ASEAN@40 – Reflections and Re-orientations

Updated On: Aug 10, 2007

Four decades of Asean’s existence as a regional organisation, its member states and its public are re-evaluating its progress and looking forward to the symbolic strengthening that will come with its new Charter.

While its leaders are relatively satisfied with the Association’s achievements, the reality looks different when one includes the viewpoints of the media, academia, non-governmental organisations and the general public.

It is widely acknowledged that Asean was inspired by Cold War security challenges, to manage regional conflicts, and spur mutual cooperation. Since the Association began, no Asean members have fought each other. They also set up the Asean Free Trade Area (AFTA) to encourage trade and mutual investment and to make itself attractive to foreign investors. As a result, trade between Asean members is mostly duty-free and tariffs are being dismantled.  With a regional trade coalition in hand, Asean has courted its larger neighbours India and China, and is negotiating various trade agreements with economic heavyweights like JapanAustralia and the EU. On Asean’s initiative, the Asean + 3 and the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) were formed. Without Asean, the ARF’s membership would not have been graced by the inclusion of all major world powers (including U.S.RussiaChinaIndia and Japan) to make it a premier platform for security dialogue in the Asia-Pacific.  In some ways, Asean has encouraged both internal integration as well as external cooperation.

Yet even in the best light, its achievements are limited. As the Thai News Service noted, in the area of economic cooperation, Asean has not tackled non-tariff barriers and much more needs to be done -  harmonising product standards and customs procedures, free movement of professionals, and open more sectors for investment. The fact that regional integration has been relatively slow is even more shocking when one considers that Asean holds about 700 meetings each year, with each meeting lasting roughly two days, “essentially [translating] into a revolving cycle of routine statements and little follow-up for the roughly 120 professionals at the Asean Secretariat and a couple of dozen Asean officials at each national secretariat.”

While some of its leaders may still be hesitant, there are various factors that will spur Asean to integrate. PM Lee warned on Tuesday that, “many investors today see Asean as 10 isolated, scattered national economies, too small to be worth paying attention to. If Asean's integration stagnates while the rest of Asia forges ahead, we will be left behind and become irrelevant”.  He continued to argue that “credibility begins from within” and Asean has to put its own house in order and fulfil its various commitments. 

In addition to Asean’s deficient integration and its need to improve effectiveness and credibility, Surin Pitsuwan also noted various endemic issues. Quoted AFP, he said “The problems of poverty, lack of opportunity, illiteracy, lack of human resource development are the first priorities for all of us because they are the root causes of all other problems that we have in the region.” Forty years on, Asean must renew its resolve to tackle a myriad of challenges.

There have also been complaints about Asean’s elitism. Only its leaders, many of whom are not selected by the most democratic of means, have had a say in the process of regionalisation. Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong said “A common Asean identity is very gradually emerging, although more can still be done to make Asean relevant to the lives of its ordinary people, and instil in them a deeper sense of belonging and community,” reported the Straits Times. Malaysia PM Abdullah Badawi also expressed hope that ASEAN “must prioritise programmes aimed at forging closer ties among Asean citizens.

International relations expert Hariyadi Wirawan said ASEAN was not “down to earth” enough to shape people’s welfare. According to the Jakarta Post, Yanti Sulistyowati, an Indonesian from Central Jakarta, reacted to Asean’s 40th anniversary with surprise, saying “Wow it is old enough already. But where has it been all this time? Sorry, I can't feel (anything for) it.”  This perhaps is an indication of how detached the Association was from the public.

On tackling this matter, Asean states are divided. The leaders who are elected democratically tend to promote a more inclusive decision-making process, whereas those elected less democratically are worried about opening the floodgates for more participation.   

On a positive note, Asean has a plan. Come November, Asean leaders will gather in Singapore to finalise, among other things, the Asean Charter and a blueprint for economic integration.  Asean intends to rejuvenate itself with a Charter that will make it a rules-based, community-focused organisation. However, how much this is realised depends entirely on political will, for without it, Singapore's ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh, pointed out that the charter would “remain a piece of paper”, reported the Business Times..

The Singapore summit also has significant wide-ranging issues on its cards, including protection of the environment, climate change and sustainable development.

As Asean enters a chapter of great expectations, perhaps the Thai charm (alluding to the appointment of Surin Pitsuwan as the next Asean Secretary-General)  will augment its endeavours. After all, as the Bangkok Post observed, it was the Thai Foreign Office that first drafted the formation of Asean, it was Thai PM Anand Panyarachun who proposed the AFTA in 1992, and it was under Thailand’s chairmanship that the first ARF meeting convened in 1994. Surin Pitsuwan, was Thailand’s Foreign Minister during its Asean chairmanship. Under the new Charter, said Asean secretary general Ong Keng Yong, the new Sec-Gen will “have a clear direction and have more of a mandate on what he or she should do”, and would be able to “act as Asean representative in the international community”, quoted the Straits Times.

Four decades ago, Asean leaders came together and germinated the idea that integration would improve the lives of Asean peoples. That idea has since grown, expanded, and captivated the minds of people in the region. Asean leaders must now make some difficult decisions, for because of their general dominance over decision making processes, its media, academics, and civil society groups will hold them responsible for fulfilling (or failing) to make good their promises. (9 August 2007)


Asean has record of achievements as well as weaknesses (Thai News Service, 9th Aug 2007)

No longer new kid on the block, ASEAN to speak with louder voice (Thai News Service, 9th Aug 2007)

ASEAN: Building a more cohesive and stronger ASEAN (Thai News Service, 9th Aug 2007)

ASEAN cooperation deepens in all fields (Thai News Service, 9th Aug 2007)

Asean at 40: sights set high (The Nationa, 9th Aug 2007)

Asean's Strength Has The World's Attention (ChinaDaily, 9th Aug 2007)

Taking stock of Asean (Business Times Singapore, 9th Aug 2007)

Minister celebrates Asean's 40th birthday (Brunei Times, 9th Aug 2007)

Human rights in Asean (Manila Standard Today, 9th Aug 2007)

ASEAN's 40th birthday leaves many with little to celebrate (Jakarta Post, 9th Aug 2007)

Achievements, future challenges (The Jakarta Post, 8th Aug 2007)

Asean at 40: sights set high (The Nation, 8th Aug 2007)Asean: Still attractive at 40 (Straits Times, 8th Aug 2007)

Focus / 40th Anniversary Of The Founding Of The Association Of Southeast Asian Nations; Building on modest beginnings (Bangkok Post, 8th Aug 2007)

Summitturns grouping into an organization’ (The Jakarta Post, 8th Aug 2007)

Asean Must Integrate To Survive, Says Pm Lee (Bernama, 8th Aug 2007)

Charter must be agreeable to all members: PM Lee (Straits Times, 8th Aug 2007)

PM Lee urges closer Asean integration (Business Times Singapore, 8th Aug 2007)

PM calls on Asean to take decisive action (Straits Times, 8th Aug 2007)

PM: Adopt Asean Charter soon for unity sake (New Straits Times, 8th Aug 2007)

The end of ASEAN (The Jakarta Post, 8th Aug 2007)

ASEAN hangs together at 40 and beyond (The Jakarta Post, 8th Aug 2007)

It's time to question ASEAN's consensus model (The Jakarta Post, 8th Aug 2007)

Asean Has Much Work To Do (BangkokPost, 8th Aug 2007)

Pitsuwan: Asean should avoid becoming elitist (AFP, 8th Aug 2007)

ASEAN must work harder to deepen regional integration: PM Lee (Channel Newsasia, 7th Aug 2007)

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