In today’s world, it is hard to forecast what will happen in the next five years, let alone the next five decades. It is clear, however, that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations needs to change its mindset from top to bottom if it is to remain a relevant international organisation.
Given the hierarchical character of ASEAN, its future leaders must be more willing to share similar visions and concerns about the challenges ahead. They must also speak with one voice and act in unison. In the past, ASEAN leaders could get away with hedging their responses to emerging issues and pressure from outside powers. Since ASEAN is a regional intergovernmental organisation without a common defence and foreign policy, its leaders have had some leeway to pursue their own instincts and national interests in responding to day-to-day crises. But the future is a different matter.
As the grouping moves toward a higher profile in the international arena, its leaders must develop a more coherent and consistent approach, which will require greater discussion of joint interests and priorities. Some critics contend that there are already too many meetings – in 2016 the group had nearly 1000 at various official levels. But there is clearly a need for more focused gatherings to enable leaders and senior officials to iron out their differences and forge a common stance.
Better pre-summit consultations at senior official levels are also important to prepare leaders for efficient and speedier decision-making. For the past five decades, the organisation’s leaders have met as a group for an average of less than five hours at each summit, much of which has been spent on protocol and diplomatic pleasantries. Where consensus is impossible, national leaders should allow the organisation to pursue the majority view so long as no harm is done to their own countries’ sovereignty or territorial integrity.
As the ASEAN Community becomes more integrated, pressure has grown for implementation of the organisation’s long-standing vision of a “people-centred” community. Since the enforcement of an ASEAN Charter at the end of 2008 there has been intense debate about ways of utilising bottom-up input from civil society and grassroots organisations without upending the top-down decision-making structure that has existed since the group was established.
Before ASEAN became a rule-based organisation a decade ago, more than 20,000 nongovernment organisations carried out their agendas without any attempt to liaise with broader action plans contained in the organisation’s three intertwined “pillars” of political-security, economic, and socio-cultural communities.
ASEAN has laid down a clear vision for the next 10 years – detailed in its blueprint ASEAN Vision 2015: Forging Ahead – to transform itself into a responsive and inclusive community. The group’s leaders need to live up to their pledges to ensure that citizens of this ever-growing community will enjoy human rights in a just and democratic environment.
That is a tall order, but all of ASEAN leaders have said they aspire to reach these ambitious objectives. With well over 500 priority areas already established across a range of fields, ASEAN leaders and stakeholders from civil society organisations need to work together to implement these plans comprehensively and with better cooperation and coordination.
Finally, ASEAN leaders agreed at a summit in Nay Pyi Taw in 2014 to embrace the concept of a “people-oriented and people-centred community” as an objective covering all policies affecting the 10-member organisation. It is hoped that this approach will enable the group’s leaders to engage in dialogue with civil society leaders who are recognised and respected by member countries. Past experience points to a lack of adequate preparation on both sides in the absence of mutual respect and understanding of their respective and distinctive roles.
Sandwiched between the leaders and these grassroots organisations is the Jakarta-based headquarters of ASEAN. For the time being, its leader, Secretary General Le Luong Minh, has no mandate to speak on behalf of ASEAN or to act on common issues without a consensus among the member states. With a budget of less than US$20 million (K27.24 billion) a year, the secretariat has to prepare and run hundreds of meetings and deal with myriad issues and crises confronting the organisation.
Better funding and more staff are critically needed. In the future, whoever leads ASEAN from Jakarta must have a broader mandate to determine the organisation’s course of action in responding to challenges. On certain agreed issues, he or she should be able to make decisions on ASEAN’s behalf.
To improve efficiency within ASEAN, larger financial contributions from prosperous members will inevitably be needed, without changing the underlying one-member one-vote system. Better management of the estimated 300 ASEAN staffers – a number that needs to be doubled to cope with the future workload – is a most urgent issue. With increased engagement with external parties, the secretariat needs capable officials who can provide forecasts of international trends and the emerging policy environment.
As the ASEAN Community enters its third year, the 640 million or so citizens of the region have become more demanding, as well as fearful of uncertainties brought about by increased internal connectedness as well as those emanating from wider global problems. It is time for leaders to understand that ASEAN can only thrive if its people are satisfied that they are more than pawns in the hands of ineffective and rudderless governments.