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Can Asean last another 50 years?
Publication Date : 31-07-2013
Malaysia's Minister of International Trade and Industry Mustapa Mohamed caught me off-guard with his recent remarks on the lack of awareness of Asean integration plans among those surveyed by the Asean Secretariat. However, on closer examination of the Report, "Surveys on the Asean Community Building Effort, 2012", the situation doesn't appear to be that gloomy.
The regional gropuping will celebrate its golden jubilee in 2017, but we can only guess whether there will be a centennial celebration for Asean in 2067. After all, predicting Asean's future or destiny is a very delicate proposition. William Shakespeare reminds us, "it is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves".
In "Vanished Kingdoms", Professor Norman Davies of Oxford reminds us that power is transient. He writes: "Sooner or later all things come to an end. … All states and nations, however great, bloom for a season and are replaced."
It is no small feat for Asean to have bloomed for almost 50 years; the League of Nations lasted only for 39 years. Will Asean face the same destiny as the European kingdoms in Norman Davies' book, or the League of Nations? Your guess is as good as mine.
Some leaders are overtly obsessed with keeping the Asean experiment alive forever. As a part of the 1967 generation, like many, having enjoyed the peace dividends, I am appreciative of Asean. I witnessed many crises in the region before the group's founding fathers summoned the moral courage to design Asean as the architecture for Southeast Asian political security and peace.
Countries in the region have been through crisis after crisis, some spilling over into neighbouring states. For Indonesia, the Sukarno-inspired confrontation against Malaysia, for example, forced some of us to join the military. The American war in Indochina has also scarred our history.
I have the impression that the successful Asean experiment to establish political security has lulled us, made us complacent and ignorant of the region's dark past. Asean was formed primarily for political and security reasons. Today, while acknowledging the value of political cooperation, Asean leaders put more emphasis on economic and cultural links.
Despite the so-far mostly successful experiment in regionalism, should our present leaders continue to indoctrinate and compel the immediate generation to demand that the generation of 2067 keeps Asean intact? Are we not being over-presumptuous to suggest that what is good for the goose is also good for the gander?
Is it ethical to impose our values on future generations? Should the current generation decide on the shape and destiny of Asean in 2067? Winston Churchill put it elegantly when he said, "The empires of the future are the empires of the mind." Of course, the minds of future generations will have to determine what they wish to do with Asean.
The Chinese have a saying: If you are planning for one year, plant rice. If you are planning for a decade, plant trees. If you are planning for a century, invest in education. In the Churchillian sense, education is about moulding critical minds. Education that broadens the minds of citizens is critical to the destiny of Asean. All Asean countries should educate, not indoctrinate, their citizens on the importance of Asean for regional security, trade and cultural exchange.
Quo vadis Asean in a new geo-political environment? The US, China, India and Japan have "returned" to the region. The footprints of their rivalry are everywhere, in the South China Sea and in the Straits of Malacca.
In a transformed regional geo-political outlook, the strategic value of Asean has declined. With the big powers back in the region, competing for influence and primacy, and the proliferation of new regional security and economic institutions, Asean has lost its centrality and near-monopoly over regional security.
Regional maritime security, for example, is now subject to very intricate power plays between the external powers and client states. If leaders do not read the tea leaves properly, we will become pawns in the big power games once again.
The future of Asean is for the generations to decide. They may wish to be part of a larger community, like the East Asia Community. We can only hope they will decide wisely. They may wish to ponder George Santayana's dictum that "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
BA Hamzah is a Malaysian scholar on regional affairs.