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Integrating ASEAN without solidarity?

Updated On: Feb 13, 2007

At the recent ASEAN summit in January, the ASEAN leaders met and declared their solidarity and willingness to work towards further integration by endorsing the Eminent Persons Group’s blueprint for an ASEAN Charter, and appointing a High Level Task Force to see to the drafting of the Charter.

The former ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino and Joergen Oerstroem Moeller, former Danish Ambassador to SingaporeBruneiAustralia and NZ,  in their recent commentary, praised the move towards an ASEAN Charter. However, they stressed that the Charter should be seen as “a step rather than the end of the road.” They warned that new institutions would have to be created not only to drive integration in ASEAN but also to serve as a watchdog to ensure that obligations were respected. 

Following the summit was the ASEAN Tourism ministers meeting, and then the ASEAN Transport Ministers. The latter agreed to liberalise air travel among the ASEAN capitals by 2008. Other protocols such as that to facilitate air transport and the full liberalization of air freight services as well as “unhindered access and movement of goods vehicles over designated highway routes.” Singapore and Malaysia have further agreed to work towards an earlier deadline (by 2007) to free up air travel between Singapore and Malaysia. Given that travel within ASEAN constitutes 45% of tourist arrivals, the liberalisation of air travel will play a key role in promoting tourism, greater connectivity and hence integration.

There are, however, warning signs that all might not be well within ASEAN. At least two articles have highlighted the recent “bashing” of Singapore by her ASEAN neighbours. The Economist’s article (“Let’s All Bash Singapore”) noted how the Thai football team at the first leg of the ASEAN football championship has followed the example of their military-run government in walking out of the pitch for fifteen minutes in the game (before returning). The Thai government has cancelled high-level meetings with Singapore officials and even warned their soldiers to stop using their mobiles and use walkie-talkies instead. The Indonesian government has banned the export of sand to Singapore. Some members of the Malaysian government have blamed the cause of floods in Johor (southern Malaysia) on Singapore’s reclamation. The Economist concluded that “it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the little country’s unforgivable offense is being richer and more successful than its neighbours, and not particularly apologetic about it.”

Warren Fernandez, the Deputy Editor and the Foreign Editor of the Singapore Straits Times wrote in another commentary in the Straits Times, blaming the spate of Singapore bashing on “the wild card of nationalism.” He warned that ASEAN leaders would have to “do much more to take the group beyond being just a loose association of states which come together every so often simply to talk about the pressing need to get together.”  Indeed, nationalism and protectionism, which seem to be on the rise can be a dampener on integration and make a mockery of regionalism.  (12 February 2007)

Sources:

Let’s All Bash Singapore (The Economist, 8 February 2007)

Free Up Air Links Earlier: S’pore (Straits Times, 9 February 2007)

What’s Behind ‘Triple Whammy’ Attacks on S’pore? (Straits Times, 10 February 2007)

A Significant Step in the Right Direction (Straits Times, 10 February 2007)

Working Towards Asian Integration (Business Times Singapore, 10 February 2007)