Solution to Asean budget problem is not emulation of UN system

Professor Kishore Mahbubani advocated that Asean should emulate international organisations such as the United Nations and European Union, in which each country contributes monetarily based on its capacity to pay (How fear, luck and golf brought Asean together; March 18). Put simply, rich countries should pay more than poor countries.

I doubt if this would be beneficial or politically sustainable.

For example, the amount that UN member states pay to the organisation is pegged to their gross national product - at a minimum 0.001 per cent up to a maximum 22 per cent.

Last year, out of 193 member states, the top 20 richest countries alone contributed as much as 83.78 per cent of revenue. The United States contributed the highest at 22 per cent, followed by Japan at 9.68 per cent, and China with 7.92 per cent.

This comparative imbalance in contribution has proven to be politically divisive - US President Donald Trump has directed his team to reduce monetary contributions to the organisation by seeking major cuts in funding to several UN programmes.

The crucial point here is that it would be challenging for political leaders to explain to their electorate why more of their tax dollars should be used to pay for higher contributions to these international organisations, vis-a-vis the benefits or the lack thereof.

Certainly, Asean's revenue collection model is not perfect and can be improved.

But because every member state pays the same, prima facie, no member can accuse the grouping of showing favouritism to another based on monetary contribution alone. This is a unique strength.

I believe the answer to Asean's budget problem lies within itself.

Since the capacity of the poorest Asean member to pay determines the contribution of every member, the grouping is obliged to pull up its weakest member, and it should explore methods to do so more holistically than monetarily.

Arguably, this would be more politically sustainable than to keep passing round the hat and telling rich countries to contribute more.

Sim Eng Cheong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 26, 2017, with the headline 'Solution to Asean budget problem is not emulation of UN system'. Print Edition | Subscribe