Philippines Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano (right) and Asean Secretary-General Le Luong Minh unveiling a painting of the founding fathers of the regional grouping during the opening ceremony of the 50th Asean Regional Forum meeting in Manila recently. There is a growing restlessness over Asean’s role. AFP PIC

THE month of August is regarded as the month of “independence” by citizens of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. But, how many of us know that yesterday was the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (Asean) 50th anniversary?

This lack of public awareness is one of the issues facing the regional grouping after 50 years of existence. In recent times, too, Brexit has inadvertently generated questions regarding the utility of, if not outright apprehension towards, regional groupings worldwide, Asean included.

Furthermore, there is a growing restlessness over Asean’s role and significance in an increasingly turbulent Asia-Pacific theatre, where major power interests collide and complement simultaneously. Against this backdrop, Asean needs to mend its cracks if it were to survive and retain its relevance for the next 50 years.

Asean’s lack of leadership predicament has resulted in it being portrayed as a “talk shop” that fails to deliver when it matters. Some of the frustrations stem from Indonesia’s depleting leadership over Asean. The country’s status as the de facto leader of the grouping has slowly but steadily faded from memory since the fall of Suharto’s administration. Many hopes have been expressed about Indonesia’s resumption of leadership in this difficult era.

What Asean needs is agenda execution. The various political-security, economic and socio-cultural priorities laid out in the 2025 blueprints require a proactive administrator to implement the programmes and to push the 10-member states to walk the talk.

While the Asean Secretariat arguably has the strategic position to assume this role, it still needs to tackle the systemic problems of being underfunded and understaffed. A case can be made for the financial empowerment of the secretariat to act as the prime mover of Asean’s agenda.

However, the secretariat could expedite the process by embarking on efficiency efforts, such as by reducing the number of meetings in five-star hotels, to allow the re-channelling of capital and human resources to programme implementation.

The secretariat needs to revisit its sacrosanct “non-interference” principle if it were to deliver concrete results. Granted, member states’ sovereignty must not be tinkered with, but the transnational nature of contemporary threats makes this principle less feasible to uphold at all costs.

The annual transboundary haze and the ongoing Marawi conflict provide examples of the need for some measure of compromise. If, after 50 years of existence, Asean only succeeds in producing sub-optimum results in tackling regional challenges such as these, then it is imperative for its leadership to allay fears of its growing irrelevance by (re)initiating a dialogue on non-interference.

Delivering results must be complemented with promoting the Asean brand. Asean must step up its game in promoting its image beyond updating information on its website and social media. It can exponentially amplify its public presence at a relatively low cost by considering two interrelated concepts — capitalism and public demand.

Several Southeast Asian companies have co-opted Asean’s brand for mutual benefits. AirAsia, for example, has helped Asean’s name and logo to soar high over Southeast Asia, while also fostering region-wide connectivity for everyone to enjoy.

Similarly, CIMB has utilised Asean’s brand in its various commercials and enabled interconnected banking in nine out of 10 member states.

There is still ample potential in engaging the private sector to facilitate connectivity, economic activity and consumption. Asean can further boost its image by establishing a partnership with ride-hailing services such as Grab and GO-JEK, or by persuading region-wide companies like Maybank, Agoda, and Axiata to incorporate its image and philosophy into their advertisements and products.

Food chains like McDonald’s, which recently launched its Nasi Lemak Burger in Singapore, could be conscripted to promote a member state’s local food in another.

In any case, Asean should deepen its cooperation with companies that can popularise its image among the Southeast Asian public. Yet to gain these companies’ confidence, Asean must demonstrate its capability to accelerate regional economic integration that can benefit their businesses.

Last but not least is to preserve the crumbling image of unity. Asean is facing destabilising pressures from internal and external forces that could potentially undermine the group’s essence. China’s diplomatic offence on two fronts in the region — the South China Sea and the colossal economic assistance — sits in stark contrast to the United States’ embryonic Southeast Asia policy under the Trump administration, forcing member states to recalibrate their respective foreign policy positions.

The fate of Asean’s unity depends much on the method utilised by its 10-member states to address these issues. This is why a harmonised strategic culture that encompasses all three pillars of Asean’s dynamics is more pertinent than ever. Without a shared perception and common aspiration to solve collective problems, each country will venture out on its own to address challenges that can only be confronted by the collaboration of 10 weak states in Southeast Asia.

Asean’s challenges are analysed in greater depth by some of the brightest minds on Asean in the upcoming publication by the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia. Titled “Asean Future Forward”, it is a compilation of essays that considers the long-term future and strategic issues of Asean in the next 50 years, while also offering prescriptions for how Asean and its citizens could sustain peace and prosperity in challenging times.

It is hoped that when the book launches on Aug 28, it could contribute to the overall shift in paradigm that will make Asean not only relevant to current political and economic considerations, but also to its 620 million people, to whom it owes its true allegiance.

Muhammad Sinatra is analyst (Foreign Policy and Security Studies), Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia. he can be reached via sinatra@isis.org.my

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