Tang Siew Mun, Senior Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies

Keeping the momentum of Asean's community-building

Asean's Foreign Ministers and delegates cross arms and hold hands during the Asean Foreign Ministers Retreat in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, on Jan 28, 2015. -- PHOTO: EPA
Asean's Foreign Ministers and delegates cross arms and hold hands during the Asean Foreign Ministers Retreat in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, on Jan 28, 2015. -- PHOTO: EPA

The Asean Foreign Ministers Retreat in Kota Kinabalu, which concluded yesterday, kicked off Asean's official calendar for 2015.

Having led the organisation in 1977 and 1997, Malaysia will have its work cut out to shepherd Asean towards the establishment of the Asean Economic Community (AEC).

Malaysia has identified eight priority areas for its chairmanship. These include "formally establishing the Asean Community, developing the Asean Community's Post-2015 Vision and its Attendant Documents, steering Asean closer to the peoples".

Also included are "strengthening the development of small and medium-sized enterprises, expanding intra-Asean trade and investment, strengthening Asean's institutions, promoting regional peace and security through moderation, and enhancing Asean's role as a global player".

This is a long and ambitious list, and one that befits an aspiring community that is poised to play a prominent role in the unfolding Asian Century.

Guided by the theme of "Our People, Our Community, Our Vision", Malaysia hopes to bridge the gap between Asean and its citizens. In the words of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak: "We hope to steer Asean closer to the people of South-east Asia: to make this institution part of their daily lives by creating a people- centred Asean."

The "people-centred" concept is often linked with the "democratisation" of Asean and the creation of a participatory and inclusive entity. The aspiration to make Asean less elitist is laudable, but it does not reflect reality. Asean should not be apologetic for holding on to its top-down approach as it is an inter-governmental organisation. The voice of the people and their aspirations are heard and channelled through their respective governmental representatives.

The fact that one in five infants does not survive childbirth in Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines suggests that the task of community-building is going to be challenging.

The people-centred approach requires Asean to be relevant: it must deliver tangible benefits and practical meaning to its 625 million constituents. As Malaysia's Foreign Minister Anifah Aman put it in the Retreat Statement: "Asean peoples should be able to feel the impact of our community-building process."

As the world looks for answers to neutralise the threat posed by the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), attention will turn to Asean where 15 per cent of the world's Muslim adherents reside.

Indonesia and Malaysia have seen their share of religion-inspired radicalism in the past and will play an important role.

In this context, Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla recently threw his support behind Datuk Seri Najib's idea of moderate Islam or Wasatiyyah and suggested it be introduced globally. How Malaysia and Asean translate an idea into a programme of action to deradicalise and win back the hearts and minds of extremists is worthy of our attention.

Further afield, Malaysia is primed to make good on its pledge to enhance Asean's role in global affairs. In addition to chairing Asean, Malaysia holds one of the 10 non-permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). It would be unprecedented and constitute a major milestone if Malaysia uses its two- year mandate to bring Asean's voice and perspective to the UNSC. Regular consultations between Malaysia and Asean member states would yield the added benefit of improving Asean's cohesiveness.

Housekeeping duties rarely make it into the shortlist of priority areas of Asean chairs. Going against the grain, Malaysia has done just that. It will take on the task of implementing the Declaration on Strengthening the Asean Secretariat and Reviewing the Asean Organs. The declaration will, among others, provide the Asean Secretariat with the support for it to play an enlarged and more effective role.

In a national brainstorming session to prepare for the chairmanship last April, Mr Najib pledged to voluntarily increase Malaysia's support to the Asean Central Fund. Will Malaysia follow through with the pledge in the wake of its fiscal challenges as a result of plummeting oil prices?

Asean is approaching an important crossroads. The end of the year will see the culmination of decades of perseverance and hard work to create a closer and integrated economic structure in the form of the AEC. Malaysia is also tasked to lead the work on drafting the Asean Community's Post- 2015 Vision and its Attendant Documents.

Central to these discussions is the question of how far the member states are prepared to go in implementing the political-security and socio-cultural pillars that have lagged behind the economics component of the community.

With low-hanging fruits increasingly scarce, Asean would have to climb higher and work harder to keep the momentum of the community-building efforts moving forward.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.