By Abidin Muhriz, The Sun, 13 May 2011
“Let’s forget about governments,” said Raman Narayanan from Air Asia on Monday at the 8th ASEAN Leadership Forum organised by the Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute (ASLI) in Jakarta in a session entitled Enhancing ASEAN Connectivity: From Master Plan to Implementation, after making the very pertinent point that “Air Asia has done more for connectivity in five years than ASEAN has in 44”. I clapped rapturously, and then at least one other person in the hitherto staid hall echoed, before the mood abruptly returned to the sedate environment that one has come to expect from these sorts of events.
The words “Master Plan” would put any classical liberal off, but then ASEAN as a political elite-led organisation is off. Indeed, the feeling I got from my three days in Jakarta attending this post-18th ASEAN Summit event is that the politicians and bureaucrats are, by and large, far too eager to claim credit for things that might have happened far easier without their existence, and make unbelievable statements that turn the entire performance into a game of charades. However, every guess by the audience has an equal chance of being the true representation of the actors’ intentions, which are buried deep under the instinct to play politics that results in rosy statements designed to let officials celebrate even as troops point their guns at each other for the sake of a temple. That these statements are ignored by citizens in their home countries is secondary to the saving of diplomatic face.
Of all the speakers at the Leaders Banquet Dr Surin Pitsuwan, ASEAN Secretary-General, was the most realistic. He lamented the fact that too many of these meetings see officials turning up, signing things, going home, and then forgetting about what they had signed; and he went on to say that it is time to find new ways to engage young people in defining what ASEAN is about. Unfortunately a few courses of dinner later, a Minister declared that he did not want to be his nationality, but instead wanted to be “Asean” – shockingly many people applauded this ridiculous notion. Did he actually think this statement through, I wonder? Did he realise, firstly, that in many ASEAN countries there are real challenges in making people feel foremost as citizens of their country instead of some racial or religious affiliation? And even if that isn’t a problem, what on earth made him think that eroding national sovereignty might be beneficial (has he heard of the EU)? What, in short, is the value of turning ASEAN into some sort of supranational political entity?
Strangely I found myself addressing that very issue in my session the next day, in answer to a lady asking how ASEAN could make itself more relevant to its own citizens. I replied that if ASEAN democratised itself to an extent that endowed it with more legitimacy than national governments – not difficult, surely! – by having elected leaders and transparent institutions, then you could effectively bypass national governments and give citizens a real stake in the organisation. Still, I would not actually support this idea, because the value of having independent sovereign nations competing to be better democracies than each other is much greater than having a super-state that might descend into an authoritarian nightmare if, say, a Burmese general one day took power and decided to rename Jalan U Thant. I merely raised the point as one way in which ASEAN could become more relevant to its supposed stakeholders; of course politically sovereign nations are still capable of dismantling barriers to trade and enabling free movement of labour and capital across borders.
My co-panellists and I were tackling the question “What the Next Generation Think of ASEAN” (NB I was the youngest member) and I was pleased that there was a general consensus that it is for young people to determine ASEAN’s evolution, and therefore the focus must be on upgrading the communications infrastructure to enable exchange of views and ideas. However, I added, another prerequisite is freedom of speech, and furthermore there is no reason for government to actually build the infrastructure: instead, deregulate the laying of cables and the setting up of broadband, and the profit motives of wannabe-YTLs will meet the ravenous demand from young people quite satisfactorily.
While the anti-communist, pro-freedom origins of ASEAN may well have been forgotten by my generation, returning to those principles might be the best way for ASEAN to move forward. However, allowing Burma to chair the organisation in 2014 might make that impossible, and it is time for aspirant democracies to come together because they adhere to certain principles, not because of their geographical proximity.
Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is Founder President of the Institute for Democracy of Economic Affairs.