FIRST, take stock. Of course, given the three pillars of the community-building process and the end-2015 timeline, the progress against the blueprints for the political-security, economic and socio-cultural communities has to be determined and shortfalls addressed.
For example, for the Asean Economic Community (AEC), there is a lag against stated objectives, even by official measure. What more against actual business experience, documented by reports commissioned by the Asean Business Club (ABC).
These reports have been presented to the Asean economic ministers and a decision was made to have an action plan to bridge this gap. This action plan must be activated now to realise as much as possible, in actuality, of the AEC blueprint.
As Malaysia takes the chair of Asean next year and will be delivering the AEC at the year’s end, it must take the lead, together with current chair Myanmar and the other member states, to be able to say with some credibility Asean has achieved most of its economic community objectives. Otherwise we may become a laughing stock.
In respect of the political-security community, it would be too much to expect Asean to resolve disputes, especially complex ones such as those in the South China Sea. This is a reality of power politics. What can be expected is a more active role in preventive diplomacy and in dispute containment. Realisation of the much-talked about code of conduct in the South China Sea should be a prime objective.
It has been 12 years since the notion was first agreed with China, but progress towards effectuation has been dangerously slow. While it may be pointed out that it took Indonesia and the Philippines two decades to come to an agreement over overlapping exclusive economic zone claims, there was absolutely no danger of conflict breaking out over them at any time. With the South China Sea, it is a completely different situation. There have been far too many incidents. The likelihood is that there will be many more. The possibility of a wider conflagration is very real. Something must be done about it.
Malaysia, which boasts close relations with China, should expend its fount of goodwill with Beijing for regional peaceful benefit, even before it takes the chair of Asean. If anyone can persuade China to conclude the code of conduct with Asean, Malaysia can. But is Malaysia doing enough?
Often it is not productive to do too many things all at once, but not fully achieve the ends. Asean has tended to do this. When you do very many things but do not achieve them all, I suppose you will not be deemed to have failed, even if you do not quite succeed. It is about time Asean develops the courage to set a few clear goals – and go for it!
The demonstration effect of undeniable achievement, not tepid progress, will have stronger uplifting outcomes in community-building. A sense of regional pride, as opposed to the present hangat-hangat tahi ayam situation, would then be more discernible. (Unlike the yes-no-but, sort of murky, uncertain and unsure present condition.)
A clarity of objectives is all the more important as Asean seeks to embark on its post-2015 master plan – a People-Centred Asean. Which is a veiled admission of the failure of the socio-cultural leg of its community-building, perhaps the most important pillar in developing a community.
Thus, the second thing Asean must do now, is to have a plan to reach out to its various peoples. The best place to start is to examine why Asean cuts no ice with its peoples. Addressing it by having Dondang Sayang or Wayang Kulit shows would be no way of getting people to appreciate the Asean idea. They may be entertaining. A lot of time and money would be spent. But would it make the Asean people understand the benefits of an Asean community better?
People nowadays want to be convinced, want to see tangible benefits. If there is a line for Asean nationals at all Asean airports and other entry points, that would be very real.
If there was no need for visas to get into all Asean countries, that too would make a huge difference. If decisions reached by Asean ministers, such as on the environment, are brought to the people, the ministers would have difficulty to backslide afterwards.
With modern technology there are many imaginative ways to reach out to the people, without having a cultural circus romping round the region. The Asean secretariat MUST be better resourced and better led to be the agency to reach out to the people. Getting only officials to work out how to improve the secretariat, or the secretariat itself, is one sure way to end up with half-baked improvement. Better to engage outside consultants with a brief on the desired deliverables from the secretariat.
The secretariat should be the clearing house which reaches out to the peoples of the region on decisions and agreements reached by their leaders.
Why should the people not know about them? It would give credence to those agreements and hold the leaders to their word, especially on climate change matters and human rights issues. You cannot have the people on your side if you leave them ignorant of what you have stated you want to do. For their benefit, it is always emphasised.
Those benefits are often all too obscure, with “national interests” frequently interceding and denying the people precisely what they had been promised. Like lower fares from an open skies policy. Like better and cheaper service from banks as a result of liberalisation which would give Asean banks the opportunity to fully concentrate on Asean economic activity – unlike the global banks whose capital has to support their global business and may be diminished to be appropriated for crises elsewhere.
It is assumed by officialdom that the people know of the benefits and why they are being denied them. The people get overwhelmed by blanket national interests arguments when in reality special and vested interests are being protected – not the people. They are just being denied the benefits without knowing it.
When we get into the People-Centred Asean, the leaders must eschew empty rhetoric. If they are honest about it, they must want to bring the benefits to the people and not shield interest groups who must raise their game and face competition – not just from other Asean companies but also the big multinationals in this globalised world. There is no escape.
The third thing Asean must do now is to understand a People-Centred Asean needs a credible communication plan to drive it. You do not reach the people by confining your targets and objectives to discussion at various chancelleries and ministries, at various closed-door meetings all among officials.
There is not even a proper Asean newspaper, although some new links are now being created, such as the CIMB-Asean online news. There should be free newspapers and websites in Asean languages, including its “lingua franca” English. An “Asean” social media should be encouraged.
The weakest link in the whole Asean enterprise has been that the people have not been involved, not even the business sector sufficiently, in the grand plans. This gulf between Asean leaders and officials and the peoples of Asean however organised must be bridged NOW. Asean must not any longer remain the secret of high politics and economics.
The next phase – a People-Centred Asean – is not timely but belated. Still better late than never. But it cannot be conceived by officials alone. It must be a dynamic process involving those who have not been anywhere near the planning for an Asean community when they are very well its most important constituents.
Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB Asean Research Institute.