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Will Malaysia meet expectations as ASEAN’s chair?

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19 Mar Will Malaysia meet expectations as ASEAN’s chair?

Malaysia is in the spotlight this year. Global spectators are conscious that the formation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) will happen under PM Najib’s watch. Malaysia is under pressure to perform, but her chairmanship comes at a time when Malaysia is faced with economic problems fuelled by falling oil prices as well as domestic political crises. Despite these challenges, Malaysia cannot afford to be distracted – she has a pivotal role is driving ASEAN’s post-2015 agenda forward.

Malaysia’s chairmanship hinges on its ability to bring ASEAN closer to the people. When Malaysia officially took over as the ASEAN chair, Prime Minister Najib Razak promised to ‘steer ASEAN close to the people of South East Asia, to make this institution part of people’s daily lives.’

However, this is an enormously difficult task. ASEAN is still seen by many people as merely a bureaucratic organisation, engaging more with governments than its own citizens. To popularize the idea of an ASEAN community, the Malaysian government needs to help foster an ASEAN consciousness whereby ordinary people feel a sense of belonging as part of ASEAN.

What can be done?

ASEAN could have a greater appeal to ordinary citizens if the grouping is perceived as actively reducing the development gap present across the region. There is causal relationship between infrastructure and human development. As ASEAN’s rural areas become more connected to urban centers, infrastructure will not only help increase economic growth but also enhance people-to-people interaction whilst simultaneously improving the living standards of its citizens. Infrastructure should be used as a tool to construct a more people-centered ASEAN, giving ordinary people a greater sense of ownership and affiliation to ASEAN initiatives.

That said, the dream of narrowing the development gap via infrastructure projects has been criticized as being too utopian. South East Asia’s infrastructural demands are vast. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates that the region’s developing economies need to invest approximately US$8 trillion from 2010 to 2020, to keep pace with expected infrastructure needs.

The China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has been making headlines in the past year, most recently with the United Kingdom’s surprise accession to the initiative. But the AIIB is not the only funding mechanism in this region. South-east Asia has its own ASEAN Infrastructure Fund (AIF), which also needs to be expanded significantly and attract new donors. But if the AIF expands, Malaysia and future chairs of ASEAN need to ensure that the grouping retains a central role in the coordination and distribution of the fund. The ADB acts as the  fund’s administrator, but ASEAN countries still need to have some level of responsibility in their own development.

As chairman, Malaysia has to set the tone for ASEAN’s future. 2015 is a milestone year – beyond the establishment of the AEC at the end of December, ASEAN also needs to determine its post-2015 agenda. While it is understandable that Malaysian leaders are preoccupied by domestic economic and political concerns, it is crucial that Malaysia also lives up to its regional role as ASEAN’s chair.

Sources:

UK move to join AIIB meets mixed response in China [Financial Times, 13th March 2015]

Trouble at home: Political instability return to South East Asia [The Economist, 14 March 2015]

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