Why Asean is important for Malaysia

PUNDITS and observers of the region have long doubted Asean, consigning the organisation to the doldrums of history after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. While Asean’s role at that time was limited to regional security, over the past two decades, it has evolved to cover regional economic and social integration as well.

The recently concluded 33rd Asean Summit in Singapore reaffirmed the organisation as a fundamental player within the regional political-security architecture. Except for US President Donald Trump, every major Asean partner was represented by their respective heads of government – a nod towards Asean’s crucial position at the heart of Asia-Pacific regionalism.

It’s no surprise that a group of 10 nations tend to disagree on more matters than one. After all, even the most perfect relationships are often peppered with arguments every now and then. As distinguished International Relations scholar Amitav Acharya put it, Asean’s greatest challenges are internal not external.

To that end, I would argue that for Asean to continue defying the odds and making its name on the international stage, it must rely on its true strength – its inherent unity.

The Malay term muafakat best captures this strength. The expression loosely translates to consensus and cooperation. But more than that, it is often used in the context of decision-making within societal structures.

This, in many ways, paints an accurate description of Asean – a society of states with shared historical, cultural and linguistic ties. Moreover, it is towards this collective Asean community vision that members are striving towards in the long term.

Asean’s unity has been demonstrated before, most evidently in its handling of Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in the 1970s and constructive engagement with Myanmar’s authoritarian regime.

More recently, however, Asean’s cohesiveness has come under question due to advances from China, which has been wooing member states into its orbit of influence.

Nevertheless, Asean has remained united and relevant, as evidenced by the attention and respect accorded to it by larger powers. Such powers like the US, China, the European Union (EU) and Russia have committed to engaging with member states via multilateral dialogues spearheaded by Asean.

As such, given the global uncertainties that lie ahead, “Asean muafakat” has now become an integral cog in both the machination of Malaysia’s foreign policy and the region’s strategic security goals as well.

As a trading nation, Malaysia, is heavily reliant on its partners at the international stage. Therefore, it is vital that the image we project internationally is one that is not aligned to any one power especially with the battle for primacy between the US and China in the region.

Active participation in Asean is one way of not giving in to the sway of any one power. Asean’s central nature over the years has ensured that it plays a crucial “manager” role in terms of dealing with competing influences in the region.

Though the concept of Asean centrality has been used by many of its critics to vilify Asean’s inaction and sluggish workings, it remains an important component in ensuring that the geopolitically smaller states in the region have a say in affairs that have a direct impact to their livelihoods.

Yes, centrality can be stifling at times. But like Rome, unity isn’t built in a day. It takes considerable effort, political will and determined leadership to make it happen.

Asean-led institutions like the Asean Regional Forum and East Asia Summit are some of the few successful arrangements which can bring together major rivalrous powers like the US, China, Japan, Russia and even North Korea to the same table.

By subscribing to such values, the narrative that Malaysia is in itself central and non-aligned would be reinforced. On this basis, Malaysia would be able to more boldly engage with bigger powers.

But Asean’s centrality, which is the cornerstone of the organisation’s ability to stay nonpartisan, is at risk if member states aren’t united. And this brings me back to my earlier point that the association should fall back on its inherent unity or muafakat to continue surviving.

Malaysia may be too small a state to shift the geopolitical needle, but Asean isn’t. Asean stands as proof that small states in the right circumstances are great influencers.


Kuala Lumpur

Letters , Asean , regional cooperation