsibilities for peace and stability.

The strength of Malaysia’s foreign policy is its ability to conduct its foreign policies on the basis of its conviction of what is right and wrong. On this premise Malaysia advocated a world community based on justice, shared wealth, just and fair relationship for big and small nations alike.

In August 1967, the Bangkok Declaration was signed which stated in clear and defined terms what ASEAN’s aims and objectives are. This enables ASEAN to bring together the original five South East Asian nations to form ASEAN and finally complete the geographical mix with all ten South East Asian nations becoming members of ASEAN. They had gone through enmity and confrontations but the pack of resolving conflicts through dialogues and diplomacy will continue. The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 1976 which have now been an acceded to by other dialogue partners. The step by step consensus building process kept the ASEAN nations together.

They practice the policy of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, much to the dissatisfaction and sometimes strong criticisms of our European and Western dialogue partners. The cool headed ways of handling issues had enabled them to build trust, goodwill and understanding amongst them.

ASEAN is strengthened by being together. The big and small nations in ASEAN feel they could face the external challenges better as a group rather than as an individual or single country. It was by no means an easy process. There were times that we felt frustrated because of lack of unity and cohesion in the international arena, as each ASEAN country keep their alignments and vested interest with some big powers outside the region, particularly US and Europe. It does complicate ASEAN in taking a common position on many multilateral issues. ASEAN is also being inundated by overlapping claims at the bilateral and intra ASEAN level. However our bilateral differences do not interfere with our regional cooperation. This has enabled ASEAN to keep the bind of ASEAN sustainable. However some of ASEAN long standing approach in non-interference had undergone tremendous change from the time of its inception. The change brought about by globalisation which requires ASEAN to act pragmatically, so that it would be in line with the current development and thinking at the international front.

I remember at some of our meetings with our dialogue partners, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum we faced bumpy rides due to the tendency of the Europeans to lecture us on how and what we should do on democracy, human rights, labour or free trade. Perceptions and values on how we should conduct international relations and the type of political or economic models became contentious. Amongst ASEAN countries Malaysia had always taken a more direct and vocal stance in defending the ASEAN position. Nonetheless their relationships with their Western dialogue partners mature and they learn to understand ASEAN better. The air of informality to achieve a formal decision had served ASEAN well.

Their partners learn to understand and accept their diversities. This has enabled them to cooperate and work with ASEAN member states better and more efficiently, bringing mutual benefits to both sides.

It’s interesting to read the experiences of those involved in ASEAN at the initial stage of its formation. The friendly and warm relationship was the greatest achievement of ASEAN diplomacy, which culminated in an agreement under a very informal setting. This system of working on the basis of consultation and consensus continues to this day, though the format and the approach have changed. By this way ASEAN became a respected and acknowledged as a successful organisation. Though some member states faced problems with the UN, EU and the USA or even experiencing internal strife it does not stop the Dialogue partners from cooperation at the region wide. By putting ASEAN’s collective resources together it will be able to bring prosperity to all.

It was the taking of small steps on a voluntary basis and informal arrangements that ASEAN finally become an institutionalised rule based legal personality with its own Charter, which was thought not possible before this. Today ASEAN is moving confidently to be an integrated society based on the three pillars outlined in the Bali Concord II document. The ASEAN Economic Community and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural community that was unimaginable before has now become a reality. The inculcation of the feelings of ASEAN-ness is growing and their intention to establish an economic community by 2015 instead of 2020 is now achievable. An integrated ASEAN playing a greater role in the international arena is now realisable. It can thus become a driving force for East ASEAN Integration. In the years to come I believe ASEAN may even adopt a common position on many international issues which affect justice under the multilateral system.

Malaysia I am sure like to see a stable environment in the region and in this regard it will continue to nurture interstate relations with other countries, especially with its neighbours. Malaysia has placed importance to regional cooperation and I am sure it will continue to dominate Malaysia’s foreign policy in the years ahead. No doubt there can be irritants but a good bilateral relation continues to be fostered even with leadership changes within Malaysia or ASEAN member states. New endeavours are being undertaken to ensure that short-term difficulties would not interfere with the long-term interest.

Eventhough there are still outstanding issues between Malaysia and Singapore for example, other areas of cooperation are pursued to bring mutual benefits. With Indonesia recently there have been quite intense emotional issues on overlapping claims and Indonesian workers, even on ownership of same culture heritage, they do not affect the overall bilateral relation. Though in terms of substance these issues may be seen as trivial but with media sensationalism Malaysian and Indonesian leaders had to work closely together to cool down temperatures. In other words dialogue and diplomacy will continue to play a pivotal role in ASEAN. The leadership in ASEAN has adapted to the dynamic challenges within and outside the region. So long as Malaysia takes a pragmatic, consistent and principled foreign policy stance, it will gain respect and friendship beyond the size of its country.

In this respect let me underscore the vital importance which Malaysia attaches to good working relations with ASEAN countries. Generally Malaysia takes a more open and direct position in a number of regional and international issues. Its participation has been active and engaging since it is more willing to speak its minds.

ASEAN dialogue partners consist of all the big and small powers in Asia, Asia Pacific and Europe. Sometimes Malaysia does take very unpopular and different positions from other ASEAN members and the dialogue partners. However this should not be taken to mean Malaysia is anti anyone. It is just that Malaysia maintained that friends should be able to speak freely, even if it meant they would disagree on certain issues. I believe Malaysia will continue to exercise independence in the conduct of international relations at the bilateral and multilateral levels based on its national and strategic interests. However the voice and emphasis would be more subtle.

I see there is a new approach and emphasis in our foreign policy stance. Notwithstanding any differences bilateral relations and cooperation will definitely expand in areas such as trade, investment, education and human resources development. ASEAN remains relevant as it continues to evolve into an ASEAN community. With its integration there will be clearer and broader cooperation crossing all areas for economic development and growth, though not exactly in the mould of EU. ASEAN can be easily seen promoting cooperation amongst member states to realise its objective of a truly integrated ASEAN, which would become a constructive driving force as they move towards East Asian Integration and community.

The efforts to focus on enhancing ASEAN as a grouping and bridging the technological and development gap will ensure the goals of an integrated ASEAN be achieved. There is no doubt in my mind that with the Charter and the various initiatives undertaken amongst member states and also its dialogue partners, the vision of an integration and establishment of an ASEAN community will be realised.

For Malaysia notwithstanding the difficulties, ASEAN has to learn to work together regionally. ASEAN recognises that the way forward in addressing the new challenges, brought about by globalisation and the experiences of the financial crisis of 1997 is to forge closer and deeper integration. The ‘we feeling’ is growing amongst the ASEAN citizens as ASEAN develops its common values. Towards this end more and more harmonisation of ASEAN standards and practices, will enable us to genuinely look at ourselves as ASEAN citizens. ASEAN in my view has successfully made a paradigm shift. This can be noticed though the creation of ASEAN human rights body as required by the Charter and a more constructive and active role of its civil society.

While enhancing its ties with the rest of the world Bali Concord II has drawn a road map for ASEAN integration to bring the vision into a reality. The fact that it has moved from a policy regime to a legal regime will enable ASEAN to take new initiatives and create new mechanisms to give meaning to the aims and objectives of the Charter. There been institutional framework and processes implemented, which will enhance the role of the Secretary General and strengthen the functions of the ASEAN Secretariat.

In conclusion, economic cooperation and integration for ASEAN in the Asian landscape should and will be pragmatic and in step with emerging opportunities. Given the region’s diversity, size, and varying stages of economic development, the path toward economic integration will be one that naturally builds on the region’s developing synergies in a multi-track, multi-speed, market-friendly way-one in which timetables are kept and, under the new Charter, obligations fulfilled. Proceeding in this manner will ensure that opportunities to benefit from the region’s growth are shared more widely among its people.

1 comment:

  1. When Sithambaram asked him whether Mr. Sim's actual name was Sim Guan Yu, Low said he was not sure because he only knew the man as a businessman from Singapore and was closed to former Home Minister Tan Sri Hamid Albar and a brother-in-law of Syed Hamid by the name of Syed Abdullah.