Asean 100 Leadership Forum 2012


Let me begin with a confession. 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. Perhaps there were other occasions in its history when ASEAN was confronted with tests at least as great or even more severe.
  8. The founding years are often some of the most difficult. Indeed, ASEAN’s were. 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.
  9. 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 Mahathir had been right after all, and that the countries of East Asia needed to come closer together if they wanted to become more economically secure and resilient.
  10. 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.
  11. So what of the challenges that face ASEAN today? 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.
  12. It is also not integrating fast enough and it is not responding to new challenges quickly. The 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 still not ‘people-oriented’ enough. ASEAN is dragging its feet on human rights. The litany of criticisms and complaints of ASEAN goes on.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. Malaysia, which will be the ASEAN Chair then, will declare the ASEAN Community realised on December 31st 2015. It will be a historic day that will be celebrated in all ASEAN capitals.
  16. The ASEAN governments are only too aware that the clock is ticking, to the extent that they deferred the date of the proclamation effectively by one year, from January 1st,2015 to December 31st to gain more time. At the 21st ASEAN Summit that took place in Phnom Penh last month the leaders announced their determination to complete what remains to be done in the political-security, economic and socio-cultural fields by the new date.
  17. But the end of December 2015 is just eleven hundred and twenty-one days away today, and it is clear that many outside officialdom, and some within as well, do not share in the optimism that the ASEAN Community will be fully a reality by then. Questions are being raised and concerns are being expressed.
  18. 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.
  19. 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.
  20. Similarly the adoption of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration in Phnom Penh at the ASEAN Summit three weeks ago, after protracted discussions for many years, has been hailed as a major achievement by the organisation. Its provisions are indeed comprehensive and consistent with universal standards. However its explicit statement that “the realisation of human rights must be considered in the regional and national context bearing in mind different political, economic, legal, social, cultural, historical and religious backgrounds” has attracted harsh criticism and disapproval from various quarters. The fear is that in a region where political freedoms and civil liberties are still constrained in some countries the provision could legitimise suppression or abuse of rights.
  21. 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. It is my firm belief that progress in this dimension of community-building will ultimately be determined by domestic forces of change rather than external suasion or diktat.
  22. 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. When border disputes like the one between Thailand and Cambodia over the Preah Vihear temple flare up and shots are fired the credibility and standing of ASEAN take a big hit.
  23. 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.
  24. ASEAN member states are already largely at peace with themselves. This goal of the ASEAN Charter and the political-security pillar of the ASEAN Community has also been further strengthened by the cessation of armed conflict in Myanmar and the interim peace agreement signed between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines. Ethnic and religious divisions and centrifugal forces at the periphery, however, continue to pose problems for social cohesion and durable security in several countries.
  25. 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. On the debit side, critically important institutions such as the High Council provided for in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation have not been able to get off the ground. The ASEAN Secretary General continues to be mandated with only limited authority as well.
  26. ASEAN has given particular priority to strengthening the economic pillar of the ASEAN Community because it was perceived as critical to the ability of the ASEAN economies to compete in a globalised world and especially with an economically resurgent China and Asia. The Scorecard developed by the ASEAN Secretariat records 74 percent compliance with the economic blueprint in 2011. 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 are proving rather stubborn.
  27. 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.
  28. The challenges that confront ASEAN here are grim. Half of ASEAN’s member countries that are home to two-thirds of ASEAN’s population lie in the bottom third of UNDP’s human development index. 90 million people in ASEAN live below the international poverty line of US$1.25 PPP per day , and the burden of poverty and poverty-related issues weighs heavily on the countries and societies that can least cope with them.
  29. 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.
  30. Hence, given all these challenges and probable shortfalls, did ASEAN make a mistake when it advanced the date of realisation by four or five years? I would think not, for there was a compelling need for hastening ASEAN economic integration in the face of mounting challenges to the competitive viability of an economically fractured ASEAN.
  31. One might also ask, will ASEAN be deluding itself when it declares that the ASEAN Community is in place come December 31st 2015? 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.
  32. As I intimated earlier, the remaining eleven hundred and twenty-one days before ASEAN is declared a Community is not too far away. But it is also a good three years, and much of the unfinished business in the economic sphere especially can be accomplished in that time present strong political will.
  33. 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.
  34. 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.
  35. 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.
  36. The review of the ASEAN Charter next year provides an early opportunity to begin discussion on the matter.
  37. 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. There are many things we can continue to learn from Europe’s experience, but the widely-held view that the best model for regionalism and regional integration is the EU model is I think a view that merits closer examination.
  38. 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.
  39. The ASEAN Economic Community is vital for accumulating regional economic weight, for facilitating the centrality of ASEAN and for community building, but it is too small for ensuring sustained prosperity in a fast growing and increasingly integrated Asian economy. In the months and years ahead I think the ASEAN member-countries would find their longer term interests well served if they invest effort as well on developing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) initiative that was conceived by ASEAN last year. With a market of 3 billion people and a GDP of US$20 trillion, it will be the largest and fastest growing regional trading arrangement.
  40. 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.
  41. I would like to conclude with some thoughts on the security challenge for ASEAN in the wider Asia Pacific region.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.
  42. 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.
  43. 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.
  44. 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.
  45. The region will benefit immensely from such a concerted diplomatic initiative.
  46. Ladies and gentlemen, it has been a privilege and pleasure to share my thoughts with you.
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