Asean’s next 50 years

11 March 2017
As appeared in The Star Online


ASEAN needs to be revitalised. It needs the kind of leadership that led to its establishment on Aug 8, 1967 or, for example, to the clear and defining statement on ZOPFAN, the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality, in 1971.

Instead, it has not been able to take a clear stand on challenging issues or to carve an immoveable objective to be achieved in a set time. Yes, Asean talks about a community, or rather waffles about it, but it is short on achievement and the time frame is constantly extended.

If it continues this way, Asean will continue to exist, but only just – like the 70-year-old Organisation of American States, a footnote to what America wants in the Americas or to more significant economic arrangements like the North America Free Trade Agreement, among the United States, Canada and Mexico.

This is not a prediction, which is easy enough to make, especially as one would not be there at the long end.

It is a call for serious discussion. Which means looking back. And looking forward only by intimating what can be expected, not just from the past but particularly from the present form.

In any discussion on Asean there is always, coming largely from a domestic predisposition, this desire to be positive and not critical. The arguments largely run as follows: just imagine what it would be like if there were no Asean; it is no mean feat that Asean has been able to exist these past fifty years; and, look what has happened elsewhere which shows how Asean wisdom has ensured its survival.

Actually there is no wisdom involved. If you go by the lowest common denominator (usually Cambodia) and operate by consensus (no member state will join the consensus to expel itself, let’s say Myanmar for gross violation of Rohingya human rights), there is no doubt Asean will continue to exist.

A mediocre Asean is of course better than no Asean at all. But is it good enough?

It is like saying it is good to be sub-optimal. Just imagine if in class you are urged not to excel but to aim to be just average. You might then be lucky to be below par. Which Asean is.

Hang on a minute. Let us be realistic. We are talking about an association of states here, even if they are pretending to be a community of nations. Thus average is good. As long as Asean continues to exist.

Even if this argument is accepted, the question must be answered: exist to do what?

There are many objectives on copious amounts of paper. Every year, every few years, there are more plans, more strategic objectives. There are so many journeys and destinations, but no time or point of arrival.

As the end of 2015 approached, when the Asean Community was to be pronounced, that was explained to be only a milestone. True enough, establishing a community is a long process that takes time.

However, it is not remiss to ask, at that point in 2015, what was supposed to be in place?

The Asean hard sell is, if it were one single economy, it would be the seventh largest in the world, and would become the fourth largest by 2030 or so, which assumes present level of growth. It is the third largest single market in the world, with a largely under-35 population of almost 630 million.

But is it a single economy and single market? Is it a single production base with free movement of goods and services, capital and skilled labour?

Asean gets very economical with the truth about these things, and talks about near zero tariffs when non-tariff barriers are formidable (for example, the very next thing after the Asean Economic Community was declared, Indonesia and Vietnam introduced barriers to the entry of food products into their markets).

True enough, in 2016 Asean revived the Asean Trade Facilitation Joint Consultative Committee for, of course, trade facilitation and removal of this and that barrier. It was totally unrelated to what Indonesia and Vietnam, or anybody else for that matter, had done. It was one of those general things Asean is very good at doing.

Nobody looks at anyone in the eye at any Asean meeting and says: look, this is not on.

Of course there is this excellent portal called ASSIST (Asean Solutions for Investments, Services and Trade), launched last year but limited to trade complaints, where unfair barriers encountered in a particular country can be posted six months after determination of their validity, but the complainant is out on his own.

There is no protection against future victimisation by the aggrieved country. There is no action proposed against the recalcitrant member state, the first or the next time around. For as long as Asean is not a rules-based but a consensus-based organisation, it will not be effective.

Stand for something

The Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, established in 2009, is only a consultative body.

It is supposed to promote and protect human rights. It does little promotion and gives no protection.

We can read various articles in the Asean Charter and in key Asean documents that refer to human rights, but we see gross violation of human rights in a number of Asean member states – such as Myanmar and Cambodia – against which no action is, or can be taken, in running with the debilitating consensus principle.

The Asean Regional Forum comprising 27 members, including North Korea, was set up by Asean in 1994 to have a dialogue on defence matters – but nothing specific, mind you. Would North Korea be sanctioned, or even expelled, at the next meeting for its rogue state conduct? Do not bet on it.

Malaysia’s current difficulties with North Korea and its extra-territorial murderous activities have not got even a squeak of support or condemnation from any Asean country – all now members of the Asean Political-Security Community.

Asean cannot go on with: easy does it. It must stand for something. It must BE something.

We know how Asean has come close to nothing when it comes to taking a stand on the South China Sea disputes some of its member states have with China. In 2012, just one member state – Cambodia, the last of the 10 to be a member in 1999, with membership of just 18 years as Asean celebrates its 50th anniversary – caused Asean to fail even to come out with its usual declarations because, as the chair that year, it acted as a total client state of China.

Cambodia has not been admonished for this damage it did to Asean. In fact Prime Minister Hun Sen was accorded the “Lifetime Achievement Award” by a Malaysian so-called think-tank! Indeed Hun Sen frequently lectures Asean leaders at many meetings on how to run regional affairs. A well-known Indonesian recently related at a conference how a survey conducted by his grassroots organisation found that only 3% of the people in his country knew anything about Asean.

This is appalling for a people-centric socio-cultural community – in its largest member state to boot.

This shows how the so, so many words in Asean can come to nothing. In this instance it is clear they have not reached the people.

Why? There is just too much of it – and it is ALL in English. The people-centric Asean has not thought to get down to the ground and reach the people. No one has suggested an extensive programme to reach the people in the member states in their respective languages.

English may be Asean’s official language, but it is not used or understood among the vast majority of Asean peoples.

Indeed so many of the Asean MSMEs (micro, small and medium enterprises) are run by people who are not proficient in English.

They have not found out which Asean government department to reach and what product is tariff-free, let alone which markets are most lucrative and how to negotiate non-tariff barriers.

Bringing Asean close to the people means making it real to them. Making it meaningful to them.

This has not happened, whereas the Asean Socio-Cultural Community is pronounced as being in existence. Even simple proposals such as Asean lanes at airports or having an Asean Business Travel Card have not been uniformly or properly implemented.

There are therefore in Asean, as it reaches 50, and looks ahead to the next half century, so many gaping holes that can only be filled by first looking at and admitting to them. The tendency to be defensive and self-satisfied perpetuates an Asean that exists but does not live.

To make Asean alive, there needs to be leadership. Where does it come from?

It must come from the leaders, especially the chair who leads them on a rotating basis. There must be continuity which the secretariat must ensure when the next chair comes along.

But first, at 50, there must be a restatement by Asean on what it stands for, where it is and where it wants to go. This year’s summits, one next month and the other in November, must not therefore be self-congratulatory and paper over differences with meaningless words.

Asean must strengthen its institutions and become a truly rules-based organisation.

True Asean leadership will recognise this and set the association on a course to achieve it. In the way it exists and operates now, Asean risks being a minnow blown about in an uncertain, complicated and disorderly world. Asean was not set up to suffer this ignominy, but to carve out a place for its region based on peace, mutual respect and prosperity.

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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