Why Asean deserves a Nobel Peace Prize

Singapore's foreign minister S. Rajaratnam (right) at the historic meeting in Bangkok to sign the founding Asean declaration on Aug 8, 1967, together with (from left) foreign ministers Narciso Ramos of the Philippines, Adam Malik of Indonesia, Thanat
Singapore's foreign minister S. Rajaratnam (right) at the historic meeting in Bangkok to sign the founding Asean declaration on Aug 8, 1967, together with (from left) foreign ministers Narciso Ramos of the Philippines, Adam Malik of Indonesia, Thanat Khoman of Thailand and Tun Abdul Razak of Malaysia. The five brave men who came together to sign the declaration could not have come from more diverse cultural universes.

A Buddhist Thai, a Christian Filipino, two Muslims and a lapsed Hindu were the leaders who got together to form Asean. Fifty years on, it has brought peace and prosperity to the region.

Try imagining a world where the Middle East is at peace. The thought seems almost inconceivable. Imagine a world where Israel and Palestine, two nations splintered from one piece of territory, live harmoniously.

Impossible? This is what Malaysia and Singapore accomplished. After an acrimonious divorce in 1965, they live together in peace.

Imagine a world where Egypt, the most populous Islamic country in the Middle East, emerges as a stable and prosperous democracy.

Impossible? Then ask yourself how it is that Indonesia, the most populous Islamic country in Southeast Asia (with a population more than four times that of Egypt), has emerged as a beacon of democracy. Egypt and Indonesia have many other parallels. Both suffered from corruption. Both experienced decades of military rule under strong military rulers - Suharto (1967-98) and (Hosni) Mubarak (1981-2011). Yet, Egypt remains a troubled country still under military rule while Indonesia has emerged as the leading democracy in the Islamic world.

Singapore's foreign minister S. Rajaratnam (right) at the historic meeting in Bangkok to sign the founding Asean declaration on Aug 8, 1967, together with (from left) foreign ministers Narciso Ramos of the Philippines, Adam Malik of Indonesia, Thanat
This is an excerpt from the book The Asean Miracle: A Catalyst For Peace, by Kishore Mahbubani and Jeffery Sng. It is published by NUS Press and available for $25.68 (inclusive of GST) at leading bookstores in Singapore.

What explains the difference? The one-word answer is Asean.

The obvious retort to this is that the Middle East has long been a region of war while South-east Asia has been a region of peace. Certainly, the Middle East has experienced many wars: the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and the 2003 American invasion of Iraq.

Yet, more bombs have been dropped in South-east Asia than in any other region of the world since World War II. South-east Asia has experienced larger and longer wars than the Middle East. The Vietnam War, which spilled over into Laos and Cambodia, lasted from the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 until the fall of Saigon in April 1975, when American diplomats and soldiers beat an ignominious retreat.

This was followed by the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in December 1978, which in turn triggered a decade-long struggle between China and Vietnam.

In simple numerical terms, the number of military casualties in South-east Asia since World War II, from 1946 to 2008 (estimates range from 1.87 million to 7.35 million), has exceeded the military casualties in the Middle East during the same period (estimates range from 530,000 to 2.43 million).

When then President Barack Obama visited Laos in September 2016, he reminded us that America had "dropped more than two million tons of bombs here in Laos - more than we dropped on Germany and Japan combined during all of World War II. It made Laos, per person, the most heavily bombed country in history. As one Laotian said, the 'bombs fell like rain'. Villages and entire valleys were obliterated. The ancient Plain of Jars was devastated. Countless civilians were killed".

This is precisely why it cannot be denied that Asean is a miracle. It has brought durable peace to a region that experienced great conflicts. As the conclusion of this book will stress, a Nobel Peace Prize for Asean is long overdue.

A REGION OF HOPE AND PEACE

It is no secret that the West is deeply pessimistic about the prospects for the Islamic world. Deep pessimism and fear of the Islamic world seem almost hard-wired into the body politic of the Western world. Donald Trump exploited this to the hilt when he called for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States". Even though Trump was roundly condemned for this, he still won the presidential election. He had tapped into a deep lode of anxiety about Islam in the American psyche.

There are more Muslims in South-east Asia, as a percentage, than any other region outside the Middle East. If the large Muslim population of South-east Asia - almost as numerous as the entire population of the Arab world - can live in peace with their non-Muslim neighbours and also continue to progress economically, they provide hope that the world is not destined for a clash of civilizations.

Those looking for hope in the Islamic world, and for a narrative that can counter such dark views, should look no farther than South- east Asia.

About 25,000 young people from all over the world, including the West, have joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Yet, should we focus on these 25,000 Muslims or on the 8,000-times-larger number of 205 million Muslims who live peacefully in Indonesia, the world's most populous Islamic country? As the most successful democracy in the Islamic world, Indonesia reinforces South-east Asia's status as a haven of peace, in contrast to the troubled countries at the heart of the Arab world, including Libya and Syria, Iraq and Yemen, which will remain in conflict for some time.

There are more Muslims in South-east Asia, as a percentage, than any other region outside the Middle East. If the large Muslim population of South-east Asia - almost as numerous as the entire population of the Arab world - can live in peace with their non-Muslim neighbours and also continue to progress economically, they provide hope that the world is not destined for a clash of civilizations.

The influx of almost a million Syrian refugees into Europe in 2015 has made Europe acutely aware that its fate is closely linked to the Islamic world. Europe seems particularly troubled by the emergence of radical Islamism within its borders. The Paris attacks of 13 November 2015 were carried out mostly by young Muslims who were born and brought up in Europe, not in the Middle East.

The American and European intelligentsia need to make an intellectual pilgrimage to South-east Asia. They need to immerse themselves in a region of hope and experience a world where different civilizations live in peace and progress together.

Few of today's European intellectuals see a way for Europe to work out a peaceful coexistence with Muslims within and just outside its borders. The impulse today in Europe is to build walls and put up border controls.

Trump demonstrates that even within the relatively open society of America, there is this impulse to build walls and bar Muslims.

The American and European intelligentsia need to make an intellectual pilgrimage to South-east Asia. They need to immerse themselves in a region of hope and experience a world where different civilizations live in peace and progress together.

Europe has been the most successful continent for the past four centuries, especially in economic and social development. Similarly, the United States has emerged as the most successful society in human history. No other society can match America's track record of economic productivity and cultural creativity (or its exceptional military power).

Yet despite being the world's most successful society, the American middle class is falling prey to an European-style pessimism. Suicide rates among white middle-class males have grown significantly.

Fareed Zakaria has written about this: "The main causes of death are as striking as the fact itself: suicide, alcoholism, and overdoses of prescription and illegal drugs. 'People seem to be killing themselves, slowly or quickly,' (Angus) Deaton told me. These circumstances are usually caused by stress, depression and despair ."

Rising suicide rates represent the most extreme expression of growing pessimism. The ongoing politics of pessimism in America and Europe is dangerous. There is no doubt that this pessimism is killing the prospect of sensible centrist leaders. The destruction of Jeb Bush in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries and the even more stunning defeat of Hillary Clinton in November 2016 demonstrated this clearly.

So does pessimism mean that we cannot produce positive transformational leaders? Here, the story of Asean can bring some hope to our troubled times. The five brave men who came together to sign the founding Asean declaration on 8 August 1967 were a Buddhist Thai, a Christian Filipino, two Muslims and a lapsed Hindu. They could not have come from more diverse cultural universes.

If one had to put together a cast of characters to launch the second-most successful regional organisation in the world, one would not have started with this cast of five characters from five countries.

Now imagine a world where Donald Trump (a Christian), Xi Jinping (a Confucian Communist), Vladimir Putin (an Orthodox Christian), Ayatollah Khamenei (a Muslim) and Narendra Modi (a Hindu) came together to sign a declaration for peaceful collaboration. Given the many political divisions among these five leaders, it seems clearly inconceivable. Yet the political divisions among the five founding fathers of Asean were equally great, if not greater.

If we remember the organisation's 1967 starting point, Asean's achievements are nothing less than spectacular. If Asean can keep up its current momentum, there is no limit. The higher it soars, the brighter it will become as a beacon for humanity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 26, 2017, with the headline 'Why Asean deserves a Nobel Peace Prize'. Print Edition | Subscribe