Asean and the constant gardener

Is Asean a cow or a horse? Neither - think of it as a gardening club

Some weeks ago, the social media and the South-east Asian academic circle were abuzz in response to a speech by Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, who likened Asean to a cow.

He chided critics of Asean for not recognising Asean as it is, a cow, and wishing for Asean to be a horse and judging it against the standards of a horse.

In essence, Mr Kausikan was trying to explain that Asean is an inter-state organisation whose members are respective national governments. It operates by consensus among its members, and is not a substitute for national political will, competence and capability.

Hence, Asean should be under-stood for what it is, and not faulted for what is was never meant to be.

While amusing, the cow and horse analogy does not necessarily shed more light on understanding the responsibility, capability and limits of Asean and its member states and how they can better deal with the challenges ahead of them.

Ultimately, each member is responsible for its own garden, decides how much advice to absorb from their regular meetings, and how to translate gardening tips into actions that can allow his or her garden to bloom.

I would like to think of Asean as neither a cow nor a horse, but a gardening club.

The idea came to me when I was reading Associate Professor David Earnest on The Gardener And The Craftsman: Four Types Of Complexity In Global Life.

Prof Earnest's basic argument is that global life today is complex and that due to "the transplanetary scope and nearly instantaneous speed of social relations today, surprises in global life seem to emerge faster than we can react".

Our "incomplete understanding of this complexity limits society's ability to govern global life". He drew from the 1975 speech by economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek, who said it is important "to use what knowledge we have, not to shape the results as the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants". Prof Earnest argued that the best we can hope for in dealing with complexity in global life is "to cultivate beneficial conditions".

Much like a gardener, we can manage and nurture complexity in global life, but we cannot build solutions to it as a craftsman would.

As Asean countries navigate an increasingly volatile, uncertain and complex environment, adopting the mindset of the constant gardener as envisioned by Hayek would probably serve us well.

To cope with the impending storm arising from the tensions between the United States and China and manage other strategic challenges, Asean members have to adopt the patience, the adaptability and the resilience of a good gardener.

Hence, I prefer to think of Asean as a gardening club and Asean member states as gardeners, each with its own plot of land in close proximity to one another.

For many years, with clement weather, the gardeners in South-east Asia have done well tending to their gardens. Through its gardening club, Asean, they sought to engage other gardening enthusiasts.

However, with climate change, the weather pattern is becoming more erratic and unpredictable. The gardeners in South-east Asia need to become more watchful and mindful to respond to the changes.

As uncertainties emerge, the gardeners have gathered more often in their club Asean to share experiences and help one another to adapt, and to build more resilience into their ecosystem to prepare for any man-made calamities and natural catastrophe.

Thinking of Asean as a gardening club reminds us of both the individual responsibility of each and every gardener, and the collective responsibility of all to their club.

A good gardener tends his plot and plants, providing the appropriate environment for his garden to bloom. A good gardener is also keenly aware of the broader environment, constantly watching the weather, adapting to changes so the garden will not be laid to waste.

The gardeners also keep one another informed of potential threats. After all, close proximity means that a threat to one plot of land can easily spill over to the next - think of a pest situation or fire.

The haze enveloping South-east Asia now is a case in point. A gardener that allows its land to burn without control, because he thinks that is the best way to enrich the soil, inevitably sees consequences not only for himself but also his proximate neighbours.

As an inter-state organisation that works by consensus of its members, Asean is only as vibrant and dynamic as the enthusiasm and conscientiousness of its members permit. But ultimately, each member is responsible for its own garden, decides how much advice to absorb from their regular meetings, and how to translate gardening tips into actions that can allow his or her garden to bloom.

Asean can help its members build capability and competence but, as a club, though it may have some rules and regulations, Asean risks falling apart if it pushes its members too hard.

Because of its relative success in producing a diverse and interesting range of plants, Asean has been able to attract other gardening enthusiasts from outside the region to join the club. From a loose gardening club, there is aspiration among some members to become a more formal Gardeners Guild which can set standards and assess the experience and qualifications of gardeners. This is what Asean is trying to do when it embarks on the road towards an Asean Economic Community, which is to be realised year-end.

While Asean may not be able to influence directly the behaviour of the US and China and their bilateral relationship, the club can bring them together to appreciate better the problems each faces in its own backyard.

If Asean can help its members become better gardeners, and remind them of the need for sustained attention and continued adaptation to the unpredictability of the weather, it would have contributed to the beneficial conditions to govern global life.

•The writer is Senior Research Fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2015, with the headline 'Asean and the constant gardener'. Subscribe