WhyItMatters

Mysterious yet effective Asean

Fifty years is a long time to be a mystery, but that is what Asean is to most of its 640 million peoples.

Among those who do know of the 10-member grouping, some like to call it a "talk shop", "toothless tiger" and "road to nowhere". These are unwelcome but not always undeserved. Asean has at least 1,000 meetings a year, but often takes one year to field a new idea - and sometimes longer to honour deals.

Only top leaders of its member-countries can speak on its behalf, not the Asean secretary-general. And they must all agree before Asean can do anything.

Philippine diplomat Delia Albert, who has been involved in Asean since its inception in 1967, noted at a meeting hosted by the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute on Monday how distinctly even founding members approach problems. Her country, she said, demands "a legal basis" for everything, while Singapore tends to ask "What is in it for us?", Malaysia refers everything back to its government, Thailand prefers rule by committee, and Indonesia wants everything in step with its Pancasila philosophy.

Despite the hurdles, Asean members have, in their quiet, top-down and consensus-bound way, been on top of pressing bothers beyond borders, notably in tracking down criminals, sharing information on extremists, fending off pirates, and saving lives in disaster-hit Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines.

Besides such safety and security boosts, Asean is now also focusing more on helping its peoples stay employable, productive and vital into old age. The region's growth now averages 6 per cent yearly, and may be the world's fifth-largest economy by 2030.

Without the relative peace and stability the grouping has brought to the region in the past 50 years, Asean would likely have been more communist than capitalist, more intolerant than broad-minded, and be home to more foes than friends. What then is a mystery compared with all these possible horrors? As Dr Albert noted: "Asean is like a house with a solid structure. We now need to ensure that it is well maintained and well lived in."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2017, with the headline 'Mysterious yet effective Asean'. Print Edition | Subscribe