4th Oxford Southeast Asian Studies Symposium


A very good morning. I am delighted to be given the opportunity to address such a distinguished audience this morning. I would like to thank Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah and Professor Woo Wing Thye for their very kind invitation. I am especially pleased to be able to renew ties with my alma mater, the University of Oxford. I want to take a moment to acknowledge the presence of and to warmly welcome Professor Dwight Perkins, who was my teacher and adviser when I was a student at Harvard. So as I share thoughts and observations this morning, there is somewhat a feeling of déjà vu.

As I mentioned in a speech some years ago, I am a staunch Aseanist. I believe ASEAN has been an immense boon to the countries and peoples of Southeast Asia. What ASEAN and its members have achieved in the last forty-five years has been nothing short of remarkable.

  1. Born of the embers of conflict ASEAN has rapidly become a force for peace. Conceived by countries that were in the early throes of nation-building after centuries of colonisation, but that were still audacious enough to experiment with regionalism, ASEAN has become a benchmark for regional cooperation among developing countries. Once just five members, it now embraces all of Southeast Asia.
  2. ASEAN’s ambition and vision have also grown over time, and with them have come new challenges. From a narrow but necessary focus upon reducing enmity and restoring trust amongst neighbours following konfrontasi, it has over the decades widened its security scope, initiated region-wide economic cooperation and embarked on closer social and cultural engagement.
  3. In the process ASEAN established the principles, rules and institutions for security, economic and socio-cultural cooperation. From crafting formal statements such as the ASEAN Declaration it moved to treaties such as the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and agreements such as the ASEAN Free Trade Area. It now has the ASEAN Charter, and it is into regional community-building in earnest.
  4. Long before the West discovered such a thing as “non-traditional security” to complement “traditional security”, ASEAN adopted an all-embracing notion of “comprehensive security” that has guided its approach to managing security.
  5. Perhaps there is no better testimony to the esteem in which ASEAN is held, and the credibility that it has gained, than the fact that the most powerful nations of the world have deemed it useful to participate in the wider Asia Pacific processes that ASEAN has initiated. It is no mean feat for a grouping of largely developing countries to be able to successfully establish and anchor the 27-member ASEAN Regional Forum and the 18-member East Asia Summit that includes countries like the United States, China, Russia and Japan.No less than 18 out-of-region countries have become signatories of ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation.No other regional grouping in any other part of the world has been able to accomplish anything similar.
  6. It is easy to understand then, why I am a committed Aseanist. But like any other regional grouping, indeed any coalition of nations, ASEAN has never been without challenges. Some of these challenges have come from within, others from without. At each stage of its development, with each change in its external environment, the challenges posed to ASEAN have taken new forms and assumed new dimensions.
  7. I am not sure whether the challenges it faces today can be considered the most demanding. Certainly ASEAN’S founding years were some of the most difficult. Then ASEAN faced the challenge of the Cambodian conflict and the Vietnamese invasion and occupation of Cambodia that also drew in the major external powers. The expansion of ASEAN brought with it new challenges of managing even greater diversity of cultures, political ideologies and economic models that persist to this day. Fostering harmony of vision, unity of purpose and synchronisation of action amidst such diversity is a skill sometimes taken too much for granted.
  8. The financial crisis of 1997-1998 and the attendant social, economic and political repercussions in some Southeast Asian countries strained ASEAN capacity and credibility greatly. The crisis underlined the inadequacy of ASEAN as an autonomous economic proposition and emphasised the importance of East Asia as a more viable economic entity. It also marked a juncture when ASEAN and its neighbours to the north realised that the countries of East Asia needed to come closer together if they wanted to become more economically secure and resilient.
  9. I do not apologise for having taken a little of your time to survey some of the challenges we faced in the past. I think it helps remind ourselves that the present moment in our history need not necessarily be any more fraught with difficulties. although it no doubt also presents us with some special challenges. Too often we tend to think of the present as a crossroads. Perhaps it would be more correct to think of ASEAN’s journey, like life’s itself, as a journey of many crossroads, with some yet to come.
  10. So what of the challenges facing ASEAN today as it strives towards greater integration? Several apparently serious shortcomings of ASEAN are often cited. In this view ASEAN is too slow and ponderous. It is a ‘talk shop’. It tends to skirt problems and ‘sweep things under the carpet’. It suffers from a paucity of institutions. It is long on rhetoric and short on performance. The need for consensus in decision-making reduces ASEAN to the lowest common denominator. The less developed members are a drag on the organisation. The older members do not care enough about helping the others catch up in terms of development.
  11. It is also not integrating fast enough and it is not responding to new challenges quickly. Member countries’ obsession with national sovereignty and non-interference make ASEAN an anachronism in the borderless world of the 21st century. The Secretary General is not adequately empowered and the Secretariat is not furnished with sufficient resources. The organisation is not ‘people-oriented’ enough, but remains the province of policy elites. ASEAN is dragging its feet on human rights. The litany of criticisms and complaints of ASEAN goes on.
  12. There could be substance in some of the criticisms and the associated challenges. But I also think they tend to be exaggerated, unfair and misinformed at times. ASEAN is a favourite punching bag in some quarters. It bears noting too that the source of the problems, to the extent that they exist, is often with the member states rather than with the organisation itself.
  13. Nevertheless, the challenges confronting ASEAN are indeed very significant and perhaps it would be convenient to discuss them in the context of arguably the biggest challenge that confronts the organisation and its member countries presently, that is, the successful realisation of the ASEAN Community.
  14. Malaysia, the current ASEAN Chair, will declare the ASEAN Community realised on December 31st this year. It will be a historic day that will be celebrated in all ASEAN capitals.
  15. ASEAN governments are only too aware that the clock is ticking. With less than ten months to go, there is need for quick progress.
  16. My own view is that creating a community in an environment like ASEAN’s which has no homogeneity of political systems unlike the European Union, which lacks the supranational constitution and authority of the EU structure, and which starts from a lower base of economic development and sophistication, will take an appreciably longer time. Engineering social change, transforming values and attitudes and instituting political reform will be particularly slow processes.
  17. The momentous political change in Myanmar marks a significant step forward in the accomplishment of the political agenda of the ASEAN Community. Until recently perhaps the most closed society in the region, Myanmar has now leapfrogged over several other countries with respect to enjoyment of political freedoms.
  18. There has been some progress too in resolving territorial disputes to enhance security in the region. The cases of Sipadan, Ligitan and Pulau Batu Putih or Pedra Blanca are especially noteworthy, because they were referred to international arbitration and are examples that others can follow when direct negotiations prove fruitless. But territorial disputes among neighbours on land as well as sea remain in other areas and peaceful resolution is still very much work-in-progress and likely to be slow.
  19. The most complicated territorial disputes are the overlapping claims between the four ASEAN states of Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam, not to mention China and Chinese Taipei. The best that can be hoped for in the near term is faithful adherence by all parties to the provisions of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to avert and contain incidents in the area while negotiations for the more binding Code of Conduct are pursued.
  20. ASEAN member states are already largely at peace with each other. Nevertheless ethnic and religious divisions and centrifugal forces at the periphery continue to pose problems for social cohesion and durable security in several countries. Each ASEAN country and especially those that are grappling with insurgencies, armed resistance and civil unrest may want to do more to explore peaceful avenues for conflict resolution. Neighbours can assist to mediate in the process, as is happening in the case of the problems in the Philippines and Thailand.
  21. It appears that ASEAN has also made an earnest effort to strengthen institutionalisation in line with blueprint requirements in all three community-building areas. This has partly been in response to criticism that ASEAN is institution-averse. Progress, though, has been patchy. The establishment of the Committee of Permanent Representatives to ASEAN and the Ministerial-level Councils for the three pillars of the ASEAN Community have been important measures. These have been complemented by the establishment of various bodies to promote sectorial and inter-sectorial engagement, involving not only government agencies but the private sector and civil society organisations as well.
  22. ASEAN has given particular priority to strengthening the economic pillar of the ASEAN Community because it is perceived as critical to the ability of the ASEAN economies to compete in a globalised world and especially with an economically resurgent China. Free trade in goods was in fact accomplished as early as 2010. The focus now is on accelerating the pace of accomplishing the services, investment, capital and skilled labour targets and on bringing down non-tariff barriers. The last especially is proving rather stubborn.
  23. ASEAN has also made significant efforts to implement the blueprint for the socio-cultural pillar of the ASEAN Community. The sheer magnitude and comprehensiveness of the agenda is laudable. Its ambitious scale, however, also contributes to the difficulty of achieving targets. The enormity of the task of elevating the human development of millions of disadvantaged people and fostering a united and people-centred ASEAN with a shared sense of common identity is sometimes not fully appreciated.
  24. Whereas the notion of ‘Europe’ has been around for centuries, that of ‘Southeast Asia’ only emerged during the Second World War, and then only as reference to a theatre of war. I will not be surprised, therefore, if ‘forging a common identity’, which is an explicit aim of ASEAN’s socio-cultural blueprint, is a process that will engage us a while longer.
  25. One might well ask, will ASEAN be deluding itself when it declares that the ASEAN Community is in place come December 31st this year? I think, though, a more germane and useful question would be that given the very substantial challenges inherent in the environment that is Southeast Asia, did ASEAN acquit itself satisfactorily? It was a wise Voltaire indeed who once cautioned us against making the perfect the enemy of the good.
  26. Allow me now to share with you a few thoughts on managing some of the critical challenges confronting ASEAN and the region as we move forward.
  27. I think ASEAN is absolutely essential for the peace and prosperity of the peoples and nations of Southeast Asia. A Southeast Asia without an ASEAN will not be a very pleasant place. But I am equally sure that our well-being and our destinies will be determined first and foremost by national endeavour rather than by ASEAN. This is because ASEAN is not a supranational entity like the European Union to which a large measure of sovereign authority has been ceded. ASEAN may formulate common goals and programmes to guide implementation by member countries, but development in the member states will be driven essentially by national effort and national programmes. The nation is, therefore, also the fundamental and most important building block of the ASEAN Community.
  28. This said, I also believe that as the ASEAN Community takes firmer root, as our economies become more integrated and as we cultivate a stronger ‘we’ feeling, the authority for some decision-making may be usefully transferred to ASEAN bodies. ASEAN should also relax the requirement for consensus in decision-making in steadily more areas as trust and confidence in each other grows. Such flexibility will free ASEAN from lowest common denominator constraints, make for a more dynamic ASEAN and facilitate more nimble responses to emerging needs and challenges in the greater interest of the majority. However, I do not foresee ASEAN transforming itself into an EU-style supranational entity any time soon, nor do I think it a necessarily good idea.
  29. If the nation-state is the fundamental building block of the ASEAN Community, the next tier would be the forging of a network of bilateral relations among member states that are based on common interest, mutual friendship and shared peace and prosperity. In our fascination with the more fashionable idea of regionalism, we tend to overlook the fact that a network of strong bilateral relations is perhaps even more important in many instances. In Southeast Asia with its many historical legacies and current issues between neighbouring states, this indeed appears to be so. Many of Southeast Asia’s problems are bilateral in nature and the proper conduit for their management and resolution would be bilateral channels, not ASEAN. An ASEAN Community founded upon close and cordial bilateral ties will be that much more resilient. Bilateral relations are generally very good. But substantial work remains to be done to resolve the remaining border disputes amicably, employment of foreign workers and management of fisheries disputes.
  30. The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration is an important instrument for promoting human rights. In my view though, there cannot be too much reliance upon it in its present form to advance the cause of human dignity in the region. It can only act as a supportive and guiding instrument for action in the domestic sphere. Primary responsibility rests with national governments, and it is a responsibility every government may wish to honour and take seriously. There is much to do. In some countries this may involve political transformation towards more representative government.
  31. This issue illustrates the practical difficulties of fostering a political-security community that is more democratic, representative and human rights-compliant through a consensus-driven body like ASEAN. Progress in this dimension of community-building will ultimately be determined by domestic forces of change rather than external suasion or diktat.
  32. I would like to conclude with some thoughts on the security challenge for ASEAN. The twenty-first century has so far been a century of woe for hundreds of millions of people. Much of the Arab Crescent and Greater West Asia is in turmoil. There has been a spike in violence in Western and Central Africa. Ukraine has become a scene of armed conflict. The repercussions from the unrest in Greater West Asia and North Africa are impacting security in Europe and the United States, not to mention countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.
  33. The ASEAN political-security community blueprint envisages an outward-looking ASEAN that plays a pivotal role in the regional architecture to enhance peace and security in the Asia-Pacific. This is an area where ASEAN has actually done quite well, as evident from the several region-wide processes for security and economic cooperation that it anchors.
  34. The regional security environment, however, is becoming more challenging. Major power rivalry is being re-kindled after it subsided following the end of the Cold War. The immediate cause is the economic resurgence of China amidst the historic shift in geo-economic and geo-political power that is now taking place.
  35. China’s rising strategic profile as a result of its growing economic weight and increasing military expenditure is making some reigning powers and other neighbouring countries nervous. Steps are being taken to counter-balance China’s resurgence through various measures such as reinforcing political, economic and military presence. Territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas are further aggravating rivalries and drawing in the involvement of outside powers.
  36. It is, thus, perhaps time that ASEAN become more proactive in preventing further escalation of rivalries and deterioration of the situation. ASEAN cannot act alone. It needs the support of other stakeholders to temper the situation. But ASEAN has some unique qualities and assets that can stand it in good stead in this initiative. It is a moderate force for peace. ASEAN is non-threatening. It has various bilateral and regional platforms including the ASEAN Regional Forum at its disposal. It can engage in quiet diplomacy, and it can complement this with supporting non-government forums for informal and candid dialogue to clarify issues, reduce suspicion and build confidence. The region will benefit immensely from such a concerted diplomatic initiative.
  37. As we continue our efforts to forge an ASEAN community, I would call on member countries to double their investments in establishing world class centres on Southeast Asian studies. It is one of the oddities that the best research centres on Southeast Asia are in the United States, Europe and Australia. Students who wish to study their own region have to make the journey to Canberra, London, Ithaca, Berkeley, New Haven, Heidelberg and Leiden.
  38. I congratulate Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah, a son of Perak, for establishing the Jeffrey Cheah Institute for Southeast Asian Studies. I commend the Institute and Sunway University for hosting this Symposium for the first time outsiude of Oxford, and hope this will not be the last.
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