ASEAN MUST DE­LIVER RESULTS

It needs to re­visit non-in­ter­fer­ence prin­ci­ple, step up its game beyond up­dat­ing info on its web­site

New Straits Times - - Opinion - si­na­tra@isis.org.my The writer is an­a­lyst (For­eign Pol­icy and Se­cu­rity Stud­ies), In­sti­tute of Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies Malaysia

THE month of Au­gust is re­garded as the month of “in­de­pen­dence” by ci­ti­zens of Malaysia, Sin­ga­pore and In­done­sia. But, how many of us know that yes­ter­day was the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions’ (Asean) 50th an­niver­sary?

This lack of public aware­ness is one of the is­sues fac­ing the re­gional group­ing af­ter 50 years of ex­is­tence. In re­cent times, too, Brexit has in­ad­ver­tently gen­er­ated ques­tions re­gard­ing the util­ity of, if not out­right ap­pre­hen­sion to­wards, re­gional group­ings world­wide, Asean in­cluded.

Fur­ther­more, there is a grow­ing rest­less­ness over Asean’s role and sig­nif­i­cance in an in­creas­ingly tur­bu­lent Asia-Pa­cific theatre, where ma­jor power in­ter­ests col­lide and com­ple­ment si­mul­ta­ne­ously. Against this back­drop, Asean needs to mend its cracks if it were to sur­vive and re­tain its rel­e­vance for the next 50 years.

Asean’s lack of lead­er­ship predica­ment has re­sulted in it be­ing por­trayed as a “talk shop” that fails to de­liver when it matters. Some of the frus­tra­tions stem from In­done­sia’s de­plet­ing lead­er­ship over Asean. The coun­try’s sta­tus as the de facto leader of the group­ing has slowly but steadily faded from mem­ory since the fall of Suharto’s ad­min­is­tra­tion. Many hopes have been ex­pressed about In­done­sia’s re­sump­tion of lead­er­ship in this dif­fi­cult era.

What Asean needs is agenda ex­e­cu­tion. The var­i­ous po­lit­i­calse­cu­rity, eco­nomic and so­cio-cul­tural pri­or­i­ties laid out in the 2025 blue­prints re­quire a proac­tive ad­min­is­tra­tor to im­ple­ment the pro­grammes and to push the 10-mem­ber states to walk the talk.

While the Asean Sec­re­tariat ar­guably has the strate­gic po­si­tion to as­sume this role, it still needs to tackle the sys­temic prob­lems of be­ing un­der­funded and un­der­staffed. A case can be made for the fi­nan­cial em­pow­er­ment of the sec­re­tariat to act as the prime mover of Asean’s agenda.

How­ever, the sec­re­tariat could ex­pe­dite the process by em­bark­ing on ef­fi­ciency ef­forts, such as by re­duc­ing the num­ber of meet­ings in five-star ho­tels, to al­low the re-chan­nelling of cap­i­tal and hu­man re­sources to pro­gramme im­ple­men­ta­tion.

The sec­re­tariat needs to re­visit its sacro­sanct “non-in­ter­fer­ence” prin­ci­ple if it were to de­liver con­crete results. Granted, mem­ber states’ sovereignty must not be tin­kered with, but the transna­tional na­ture of con­tem­po­rary threats makes this prin­ci­ple less fea­si­ble to up­hold at all costs.

The an­nual trans­bound­ary haze and the on­go­ing Marawi con­flict pro­vide ex­am­ples of the need for some mea­sure of com­pro­mise. If, af­ter 50 years of ex­is­tence, Asean only suc­ceeds in pro­duc­ing sub-op­ti­mum results in tack­ling re­gional chal­lenges such as these, then it is im­per­a­tive for its lead­er­ship to al­lay fears of its grow­ing ir­rel­e­vance by (re)ini­ti­at­ing a di­a­logue on non­in­ter­fer­ence.

De­liv­er­ing results must be com­ple­mented with pro­mot­ing the Asean brand. Asean must step up its game in pro­mot­ing its im­age beyond up­dat­ing in­for­ma­tion on its web­site and so­cial me­dia. It can ex­po­nen­tially am­plify its public pres­ence at a rel­a­tively low cost by con­sid­er­ing two in­ter­re­lated con­cepts — cap­i­tal­ism and public de­mand.

Sev­eral South­east Asian com­pa­nies have co-opted Asean’s brand for mu­tual ben­e­fits. AirAsia, for ex­am­ple, has helped Asean’s name and logo to soar high over South­east Asia, while also fos­ter­ing re­gion-wide con­nec­tiv­ity for ev­ery­one to en­joy.

Sim­i­larly, CIMB has utilised Asean’s brand in its var­i­ous com­mer­cials and en­abled in­ter­con­nected bank­ing in nine out of 10 mem­ber states.

There is still am­ple po­ten­tial in en­gag­ing the pri­vate sec­tor to fa­cil­i­tate con­nec­tiv­ity, eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity and con­sump­tion. Asean can fur­ther boost its im­age by es­tab­lish­ing a part­ner­ship with ride-hail­ing ser­vices such as Grab and GO-JEK, or by per­suad­ing re­gion-wide com­pa­nies like May­bank, Agoda, and Ax­i­ata to in­cor­po­rate its im­age and phi­los­o­phy into their ad­ver­tise­ments and prod­ucts.

Food chains like McDon­ald’s, which re­cently launched its Nasi Le­mak Burger in Sin­ga­pore, could be con­scripted to pro­mote a mem­ber state’s lo­cal food in an­other.

In any case, Asean should deepen its co­op­er­a­tion with com­pa­nies that can pop­u­larise its im­age among the South­east Asian public. Yet to gain these com­pa­nies’ con­fi­dence, Asean must demon­strate its ca­pa­bil­ity to ac­cel­er­ate re­gional eco­nomic in­te­gra­tion that can ben­e­fit their busi­nesses.

Last but not least is to pre­serve the crum­bling im­age of unity. Asean is fac­ing desta­bil­is­ing pres­sures from in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal forces that could po­ten­tially un­der­mine the group’s essence. China’s diplo­matic of­fence on two fronts in the re­gion — the South China Sea and the colossal eco­nomic as­sis­tance — sits in stark con­trast to the United States’ em­bry­onic South­east Asia pol­icy un­der the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion,

forc­ing mem­ber states to re­cal­i­brate their re­spec­tive for­eign pol­icy po­si­tions.

The fate of Asean’s unity de­pends much on the method utilised by its 10-mem­ber states to ad­dress these is­sues. This is why a har­monised strate­gic cul­ture that en­com­passes all three pil­lars of Asean’s dy­nam­ics is more per­ti­nent than ever. Without a shared per­cep­tion and com­mon as­pi­ra­tion to solve col­lec­tive prob­lems, each coun­try will ven­ture out on its own to ad­dress chal­lenges that can only be con­fronted by the col­lab­o­ra­tion of 10 weak states in South­east Asia.

Asean’s chal­lenges are an­a­lysed in greater depth by some of the bright­est minds on Asean in the up­com­ing pub­li­ca­tion by the In­sti­tute of Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies Malaysia. Ti­tled “Asean Fu­ture For­ward”, it is a com­pi­la­tion of es­says that con­sid­ers the long-term fu­ture and strate­gic is­sues of Asean in the next 50 years, while also of­fer­ing pre­scrip­tions for how Asean and its ci­ti­zens could sus­tain peace and pros­per­ity in chal­leng­ing times.

It is hoped that when the book launches on Aug 28, it could con­trib­ute to the over­all shift in paradigm that will make Asean not only rel­e­vant to cur­rent po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic con­sid­er­a­tions, but also to its 620 mil­lion peo­ple, to whom it owes its true al­le­giance.

Philip­pines For­eign Sec­re­tary Alan Peter Cayetano (right) and Asean Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Le Luong Minh un­veil­ing a paint­ing of the found­ing fa­thers of the re­gional group­ing dur­ing the open­ing cer­e­mony of the 50th Asean Re­gional Fo­rum meet­ing in Manila re­cently. There is a grow­ing rest­less­ness over Asean’s role.

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