ASEAN: Is There a Point To It?

Sholto Byrnes takes a closer look at the ASEAN identity and asks if it's more a name for a cluster of neighbouring countries than a beneficial union.
Tuesday 20 March 2018
Photo: Getty Images

The 8th of August 2017 should have been an auspicious day in this region, for it marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Half a century ago, senior ministers from Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines holed up in a Thai beach resort and, after a few days of golf diplomacy, emerged ready to sign the Bangkok Declaration.

If its aims were ambitious – nothing less than for the nations of Southeast Asia “to bind themselves together in friendship and cooperation and, through joint efforts and sacrifices, secure for their peoples and for posterity the blessings of peace, freedom and prosperity” – there are many who believe they have, to a huge extent, been met.

And yet 8 August appeared to pass with little or no fanfare, in Malaysia at least. A “50th Anniversary Celebration” was held in Suria KLCC on the 14th – six days later – but it was a relatively low-key occasion, with quizzes for children and cultural dance performances, rather than a grand event that commanded the nation’s attention. There was far more excitement over the Southeast Asian Games later in the month, which ended with a colourful closing ceremony in a packed Bukit Jalil Stadium.

It was all something of a contrast to 2015 when Malaysia chaired ASEAN. As world leaders flew into Kuala Lumpur for the summit which culminated in the Declaration on the Establishment of the ASEAN Community, there was a sense that the association really mattered.

Didn’t it have the third largest workforce in the world, after China and India? Wasn’t it already collectively the seventh largest economy in the world (it is now the sixth), and predicted to be the fourth largest, after the US, China and the European Union (EU) by 2050 – or even 2030, according to JP Morgan?

Then US president Barack Obama certainly seemed to think it was important. During the November summit he agreed to upgrade the US-ASEAN relationship to a “strategic partnership” and invited the association’s leaders to join him at the Sunnylands retreat in California the following February – a meeting the White House described as an “unprecedented gathering”.

There was talk of ASEAN as a new “third force”. David Lipton, the First Deputy Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) praised it as “one of the success stories of the modern era.”

“In two generations,” he said, “it has risen from poverty to prosperity. In doing this, ASEAN has set an example for developing countries around the globe that aspire to economic progress.”

Two years on, however, the buzz and the momentum appear to have dissipated. What, if anything, does the ASEAN Community actually mean to the people of Southeast Asia? A survey conducted last October by Ateneo de Davao University in the Philippines found that 83.7% of Davao City residents had no awareness at all of ASEAN integration. And this was during the year that their most famous son, President Rodrigo Duterte, was the organisation’s chair.

Precisely because consciousness of the association is low, it needs to be asked: what benefits has ASEAN brought to its people, and how will it impact their lives in the future? Ultimately, if it did not exist, would it be necessary to invent it today?

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Photo: Getty Images


To cheerleaders like Kishore Mahbubani, the answer is simple: ASEAN represents “the most successful regional cooperation of the Third World”. The founding Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and a former ambassador to the UN, Mahbubani published a book last year titled The ASEAN Miracle. That makes his sympathies plain; but as long ago as 1998 he was writing in his first collection of essays, Can Asians Think?, of “the magic provided by ASEAN in delivering political stability and harmony to Southeast Asia. Despite having greater ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural diversity than Southeast Europe, the region remained an oasis of peace in the 1990s while the Balkans erupted into a frenzy of ethnic and religious killings. ASEAN saved Southeast Asia, especially during the 1997 Asian financial crisis… And it is at the heart of the alphabet soup of regional processes that have provided the foundations for even wider regional cooperation.”

Rather than ASEAN emulating the EU, according to Mahbubani, there are lessons “the EU should learn from ASEAN”.

This view that ASEAN has “saved” the region from otherwise inevitable division and war is not entirely universally accepted. Some point to the ancient empires that crossed today’s boundaries – Srivijaya and Majapahit, or the archipelagic concept of Nusantara, a vast area encompassing the “Malay-type” peoples as far as the Pacific. A type of regional unity was there before, they say, until disrupted by the colonial powers.

Others point to the fact that joint ASEAN membership did not stop the border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over the ownership of the 11th century Preah Vihear Temple. The conflict escalated, several times between 2008 and 2011, into military clashes in which up to over one hundred died and thousands were evacuated.

Nevertheless, it is widely felt that ASEAN deserves credit for the general absence of inter-state strife in the region. The five founding members, according to Endy M Bayuni, Editor-in-Chief of the Jakarta Post, “worked out the perfect way to overcome their differences and their territorial disputes: put them aside, sweep them under the carpet.” And this formula has, as he said, mostly “survived the test of time as the group expanded over the years”.

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Photo: Getty Images


When it comes to the ASEAN Community, however, there are areas in which its ambitions will have a hard job ever being realised. The ASEAN Political-Security Community Blueprint, for example, “envisages ASEAN to be a rules-based Community of shared values and norms”, while The ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community pillar “seeks to forge a common identity” across the ten nations. Shared values. A common identity. How can they be created or agreed in a bloc in which religious identification has been growing to the extent that the Thai commentator Kavi Chongkittavorn has warned of a Muslim-majority versus Buddhist-majority divide in the region?

What ASEAN-wide values are shared by the dominant Bamar in Myanmar, who are so prejudiced against Islam that even Aung San Suu Kyi’s supposedly liberal and reformist National League for Democracy refused to allow any Muslims to stand for the party in the last parliamentary elections (never mind Myanmar’s appalling treatment of the Rohingya)?

What ASEAN-wide values were shared by the crowds in Indonesia who howled for the former Governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama or “Ahok”, to be jailed for blasphemy – largely because he was an ethnic Chinese Christian? (A senior member of the country’s largest Muslim organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama, no less, pointed out that Ahok’s quoting of a Quranic verse had been taken out of context for political reasons. The case was not really about defending Islam.)


Likewise, a common identity appeared to be absent in 2015 when Singapore complained about the hazardous haze from forest fires in Sumatra. Indonesia’s Vice President Jusuf Kalla responded that Singaporeans had “suffered because of the haze for one month and they get upset.” They were being “like children, in such a tizzy,” he said, retorting that “for 11 months, they enjoyed nice air from Indonesia and they never thanked us.”

And a “rules-based Community” must first be able to agree just what those rules are, something that ASEAN has little success in doing when dealing with China’s extensive claims in the South China Sea. The issue proved so divisive in 2012 that when the association’s foreign ministers met in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, the proceedings ended without a joint communique being issued – for the first time in ASEAN’s history.

If, as the history of Malaysia suggests, forging a common identity and shared values that transcend race and religion can be a Herculean task in one country alone, how realistic is it to expect that such utopian goals can ever be reached among the ten nations of ASEAN?

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One area in which ASEAN’s efforts ought to be more tangible and measurable is the third pillar of ASEAN – the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). Formally established on 31 December 2015, the AEC is envisaged to be “a highly integrated and cohesive economy” by 2025. As it is, tariff barriers between the different members states have already been virtually eliminated. (According to ASEAN, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand have eliminated intra-ASEAN import duties on 99.65% of their tariff lines, while Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam have reduced import duties to 0-5% on 98.86% of theirs.) This, surely, is a major achievement – even if it isn’t one which most citizens of ASEAN member states are particularly aware of.

But that, according to Firdaos Rosli, Director of Economics, Trade and Regional Integration at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia, is simply not enough. When I talked to him at his office, in an old colonial building nestling in the leafy surroundings of Kuala Lumpur’s Lake Gardens, I began by asking about the idea of the AEC as a common market.

“I think,” said Firdaos, “as far as the AEC is concerned, we have skipped a page in regional integration.” The problem, he said, is that whereas in the EU there is one external tariff for the whole union, every ASEAN member state sets its own for countries outside the bloc. Not only does that make trade with ASEAN far from seamless with the rest of the world, it also hinders member states trading with each other. (Intra-ASEAN trade has long been stuck at around 25% of the region’s global trade. In other words, ASEAN countries trade with the rest of the world far more than with each other – and despite all the talk of integration, the percentage is not increasing.) ASEAN trading with ASEAN, he said, is held back by the fact that “they have to comply with ten different sets of tariffs.”

Despite the relatively good news on internal ASEAN tariffs, non-tariff barriers (NTBs) and measures – other ways in which trade can be restricted – have been rising dramatically. At last April’s ASEAN summit in Manila, Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak pointed out that between 2000 and 2015, these NTBs and NTMs (non-tariff measures) actually rose from 1,634 to 6,975. “Huge coordinated efforts are required to deal with this problem,” he said.

Hold on, I said to Firdaos, this isn’t supposed to be what’s happening. What about advances such as the Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRAs) under which ASEAN countries mutually recognise certifications or qualifications in certain sectors such as engineering, accountancy and nursing? I should be able to qualify as an engineer in Malaysia and go and practise in the Philippines, yes?

Firdaos laughed. “Yes. But that’s not possible. You still have to comply with the local rules.” The MRAs, he said, are “like a tiger with no teeth.”

“So the idea that one day a lorry driver could set off from Vietnam, drive through Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia, all the way to Singapore, with one set of papers, is not quite there yet?” I asked.

“That’s going to take a long, long time!” he said. “Also, ad hoc rules and regulations sometimes appear out of nowhere. And some of our own rules are not even clear to our own people.”

The answer, according to Firdaos, is for ASEAN to form a customs union with one external tariff barrier. “That would be the ideal thing to do if we want to address non-tariff barriers. But being in a customs union is not easy because countries like Singapore have almost zero tariffs, compared with the CLMV countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) which have relatively high tariffs. So how do you put two and two together? Get CLMV to reduce and Singapore to increase? That would kill their industry in no time.”

So what difference is ASEAN and the AEC really making to businesses or the ordinary person? “To be fair to ASEAN, there are differences,” he said. “We have ASEAN colleagues here working with us [at ISIS Malaysia]. It would probably be a bit harder for them to get permits, say, ten years ago. For the Thai Tom Yam seller to open up a shop and operate here, that’s probably easier than it was ten years ago, but they still have very little incentive to do so.”

Why? “Because there are a lot of adjustments for them to make to comply with local permits, apply for licences, and get Thai workers in if they want to. It’s definitely much easier, but to say they’ll be similar licences to the ones in Thailand…. that’s probably not going to happen. It’s better, smoother, but not 100%.”

Given the structural problems stymying ASEAN integration – the lack of a will to form a customs union with all the harmonisation of rules that it would require – and the stark political fact that no member state is going to be willing to pool sovereignty in any significant way, are expectations of ASEAN simply too high?

Firdaos smiled wryly. “That’s the thing about analysts like me. We put so much pressure on ASEAN to do things that it is not empowered to do. We expect ASEAN to look and perform like a Ferrari, but it is in fact a Toyota. There’s a certain limit to what ASEAN can do. For us to expect it to run like a Ferrari is not being fair.”

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A couple of weeks later, I met Zaim Mohzani, a young community organiser who founded the Nation Building School in Kuala Lumpur and is part of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community. Over teh tarik in a Bangsar café, he acknowledges criticisms of ASEAN, but insists that the association is more needed than ever, and that talk of an overall identity is not misplaced – it just might not be quite what we expect it to be.

First the brickbats. Zaim is a member of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI). Set up under President Obama in 2013 as part of his “pivot” to Asia, it aims to be the US government’s signature programme “to strengthen leadership development and networking in Southeast Asia.” Zaim is a fan of the programme, but laments that it’s the US instead of ASEAN that has come up with it.

“The fact is the US State Department, through YSEALI, has been able to engage the 450 million youth population of ASEAN better than ASEAN itself,” he said. “YSEALI registered 55,000 members in the first two years. I think it’s up to 200,000 now. It’s embarrassing when ASEAN youth are meeting each other overseas through exchanges, study trips, etc, instead of through ASEAN itself.”

Isn’t that part of a greater failure to outreach, I said to Zaim.

I quote to him the words of Farish A Noor in ASEAN FutureForward, a recent collection of essays published to celebrate ASEAN’s 50th anniversary: “ASEAN strikes a resonant chord with academics, technocrats and policy-makers as they have been the ones most closely associated with the formation, development and study of this state-to-state, government-to-government entity from the very beginning.”

Zaim and I can relate to that, as we both regularly participate in ASEAN-related conferences. But Farish continued, “There is no point denying that on the ground level, there is relatively little awareness of ASEAN and its inner workings among the general public. The present generation of ASEAN citizens are more likely to recognise the symbols and logos of fast food restaurants and fashion items sold in malls than the ASEAN logo itself. I have rarely come across ordinary folk who can name me all the member states of ASEAN or tell me what the ASEAN anthem is called and sounds like.”

“Spot on!” laughed Zaim.

So whose responsibility is that? I ask. It’s surely not fair to blame the ASEAN secretariat which is small and under-resourced (just as a former ASEAN Secretary-General, the late Surin Pitsuwan, is said to have joked that his role was more “secretary” than “general”).

Zaim noded. The secretariat, he said, is “underfunded, understaffed – and located in an area of Jakarta that nobody seems able to find!”

Did he, during Malaysia’s chairmanship in 2015, share a sense of momentum and excitement – that the dawn of the ASEAN Community was the start of something new – only to feel somewhat deflated afterwards?

“I think you’re right,” he said. “When a host country takes over, so much happens in that country” – Zaim was a part of the ASEAN Young Leaders summit that November – “but not so much in other parts of ASEAN. And after the chair was handed over to Laos and then to the Philippines, that sense of excitement was no longer in Malaysia. That’s worrying.”

We know that ASEAN was formed to keep the peace and to allow member states to build their economies. But is that just an achievement of the past – can ASEAN really claim that as a purpose today? I ask. Zaim became animated.

“I think there’s an even more pressing need for ASEAN today. Because if you look at the levels of extremism and radicalism in this region, without the ASEAN network individual governments would struggle to take action to curb it. When Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia worked together to cripple Jemaah Islamiyah ten years ago, that was a fine example of how member states were able stop terrorism in our own backyard together.”

That collaboration was easier because of ASEAN?

“Yes, they were used to the framework, to talking to each other. There’s always that platform.”

“You know,” he said, “One vision, one community: it’s not easy because ASEAN has one of the biggest Muslim populations, it also has huge numbers of Buddhists, Christians and others. It’s a potpourri. You can’t compare it to the EU. ASEAN is unique.”


And here, I think, is the real nub of misunderstanding about ASEAN. The EU is considered by many to be the world’s most successful regional organisation (not by Eurosceptics, of course). It is often treated as a model to which all others should aspire to be. But ASEAN governments would never want their association to pursue “ever closer union” – a goal to which the EU is committed, and which was recently given new impetus by Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament, when he called for a United States of Europe to be created by 2025.

ASEAN governments would be loath, in fact, to cede any control to a supranational body such as ASEAN. So to berate ASEAN for not doing all that the EU does is a simple category error. It is a different beast altogether.

If ASEAN is not going to follow that path, which means there are definite limits to ongoing integration even if it is not clear exactly where those boundaries are now, what then is ASEAN at 50?

I had been much taken by the analysis of the Jakarta Post’s Endy M Bayuni. ASEAN countries, he wrote last July, often “have little in common other than the knowledge that their prosperity is closely tied because they are neighbours… the march towards a community, in the real sense of the word, will likely have to wait until these countries decide to come and live together under some shared principles and values.” Given that is neither a looming prospect, nor one that all members would even desire, he concludes: “For now, let’s be content with ASEAN being a neighbourhood.”

Not a community, or a “Community”, but a neighbourhood. That’s still something, I had thought. But what Zaim said next struck me as an even better analogy.

“A lot of what you see is a reflection of the people. They don’t necessarily need us to form an EU-like model. They’re happy as they are, with countries working together informally rather than government-to-government. More and more ASEAN networks are forming to talk about different areas,” he said. Zaim mentioned one in which “young people will come together in Singapore to discuss economic issues in the region – and then they will go back and do their own separate events in their countries.”

And then the key part: “Each country has its own sovereignty, but it’s an ASEAN family.”

Not a nuclear family, I said. An extended family?

“Correct. Uncle, aunty.”

Including poor relatives, wealthier ones, one you only exchange pleasantries with because of an obscure argument you had years ago, the distant cousin you hardly ever see – but still part of the family?

“Exactly. The rich uncle from Brunei and so on.” It may be a dysfunctional family at times, “but it’s still a family.”

Looked at that way, ASEAN makes sense. And even the supposedly missing sense of identity may be there after all. “A lot more people in this region are comfortable thinking of themselves as Southeast Asians, as compared to citizens of ASEAN. You can see this overseas, if you go to Australia, the UK or America, there are Southeast Asian associations comprising the countries of ASEAN.”

There is a genuine regional culture too, argued Zaim. “Whether you’re in Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, if you go to someone’s house, you take off your shoes. There’s respect for elders, prioritising harmony over conflict and community over individual rights. People may not be aware of ASEAN, but they are aware of friendship and the cultures of other countries. They talk about how proud they are to be from Southeast Asia. Not so much from ASEAN, because we don’t see it trickle down into everyday life.

“Even if you do,” he joked, “it’s probably part of a government KPI (key performance indicator) to promote ASEAN.”

But something is there, he said, and it’s vibrant.

An imperfect common market, not a customs union. A Toyota, not a Ferrari. A neighbourhood, not a community. It doesn’t quite live up to Kishore Mahbubani’s description of ASEAN as a “miracle… The higher it soars, the brighter it will become as a beacon for humanity.” But forming a family is not nothing. It may be far and away the most important thing most of us do throughout our lives. If ASEAN at 50 has become a family, that is an achievement worth celebrating – even if, last August, few of the relatives showed up for the festivities.

This feature first appeared in the April 2018 issue of UNRESERVED.