Monday, August 7, 2017


Entering its 50th year of existence in 2017, ASEAN celebrates its golden jubilee this year.  Such a milestone undoubtedly calls for introspection as we face new challenges such as the shifting global balance of power, transnational environmental degradation and climate change.   The time is right to revisit our successes and weaknesses, to understand what worked and what we could have done better, and to see the lessons they offer to face these evolving challenges.

As we reflect, an inescapable question would revolve around whether the aims and visions of our founding fathers were fulfilled when the five original ASEAN member states signed the Bangkok declaration on 8th August 1967 to chart a new future for the region after the failures of ASA and MAPHILINDO?  The short and crip answer would be yes.  Becoming ten from just five at inception, ASEAN did not just prevail, it grew. The coalition weathered the ups and downs of member state relationships anchored upon a set of core values. We call this the ‘ASEAN Way’, where the approach has been to practice consensual decision-making and non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs in a show of mutual respect.  Such mutual respect strengthened our internal organizational cohesion and despite the region being a microcosm of religion, language, ethnicity and culture, yet ASEAN has been able to face the outside world with one voice and in fact punch above its weight in regional affairs.  We are the corner stone of any multilateral Asian forums such as the ASEAN Regional Forum.  We have seen other bigger Asian nations clamour to be part of the ARF.  So this approach has brought us benefits and we can take pride that the ASEAN region is principally a stable an peaceful region.  The measured pace has helped it to attain this position.  It would not be wrong to say that ASEAN has done well.

However, it also true to say that ASEAN does not seem to share the same view on emerging challenges including the role of democracy or human rights.  Let’s be honest.  My observation shows that ASEAN is still cumbersome and sensitive on the question of non-interference and its treatment of human rights issues, which has caused regional an international concerns.  This produces impact on the very internal cohesion that has been a pillar of ASEAN’s success.  There is undoubtedly need for deeper examination on issues and challenges confronting ASEAN as it embraces democracy and economic liberalism.  Continued denial on this subject will not bode well in sustaining ASEAN’s credibility and integrity.

Additionally, ASEAN differs on the relationship between the individual, state and civil society, and sometimes, the core values of freedom.  Due to rigidly sticking to the issue of sovereignty and non-interference as a regional organisation, ASEAN has been in some instances slow to give its collective or common response to natural disasters like Tsunami, Cyclone Nargis and the haze or political problems such as the refugee crisis or the South China Sea issue.  How can we go forward on these issues the ASEAN way?

I believe that the answer already exists in the three pillars of ASEAN under the Bali Concord I & II.  The ASEAN Economic Community has been firmly established.  But we have a long way to go before we can say that we actually have an integrated people-centered ASEAN.  What does this mean?  We need to agree upon the basic norms of a people-centered ASEAN by agreeing on common norms of behaviour, on human rights and on mutual help for natural and man-made disasters.  Only then can we say that ASEAN has been able to build a cohesive and united body, consistent with its Charter?  Only then can we say that ASEAN has succeeded in building trust and understanding in order to create an ASEAN identity.  Make no mistake – these are important questions that members must reflect upon to ensure adjustments can be made on how the regional and international issues could be managed.

For these reasons, it is quite a wonder how ASEAN has made its cooperative endeavours to rise above conflicting areas to register healthy political and economic growth.  I do not mean to preach but in the Malaysian case, it has used the concept of unity and diversity as a source of its strength.  I am sure that other ASEAN countries can find equivalent concepts.  Otherwise, the differences and diversities can be a threat to peace, stability and security.

There are also frustrations on the rigid application and inflexible processes of this principle in ASEAN’s decision-making and yet, we have witnessed how hope and optimism steered the evolution of this organisation.  Beginning its initial journey based on a loose framework of rules, over the years, ASEAN has graduated into a full-fledged legal and rule-based regional organisation guided by its Charter and supported by a professional Secretariat. 

Even as we grapple with existential challenges, we are on the cusp of a new era for ASEAN.  With a total population of 625 million and a combined GDP of USD 3 Trillion, the ASEAN region today has the potential to be a formidable global power from bloc economic, political and security perspectives.  This means the organisation is poised for a greater leadership role in the global order.

As we stand ready to participate in the big leagues, we must build greater resilience in our region and tackle existing challenges with all the seriousness we can muster.  ASEAN cannot afford to be mired in its past glories but must make the hard decisions and find a point of equilibrium that will help us to move forward in order to be aligned with new dynamics and realities in the international system.


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