Wednesday, April 29, 2015


Keynote speech on 23rd Apr

Friends and colleagues from our ASEAN region and beyond

It is a great pleasure to be here this evening at the Welcome Dinner of the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ ASEAN Peoples Forum 2015. I am inspired to see how many people from so many different sectors have converged on Kuala Lumpur in their commitment to make ASEAN a living, people-centered reality. WELCOME! SELAMAT DATANG!

I noticed that the APF has an engagement modality which prioritises opening doors to broader involvement, inclusivity and respect for diversity. Inclusion is an important step forward towards "Making ASEAN People-Centred". I am glad that the organisers recognize inclusion is a two-way process, one that requires governments to include the people, and the people to include former government representatives like myself!

Seriously, it is very gratifying to be here. I remember in 2005 when Malaysia last chaired ASEAN, I took a risk by initiating the first ASEAN Civil Society Conference. At that time, it was unexpected for a Foreign Minister to actively support an initiative such as this, since ASEAN was very institutionally-focused or in short very state centric and elitist. However, Malaysia, as one of the original five founding members of ASEAN, recognised the pivotal role of civil society as a key stakeholder and dialogue partner of ASEAN. It is more satisfying that this year when Malaysia chairs the 26th  ASEAN SUMMIT it decided to make ASEAN really people centric. May be we have at this juncture of our history realise that we should move away from rhetoric to reality.

In retrospective the first ASEAN Civil Society Conference was initiated and held in Shah Alam in parallel to the 11th ASEAN Summit which had the theme “One Vision, One Identity, One Community”, a slogan that I was one of the proponents. It was for the first time ever in the history of ASEAN that the delegation of civil society representatives from the ACSC met all 10 heads of state and government of ASEAN and engaged them. Malaysia took note of the Report of the ASEAN Civil Society Conference (ACSC) which was held on 7 – 9 December 2005, and encouraged other member states to continue to support and engage the ACSC. 

At that time, I realised that governments had to get out of their comfort zone and speak face-to-face with regional civil society because ASEAN would not be able to maintain its relevance and grow as people-centered without such engagement and cooperation. 

I am proud that we took the steps to ensure young people were included in this process. It is wonderful to see that young people continue to be in the ASEAN Peoples Forum process. I understand that the youth have also been holding an annual ASEAN Youth Forum since 2009. All this hard work and cooperation are at the heart of ASEAN's viability as an integrated, sustainable entity. 

It is inspiring to see that a small gathering of several hundred people has grown over the years to the size it is now. It has grown in diversity and in impact. I understand that this conference is not only an event, but part of an important ongoing process to strengthen links and cooperation between NGOs, grassroot organisations, advocates and researchers. Congratulations! I can now confidently say my faith in ASEAN civil society 10 years ago was indeed justified.

The ASEAN we see now has come a long way since its inception in 1967. I am pleased to acknowledge the positive steps made by ASEAN member states in fulfilling its obligations towards a “people-centred ASEAN”. The adoption of ASEAN Charter in 2007, codifying ASEAN norms, rules and values, provides the legal personality and institutional framework for ASEAN. 

The Preamble of the ASEAN Charter speaks of adherence “to the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms”. This sets the most positive tone towards establishing a rule-based community premised on the universal principles of human rights. The subsequent establishment of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) paved the way for further accountability mechanisms respecting fundamental principles of human rights in ASEAN. The adoption of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration should advance the cause of human rights in Southeast Asia. 

2015 is crucial in the history of ASEAN as by November of the sane year ASEAN is going to declare the establishment of an ASEAN Economic Community. It is momentous that it is again happening under the Chairmanship of Malaysia. Malaysia is tasked in leading ASEAN into its next phase towards the integration of the ASEAN Community, as the year marks the end of the period of implementation of the action plans contained in the three blueprints on the political/security, economic and socio-cultural pillars.

Malaysia will also lead the formulation of the “post-2015” ten-year roadmap for the community-building from 2016 to 2025. The “Consolidated Central Elements of the ASEAN Community’s Post-2015” further commits ASEAN to becoming people-oriented, people-centered community through active engagement with all relevant stakeholders. It aims to develop clear and measurable “ASEAN Development Goals”. This noble goals can't be realised if within our region we don't practice tolerance and moderation in the context of our diverse and multi-cultural societies towards minorities or when human rights and freedoms are being abused.

The ASEAN Post-2015 Vision and its Blueprints shall be adopted at the 27th ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur in November this year. Achieving the ASEAN post-2015 vision requires a massive commitment and enhanced political will amongst member states, a shift in the development paradigm with new regional strategies that adhere to international standards and commitments; and new development partnerships based on shared responsibilities among major stakeholders in the region. There is a need in a people centred ASEAN for a feeling of we-ness or ASEANNESS as accordrding to a recent survey the majority of the citizenry of ASEAN do not know or feel ASEAN.

In short, it requires all the diverse stakeholders to pull their weight and work together. ASEAN agencies, international agencies, national governments, local authorities, private sector and civil society organizations (CSOs) will all have to work in partnership for this to be successful, and sometimes, civil society will have to push harder to ensure that people remain at the centre of these efforts.

The four priority issues identified by this year’s ACSC/APF, i) development justice; iii) democratic processes, governance and fundamental rights and freedoms; iii) peace and security; and iv) discrimination and inequality, are all interlinked and cross cutting issues, and are essential to ensuring that ASEAN moves forward in how it delivers development to the region. It is extremely important for ASEAN member states to take into account the need to improve its human rights situation consistent with the objective to promote a people-centred approach towards development and justice that is genuine, inclusive and representative of the concerns of all peoples in the region. 

When ASEAN was formed 48 years ago, we were living in a very different world and context. We needed ASEAN to prevent conflict and to bring development into our region, to strengthen connections between States. ASEAN has indeed been successful in achieving the original motivation of peace and security. However, ASEAN needs to change in order to be more responsive and resilient to the myriad and fast-growing challenges we now face. 

The gaps remain between the region’s larger and smaller economies. While there has been remarkable GDP growth in all ASEAN countries, there is also a growing income inequality. The impressive developments achieved are made sometimed at the expense of environmental degradation. The likelihood of potential brain-drain must be guarded against in ensuring free flow of services. The ASEAN Economic Community needs to address the issue of informal sectors and untrained/unskilled migrant workers. 

Human rights issues have taken on an increasing importance in ASEAN in the past 10 years. The denial of fundamental freedoms and human rights violations in certain ASEAN member states, both inter and intra state, continue to pose a challenge towards the realisation of human rights encapsulated in the ASEAN Charter. 

As a region it is crucial to address these continuing and emerging trends of increased militarisation, unconstitutional seizures of power, territorial and sea disputes, enforced disappearances, torture, intra state ethnic and religious violence and persecution, denial of fundamental right to freedom of association and information, increased reliance on archaic and discriminatory laws, and discrimination and violence against women and other marginalised communities, amongst others. 

This is why we need to go beyond cooperation between formal institutions to a more inclusive model. There are very practical reasons for this. 

Firstly, civil society and grassroots communities often feel the first impacts of problems that those in the higher echelons of government may not realise. In hindsight, many of the serious problems we face now - social, political, economic AND environmental - could have been eased if there was greater space for civil society's role as an early warning system.

Secondly, dialogue opens up greater possibility for ongoing cooperation to design and implement solutions. I have been impressed at how committed civil society has been to problem-solving. Sometimes, civil society can come up with innovative, sustainable and cheaper solutions than just the governments working by themselves.

Thirdly, civil society has much more freedom and agility than governments when it comes to choosing their actions and words. States such as those in our region are bound by the conventions of diplomacy and non-interference. As a former ASEAN Foreign Minister, I remember occasions that civil society was able to say out loud what we were thinking. It was our responses to those initiatives that helped open up more space for debate and discussion within ASEAN.

One cannot avoid the fact that ASEAN will find it difficult to endure and thrive if it is constructed only as a community of states. If ASEAN is to strengthen in relevance, it must transform from being a state-driven institution to an integrated people-centered community. After all, political leadership may come and go, but the people are always there. It is very encouraging to see how communities in ASEAN have grown familiar with each other and appreciate each others' cultures and common history. It is so important for us, as a region, to appreciate and build on the benefits of diversity amidst common values of human rights and democracy.

Of course, transformation from a state-centric to people-centered community requires a great deal of commitment, and I am sure you are not lacking in this. Sometimes, I think it is easier to change governments than to change the organisational culture of institutions like ASEAN. But it is not impossible. We all have to work together with determination.

I will continue to advocate for governments to allow civil society to claim spaces for dialogue and cooperation. In the meantime, we must also keep on opening up these spaces in institutions of higher learning, and encouraging the growth of bodies such as the Southeast Asian Human Rights Studies Network.

Governments also need to open up spaces for interactions between the decision makers and the people. While this depends very much on domestic governance and political systems, I sought to open up that space by starting an interface between civil society representatives and ASEAN Heads of Government in 2004. I understand this has been an important, but rocky process, but it has been encouraging that civil society has leveraged these opportunities to pro-actively engage with other ASEAN mechanisms.

Finally, we also need to seriously think about reviewing and redefining ASEAN's non-interference policy. Non-interference goes hand-in-hand with respect for national sovereignity. These principles are a fundamental part of international diplomacy, however we need to recognise that even in international diplomacy, there are limits on non-interference, especially when the serious impacts of a problem goes beyond national boundaries, or when it involves serious international crimes. 

If we trust each other as members of the same community, we also need to be candid and sincere in working together to achieve solutions. We cannot allow our region to be bogged down with problems that are prolonged or intensified by the blanket application of non-interference.

Once again, thank you for inviting me here and allowing me to speak. I look forward to your questions. 


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