Asean: Promises, controversies and benefits

Simon Tay

Leaders from the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) leaders will soon gather in Singapore for their 13th Summit, which will also mark the grouping’s 40th anniversary.

There are promises of an Asean Charter, controversies over Myanmar and of course, there will be the signature photo of leaders in a line, holding hands, to signify unity.

But what — beyond the pomp and ceremony and political declarations — can people expect? How, if at all, will Asean matter to people and to businesses?

For too long, Asean has been a network for bureaucrats who carry on with their regular work, with neither clear benefits to ordinary people nor businesses in the region.

But there are welcome signs that this is changing.

The Asean Charter, which has not been officially unveiled, will be a key document that sets the ground rules for the grouping.

While its language will be formal and legal, we should hope that it captures the essence of Asean coming together as a community, with societies more deeply engaged with each other, even as their differences are respected.

Thus, it is important that the Charter should aspire to democracy, human rights and good governance as well as the promise to create a human rights body. If it can lay the path for progress in key areas such cross-border trafficking of women, sexual exploitation of children and protection of migrant workers, millions in Asean can be assured greater human dignity.

Another key document to be presented at the Summit will be the blueprint for an Asean Economic Community. This promises to set definite goals and deadlines for the major sectors of the 10 economies to integrate into one market.

This is key towards helping businesses buy, sell and do business seamlessly across Asean, and enable member nations to compete with China and India.

As markets integrate, there must be safeguards against unintended evils — like environmental harms, erosion of workers’ rights and unsafe products. We should also pay attention to the poorer areas of Asean to help them develop infrastructure and educate their people with skills so they can benefit.

On the whole, economic integration can boost growth and help more people to rise above the poverty line.

The environment will be high on the Summit agenda — a rare but timely occurrence. Global attention about climate change has risen dramatically this year. This is a problem that not only affects the rich, it threatens devastating consequences on poor countries and the most vulnerable sectors with sea-level rise, droughts, floods and increasingly-extreme storms.

To protect current and future generations, Asean leaders should take steps to fully and jointly understand the potential impacts on the region. They should also begin to map out win-win areas, so they can make efforts that benefit them locally and also help slow climate change.

Increasing energy efficiency, stopping massive deforestation and addressing the haze from fires in Indonesia are some steps that might hopefully be considered.

The Asean Summit can and should also give attention to the problems in Myanmar. Asean is acting more decisively and credibly in response to the recent violence in that country. It can play a key role in egging regional giants like China, India and Japan on to support United Nations-led efforts.

Yet, while this work must be done, realistically, we cannot expect the Summit to make much immediate improvement to the lives of people in Myanmar.

More significant steps can be taken; but it will take a long journey to find solutions to Myanmar’s decades of travails.

Looking further ahead, there are many things that have to be done for people and businesses to understand Asean and see its benefits. The objective is not just to provide praise, but also fair and critical appraisals of Asean.

The Singapore Institute of International Affairs will undertake such an effort in the aftermath of the Asean summit to bring experts from Asean with others from other Asian countries and the United States.

Public education efforts should also be stepped up in every member country. Film, food and other popular means can be used to get more people interested in Asean.

A social and cultural agenda for understanding Asean should also accompany the economic integration and the political and security community in the region.

Some Asean members are witnessing periods of high growth and optimism, such as Vietnam. Others, while undergoing political contestation and change, like Thailand and Indonesia, have underlying strengths.

The conditions are right for Asean to show — 10 years after the Asian crisis — that they are rising to new challenges to create a competitive as well as caring community that deserves international credibility.

The leaders at the Summit must lead this effort with progress towards a common vision of the community and to accept binding rules that peacefully deal with deadlocks and keep the region moving forward together.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA). The SIIA will organise the Asean and Asia Conference on Nov 30 to appraise the summit and the year ahead for the region.


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