ASEAN – need to step up

08 August, 2015
As appeared in


Can’t go on with full plate, glass half empty approach

THE meaningful measure of Malaysia’s performance as Asean chair this year will be how the process of regional community-building is set for the years to come.

Not the scorecards, which will all come in at 90% plus achievement, that only the officials passionately believe in. Not how well Malaysia organised the many Asean and Asean Plus meetings, a series of which just took place this past week.

They do matter, but not in direct proportion to the time and energy expended. In Asean, the full plate of meetings often assumes greater significance than the half empty glass of actual achievement. Or the problems that need structural solutions to begin to fill that glass.

Already, Malaysia’s time as chair of Asean has an indelible mark in the minds of Asean member states (AMS). Malaysia’s severe and serious domestic political problems have consumed attention better extended to Asean matters. AMS – and other commentators – will quickly put it down to this factor that the Asean community to be pronounced at the end of this year, is half-baked.

It becomes critical, therefore, for Malaysia to lead a charge in forming a meaningful post-2015 Asean community agenda. It cannot be more of the same.

Here are just three structural issues that could be addressed:

1. Well over 10 Asean ministers are involved in the meeting and decision-making process. They do not seem to talk sufficiently to one another, not even in their home jurisdictions. The foreign ministries which carry this convergence responsibility are either not sufficiently equipped or do not have the time to do so. There should be a special high level body with capable representation from each Asean country to integrate decisions to move forward.

From actual experience and knowledge, I can say there is a disconnect between what economic ministers and finance ministers do and decide which does not promote achievable progress. As we know in management, a deep and vertical organisational set-up with no horizontal connecting lines results in silos and sub-optimal performance.

2. There are hundreds and hundred of committees, working groups, task forces, special task forces, study groups etc which take up plenty of travel and meeting time. While they may be the stuff of the life of Asean officials, the private sector and non-governmental bodies have other things to do as well. Their dialogues and engagement with officials, ministers and leaders become disparate and unrelated to the decision-making process.

To be meaningful, there must be a careful review of where such involvements should be located to make a difference to the speed and quality of decision-making. For example, the Asean Business Advisory Council (Asean-BAC), which is the body mandated by Asean leaders to be the representative of the private sector since 2003, has in the past had absolutely no interaction with the Asean finance ministers and central banks – and all those committees etc under them – whereas financial integration is vital to economic integration. This is just one huge gap. If one goes down the line in the maze of committees and meetings, one will discover how meetings of Asean customs heads are not sufficiently challenged on non-tariff measures or industry expert groups such as in health products are not brought in to help make progress over issues such as contaminants and calorific value.

3. The non-governmental representation itself, including in Asean-BAC, should be reviewed to ensure their more effective contribution. Again, to make a difference, there has to be a required level of organisation and commitment. Given that involvement of members, particularly with business sector bodies, is not full time, the secretariats have to be strong, professional and well-funded. Having said this, there is no substitute for committed members of the bodies they represent. They are there not to have pictures taken with leaders to adorn their offices. They have a responsibility which calls for performance. Just like the officials, it would be good to have KPIs to measure organisational performance at the Asean and individual performance at the national levels.

Of course other proposals for the post-2015 Asean are important, such as enhancing the Asean secretariat, addressing sustainable development and decent work principles, but the progress towards attaining set goals will take even longer than they already would if the structure of the work process is not improved.

And of course the plethora of meetings and summits will continue to renew Asean commitment and to address contemporary issues – or even to ensure Asean centrality if only by playing host to heavyweight states like the US, China and Japan – but they cannot be a substitute for better thought out and organised work.

At the same time, specific rather then generalised targets should be prioritised.

In terms of regional security and stability, perhaps the hardest bit because Asean is a minnow in the company of the great powers of the 27-member Asean Regional Forum (ARF), a more united Asean stand on some of the issues would make Asean look better – and more central. While there is some progress in respect of a position on the South China Sea, it is still vulnerable to turncoat insider states, constant Chinese challenge (when Anifah Aman repeated at the opening of the Foreign Ministers Meeting last Tuesday last April’s Asean chairman’s statement about “the erosion of trust and confidence” because of recent developments – China’s reclamation works in disputed areas – the Chinese ambassador looked up vacantly at the uninteresting PWTC ceiling), and to the fact that Asean claimant states have not resolved differences among themselves.

So how can they even sustain the common position, now informed primarily by that on the Code of Conduct. After that, what?

There has, again, to be organised work outside of set-piece meetings and grand occasions to prepare thoroughly the ground for a common Asean position, including resolving the South China Sea disputes with one another. There must be a clear identification of this issue in post-2015 Asean and a determined process to take it forward.

In sum, Asean when pronouncing that it is a community at the end of the year, must also announce that it will up its game in community-building, as no doubt that pronouncement will be accompanied by the assertion that only a milestone has been reached, that community-building is an ongoing process.

It would be demonstratively good if, apart from meaningful participation throughout each year in the process, there was also an annual review through a “People’s Assembly” at the Asean secretariat in Jakarta every Asean Day – like today Aug 8.

Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB Asean Research Institute.

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