THE 34th Asean Summit (June 20-23) in Bangkok emphasised the importance of advancing partnerships for sustainability to achieve a people-centred, people-oriented and forward-looking Asean community that leaves no one behind in the rapidly changing regional and global environment.
In conjunction with the summit, the Kingsley Strategic Institute, together with the Asean Business Advisory Council, the Asean Studies Centre at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, and the Nation-Building Institute of Thailand organised the Asean Community Leadership and Partnership Forum in Bangkok, which brought together government, business, academic and civil society leaders.
In preparing for the summit in Bangkok and related summits like the Asean Plus Summits and the East Asia Summit, Malaysia must punch above its weight with the region’s most experienced and longest-serving leader, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, leading the Malaysian government.
Malaysia must aim to be a middle power in international diplomacy and be a regional leader in championing regional cooperation and closer integration.
We should review the “four Cs” of Asean that have been the bedrock of its strength over the past decades: community, connectivity, the charter, and centrality.
While master plans have been formulated for connectivity, Asean still faces a huge financing gap in implementing information technology infrastructure that would provide the seamless connectivity Asean aspires to, as set out in the first and second Asean Master Plans for Connectivity.
Connectivity is more important than ever to bridge the development divide in Asean and to better connect Asean with the wider world. A digital Asean requires better connectivity. Asean also needs more highways, railways and ports to accelerate regional physical connectivity.
The Asean Charter was well received when it was first formulated in 2007 but it may be timely to review it. In particular, to strengthen the protection of human rights, the Asean Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights must be given more teeth to enhance human rights protection.
Perhaps Asean could be bold enough for a fundamental paradigm shift to establish an Asean Court of Human Rights similar to the European Court of Human Rights.
With regard to the Asean community, more effort needs to be expended on engaging younger people – the next generation of Asean leaders – so they have a stronger sense of Asean consciousness or sense of belonging to Asean. At the moment, we don’t celebrate our “Aseanness” as Europeans do their Europeaness.
Asean studies should be given greater prominence in schools and universities in all Asean member states.
Asean centrality has been a goal long cherished by Asean members. This centrality will ensure Asean will speak with one voice in international meetings or at international negotiations, and that Asean matters will be given greater prominence.
We need to put in more effort to further strengthen Asean centrality, which must be heard loudly in the negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
Asean centrality also becomes more strategic in this era of great rivalry between China and the United States.
Economic integration has been one of Asean’s success stories and the declaration of the Asean Economic Community in 2015 during Malaysia’s chairmanship was a great achievement.
But businessmen lament the increase in non-tariff measures and non-tariff barriers despite the reduction in tariffs.
Small and medium-size enterprises must also feel the impact of the Asean Economic Community, they must feel that it can benefit them.
I believe that the way forward for Asean is to continue focusing on a people-centred Asean where people development is most important.
Efforts to promote sustainable and inclusive development will ensure no one is left behind.
Asean leaders must also re-emphasise the “four Ps”: planet, people, peace and prosperity.
As Asean looks forward to its 52nd anniversary on Aug 8, we should ensure the grouping remains relevant, people-centred, business-friendly, sustainable and cohesive.
Our Prime Minister and Foreign Minister should punch above our weight so that we can push the envelope in Asean for greater transformation and a giant leap forward.
TAN SRI MICHAEL YEOH OON KHENG
Malaysia’s Representative to Asean High-Level
Task Force on Connectivity President,
Kingsley Strategic Institute