“Race” for a new ASEAN Secretary-General while old challenges remain

Updated On: May 22, 2007

Myanmar continues to keep ASEAN in the media spotlight- for the wrong reasons.

As the date approaches for the Myanmar government to review the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, there is likely to be increased international media attention paid not only on the behaviour of the Myanmar government but also on ASEAN.

Both the Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Albar and the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) have called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest when her term of house arrest is reviewed on 27 May.  Syed Hamid Albar told reporters, “ASEAN countries must act together. There cannot (just) be some ASEAN countries that may be sympathetic towards what is happening (in Myanmar).” He added, “Every time they [the Myanmar government] make new arrests or the arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi continues, not only Myanmar is questioned, the whole of ASEAN is questioned… I think Myanmar has to be sympathetic towards the predicament of ASEAN countries.”

The AIPMC said in a statement sent to The Jakarta Post on Thursday, “We are deeply concerned that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will not be released when her term under house arrest comes up for review on May 27.” Yet despite being an ASEAN caucus, the AIPMC seems to have lost confidence in the capacity of ASEAN to effect changes. Instead, AIPMC member Djoko Susilo told the Jakarta Post, “We hope that as the UN Security Council president, Indonesiawill discuss a solution for this issue. It's up to the Indonesian government as to whether or not the solution is in the form of a UN resolution or another initiative.”

Notwithstanding the problems over Myanmar, one silver lining within ASEAN is the improving bilateral ties among some of its members. The recent Singapore- Malaysia leaders’ retreat at Langkawi suggested both leaders are willing to put aside some of the bilateral bogies to work on common areas of interests. The director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore and former Singapore’s High Commission to Malaysia, K Kesavapany noted in a column that the ‘Economic advancement, even when it is made within the framework of bilateral relations, bodes well for Asean as a whole. Such advancement contributes to overall regional cohesion, which in turn attracts investment interest from other parts of the world.”

Indonesia and Malaysia are also working together to discuss the problems of Indonesian domestic helpers running away from Malaysian homes. The Malaysian Home Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Radzi Sheikh Ahmed told the Malaysian Parliament that up to the end of April, 68,138 Indonesian maids had fled the homes of their employers. To reduce Malaysia’s reliance on Indonesian workers, the Malaysian government is considering allowing the recruitment of maids from IndiaLaos,NepalVietnamTimor Kazakhstan and Turkistan.

Singapore and Indonesia’s ties are slowly improving after both sides signed an extradition treaty and Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) on 27 April. Nonetheless, there remains work to be done with both sides not having agreed on the details of how to implement the DCA. A signing ceremony between the respective chiefs of the armies, navies and air forces was postponed indefinitely. Some Indonesian parliamentarians have already criticised the DCA as being a concession for Singapore to sign the extradition treaty.

The improvement of political ties within ASEAN will be crucial as ASEAN prepares for economic integration. Indonesian Trade Minister Mari Pangestu urged ASEAN economies to speed up their own economic integration in order to play a role in the wider Asian region. ASEAN is currently involved in several ASEAN+1 arrangements, involving ChinaSouth KoreaJapanAustralia and New Zealand. However, the terms of these ‘+1’ arrangements differ. Pangestu explained that ASEAN members must agree to the format of these arrangements so that “there will be a smooth flow of goods, services and investment, which will eventually contribute to the Asian economic growth.”

While ASEAN has a role to play in drawing the wider region together, it, in turn, is facing competitive threats from two Asian economies- India and China. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) produced a 107-page report- “Labour and Social Trends in Asean 2007: Integration, Challenges, Opportunities” - for the ASEAN Senior Labour Officials Meeting, showing that, “Between 2000 and 2005, output per worker in ASEAN grew only 15.5 per cent, compared to 26.9 per cent in India and 63.4 per cent in China.”

The report also revealed that more than half of the ASEAN workforce was still below the poverty level. In 2006, more than 148 million of ASEAN’s 263 million workers lived below the poverty line of US$2 per person per day.

How to tackle Myanmar, foster closer ties internally and promote economic integration- these will be the challenges facing the next ASEAN Secretary-General.Thailand has announced that three candidates have been short-listed for the position of ASEAN Secretary-General. These candidates are former Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan, former ambassador to the United Nations Luxana Chandhorn and diplomat Xanaspas Xuto. The Thai selection committee will interview the three candidates in the middle of June before recommending one to the Foreign Ministry who will in turn submit the nominee to the Government House.

In a separate event, Surin Pitsuwan told a forum in Singapore while he believed that Singapore's economic prosperity and achievements could help Asean grow as a whole, he warned against the Republic ‘coming on too strong’. He said that the challenge for Singapore in ASEAN would be how to drive positive change without making others feel imposed upon.

Unfortunately what Pitsuwan didn’t say was, should he be the next Secretary-General, how would he push ASEAN forward to meet the challenges of the changing international economy without taking too long to forge consensus internally.  (21 May 2007)


Malaysia Urges ASEAN Unity on Suu Kyi’s Detention (Agence France Presse, 21 May 2007)

Three in Race for ASEAN Post (The Nation, 19 May 2007)

ASEAN Needs to Speed Up Economic Integration: Minister (Antara, 18 May 2007)

ASEAN Lawmakers Demand Release of Suu Kyi (Jakarta Post, 18 May 2007)

S’pore- KL Team Good For ASEAN (Straits Times, 18 May 2007)

Regional integration will be a challenge to Asean: Surin(Straits Times, 18 May 2007)

ASEAN Must Boost Productivity to Fend Off India and China (Nation, 18 May 2007)

Jakarta’s Defense Pact With Singapore Hits Snag (Straits Times, 17 May 2007)

RI, Malaysia To Discuss Indonesian Workers’ Problems (Antara, 16 May 2007)

Talks With Indonesia To Iron Out Maid Issues (New Straits Times, 16 May 2007)