by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in the Malay Mail 7 March 2014

Compared to the recent acts of belligerence in East Asia or incursions in the South China Sea, or even the Arab Spring, the current crisis between Ukraine and Russia may seem rather distant for us. We do not have profound historical links to that part of the world, nor do our populations share a language and culture – though there is a legacy of Islam, especially in Crimea where the predominantly Muslim Crimean Tatars make up 12% of the peninsula’s two million people (out of the total Ukrainian population of 46 million).

Some ingredients of the crisis might be familiar, like spectacular corruption and public distrust in institutions, but others are not. Indeed the situation between Ukraine and Russia provides an opportunity to consider how different the geopolitics of our region are. Sure, in almost any given ASEAN country there may be sizeable resident populations of citizens from neighbouring countries, but it would be difficult to imagine a neighbouring country sending in their army purportedly to defend “their people” – which does not just mean citizens but also those who possess ethnic, cultural and linguistic ties to the neighbouring country – even if those people themselves asked for “protection”. In post-Cold War Southeast Asia, the principle of non-interference, epitomised by the ASEAN Way, remains fundamental in relations between states: territorial disputes such as between Malaysia and Singapore or Thailand and Cambodia have been resolved at the International Court of Justice.

Perhaps more importantly, it is also inconceivable that significant populations residing in one country would actually seek military intervention from another country. A defence analyst might point out that there is no equivalent disproportionality of military might here as there is between Russia and Ukraine, but there is also a generally equal and strong loyalty to national identities in our region. True, there are communities and subnational units all across ASEAN that seek more autonomy or independence (and neighbouring countries may well be involved in negotiations between central and regional entities, as Malaysia was in the case between the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front), but these movements do not generally consider themselves to be sponsored by or requiring the protection of the government of another country.

Newcomers to Southeast Asian geopolitics sometimes wonder if Malaysia actively promotes a political kinship with the Malay Muslim inhabitants of southern Thailand, or if the pre-Second World War idea of Indonesia/Malaya Raya still resonates. As we have seen in recent times, nationalists on both sides will fight about ownership of culture, but even the most conciliatory moderates will advocate dialogue and cooperation, rather than entertain any incursions of national sovereignty. Once in a while one does encounter the odd proponent of ASEAN becoming a fully-fledged superstate with sovereignty transferred to centralised institutions, but this is usually from citizens in authoritarian countries who want greater market access, connectivity and democracy, rather than those who support the dominance of a big country. It is perhaps a boon that the lack of a shared romanticised notion of a period of unity or dominance (a la Russia within the USSR) makes political centralisation difficult to imagine.

And in a way, this is comforting for us. Because what it means is that although we worry about our own ethnic cleavages and issues over national unity, we know that it is up to us to address them, without interference from outsiders. Recently cabinet minister Tan Sri Joseph Kurup was in Singapore to glean lessons from their methods of forging national unity. It does not matter that there are some Malays in Malaysia who see Malays in Singapore as a trampled-upon minority, and advocate some kind of intervention to “help” these brethren: the state of bilateral ties prevents any such action. And so our cabinet ministers are free to explore models around the world, and our Prime Minister is free to ask us to ignore the extremists: for ultimately it will be us who will judge them for the success of government policy on national unity.

For now at least. During the siege of Lahad Datu I was made aware that some Malaysian officials were genuinely worried about the extent to which the large numbers of Filipinos in Sabah would support the claims of the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu. On that occasion, the Filipino government was clear that they did not support the incursion, and our ties have remained strong as seen by Malaysia’s response in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.

But it is theoretically possible that if enough things change: demographically, militarily, politically, diplomatically – perhaps one day unilateral intervention in the affairs of another country in Southeast Asia might once again become less inconceivable.

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Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is the president of IDEAS

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