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  • Is ASEAN Due for a Makeover?
  • Tang Siew Mun (bio)

By any measure, the Association of Southeast Asian Nation's (ASEAN) commemoration of its golden jubilee this year is missing its usual pomp and fanfare. The excitement and interest in celebrating this milestone is noticeably absent, and this is certainly a cause for concern. If ASEAN does not take itself seriously, why should the rest of the world? By the same token, if ASEAN does not see fit to make a "big deal" out of the 50th anniversary of its founding, why should those outside the region pay any attention to ASEAN?

That the ASEAN leaders did not affirm the importance of the golden jubilee at the 30th ASEAN Summit held in April 2017 was certainly a missed opportunity. Specific mention of this important milestone was filed away on page four of the chairman's statement instead of being the lead item. The run-up to 8 August—the date of ASEAN's formation through the Bangkok Declaration on that date in 19671—has been lacklustre, although this might not necessarily be a bad thing as ASEAN is often criticized for form over substance. Less fireworks, singing and dancing might be a new and welcome sign of ASEAN's serious and workman-like side that has always existed but is a face that is rarely shown to the outside world.

In any case, ASEAN finds itself in a very different world today than the one it faced in August 1967 when its five founding fathers met in Bang Saen, Thailand to discuss the formation of a new regional organization. The founding fathers—Adam Malik, Tun Abdul Razak, Narciso Ramos, S. Rajaratnam and Thanat Khoman— [End Page 239] would, in the first instance, be pleasantly surprised and delighted that ASEAN had survived for five decades. Secondly, they would have a hard time in understanding the complex and comprehensive forms of regional cooperation that ASEAN has fostered and led since its establishment. The Bangkok Declaration was only three pages long, compared to the lengthy thirty-four-page ASEAN Charter that was signed in Singapore in 2007. These ASEAN luminaries would have certainly frowned on the 1,000 over meetings that ASEAN convenes annually despite efforts to streamline these official engagements.

More importantly, with the Cold War threatening regional peace and stability, their foremost strategic priority was to secure Southeast Asia's independence, which meant keeping the major powers at bay. The declaration of the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) in 1971 was a manifestation of this line of thought.2 Fast forward to recent decades and ASEAN has reversed course. Instead of keeping Southeast Asia "free from any form or manner of interference by outside Powers", ASEAN's strategic imperative centres on keeping the major powers engaged in the region. For these leaders, the world has indeed turned on its head. Erstwhile enemies are now good friends, and, in the case of Vietnam, even joined the regional organization. Up until the 1990s, China was regarded as the "enemy" due to its support for communist insurgencies in parts of Southeast Asia but is today ASEAN's largest trading partner. The founding fathers practised their statecraft at the highest level with the single-minded tenacity to keep their respective countries free from communism. The ideology that used to cause much insecurity no longer divides Southeast Asia; indeed two ASEAN members are ruled by communist parties. ASEAN's founding raison d'être of anti-communism has been replaced by an inclusive doctrine that was made possible by the firm application of the norm of non-interference in the domestic affairs of its member states.

ASEAN's adoption of an inclusive doctrine has transformed the regional organization in two fundamental aspects. First, within the region, the drive towards inclusiveness meant opening ASEAN up to other Southeast Asian states. The enlargement process—which begun with Brunei (1984), followed by Vietnam (1995), Laos and Myanmar (1997) and ended with Cambodia (1999)—altered ASEAN's DNA. The inclusion of the less developed economies made the development gap among the ASEAN member states a central regional issue, which tempered ASEAN's overall enthusiasm and pace for regional...


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pp. 239-244
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