Empowering ASEAN: The Two Opportunities from Singapore’s Chairmanship

Lee Chee Leong and Chia Siang Kim

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Picture Credit: By Astore international (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
 

Earlier this month, the Asean Foreign Ministers’ Retreat was held in Singapore — the first
of its kind this year as the city-state assumed the regional bloc’s chairmanship in 2018.

As an annual practice, the retreat is a platform for the ten member-states’ foreign ministers to gather and discuss on Asean’s priorities for the year ahead. They also discussed the regional and global developments that bear direct and indirect impacts on the Southeast Asian bloc. But overall, optimisms have certainly resurfaced as another founding member of Asean is taking the role of chairmanship in these testing time.

For one, Singapore’s Chairmanship Theme for this year is based on two goals: ‘Resilience’
and ‘Innovation’. The former refers to Singapore’s aim of enhancing the capacities of
Asean to deal with both internal and external challenges. Some of these challenges are from the Rohingya issue, religious fundamentalism, terrorism to South China Sea dispute and the influences of great power politics towards the region.

The latter, in turn, is about Asean utilising innovation and technology to improve the lives of its 640-million population as well as further integrate with the help of the digital world. In particular, Singapore has also proposed for the creation of Asean Smart Cities Network ─ an apparent move to bridge the poverty divide among the population and integrate fellow Southeast Asian cities through the use of digital technology.

Despite high expectations among many quarters about the Singapore’s chairmanship, one
should exercise a level of caution in expecting the city-state to achieve a lot of progress
within a year of chairmanship. The lingering difficulty of uniting all Asean member-states into a single voice on contentious issues such as the South China Sea dispute, continued to challenge the credibility of the regional bloc itself.

On the other hand, the non-interference principle towards one’s domestic affairs has also been severely challenged by the Rohingya crisis. The crisis has proven to be a watershed event in which fellow Asean country, Malaysia, criticised the Myanmar government for its overall handling of the mass genocide actions by the Burmese military.

Needless to say, these long-standing undercurrents that existed prior to Singapore’s Asean chairmanship progressed well into the year 2018 and are poised to challenge the regional bloc’s development into a cohesive and functional entity throughout this year.

But, what we argue here is that the Singapore’s Asean chairmanship is an opportunity for
the regional bloc to empower Asean from two fronts. First, Singapore has enough
determination, experience and network to elevate the Asean Secretariat into a stronger
organisation than the current one. As the only developed country in the region, Singapore has to demonstrate to the other member-states that it is willing to contribute more budget to the Secretariat for its operational and development needs. This will send a message to other fellow Asean counterparts of its resolve to reform the Secretariat as the Chairman of this year.

Furthermore, Singapore should leverage on its working experiences with the core Asean
member-states such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, to collectively push for reform of
the Secretariat in terms of budget contribution by individual member-states. As proposed by Chairman of CIMB Asean Research Institute’s Tan Sri Dr. Munir Majid recently, the
current equal contribution formula of the Secretariat’s budget should be adjusted into one that is based on the ability-to- pay for each member-country.

This will drastically increase the overall budget for the Secretariat and thus, helps the organisation to employ more staffs with higher qualifications (and convictions) to carry out Asean-related planning and program-execution works. Of particular importance is the hiring of new Asean staffs who are digital technology-savvy to implement and spearhead Asean Smart Cities Network as proposed by Singapore recently.

Last but not least, more allocation may also mean possible employment of those personnel with local governments and non-governmental organisations’ backgrounds to overcome the limited reach of Asean’s identity and consciousness among all member-countries. With the know-how, experiences and networks, such personnel will help to promote the regional group to the lowest grassroot level for each member-state ─ the ultimate vision which will eventually paint us as ‘Truly Asean’.

Finally, Singapore can also start utilising its broad and strong networks with Australia,
Canada, New Zealand and the EU to assist in the strengthening of the Secretariat in 2018.
Specifically, Singapore can play the role as a facilitator in importing the best practices,
technical know-how and expertise from these countries (especially the EU) to be adopted in
the Secretariat. This will be crucial if the Asean Secretariat is to successfully carry out the
bloc’s regional integration agenda without risking the same institutional dangers
(irregularities of fiscal policies) as experienced by the EU back in 2010.

The other front which Singapore’s chairmanship can contribute to long-term empowerment
of Asean is to work closely with the once-active driver of the regional grouping, Indonesia,
to reassert its leadership effectively.

As outlined by Singapore’s foreign minister in its press statement after the retreat, the city-state and Indonesia have decided to explore on the possibilities of reinforcing an open, transparent and inclusive regional architecture based on international law. It will also reinforce the principles within the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) and the 2011 Declaration of the East Asia Summit (EAS) on the Principles for Mutually Beneficial Relations (or Bali Principles).

By all means, reinforcing the latter will need a new enforceable treaty and compel all external partners of Asean in the EAS to abide by the international law and respect the divergence of views, values and positions among participating countries. And this is on top of the agreeing to the principles of the TAC which is already agreed upon by these external partners.

As for Singapore, it should find ways to work with Jakarta in pushing all EAS member-states to ratify an updated treaty ─ the ‘Indo-Pacific wide treaty of friendship and cooperation’ ─ that encompassed the Bali Principles as a whole package.

As a proposal made by former Indonesian foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa back in 2011, putting such proposal on the table and working toward it will pave the way for the current Jokowi administration to play the much-needed leadership role in Asean as had been demonstrated by its predecessor years earlier.

This will send clear message to competing powers such as the US, China, Japan, India or even Australia, on the presence of a strong leadership in Asean that can withstand any pressure exerted on the regional bloc from the external powers.

Provided by chance, the execution of the ‘Indo-Pacific treaty’ may even lead to the
resurgence of Indonesia’s proactive Asean diplomacy, as carried out by the previous
Yudhoyono administration. And of course, apart from managing AseanN’s relations with
external powers, a proactive Indonesia will also help to mediate on the internal issues
plaguing the Southeast Asian region currently. As a humanitarian contributor to the Rohingya crisis and a party acceptable by Napyidaw, Jakarta can also become the mediator between Myanmar and any Asean counterpart that is at conflicting position with the country on the crisis, and help to alleviate the humanitarian crisis under the guiding principles of Asean.

No doubt, Singapore’s Asean Chairmanship this year offers a rare and realistic chance for
tangible empowerment of the Southeast Asian bloc in the long-term. This is much more
crucial and far-reaching goal than expecting the city-state to drastically contribute to the
future solutions of the major issues faced by ASEAN presently. At this point of time, what
we need is a strong ASEAN that can steer us through the challenging times ahead.
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With research interests on the localisation of China-ASEAN cooperation and Asean
Community-building, Lee Chee Leong is PhD Candidate at the School of Arts and Social
Sciences, Monash University (Malaysia Campus). He is also the Visiting Scholar at the
School of Politics and Public Administration, Guangxi University for Nationalities (GXUN).
Chia Siang Kim is Researcher in Anbound Malaysia, a subsidiary of Anbound China which is
a leading private think tank based in Beijing. Apart from his interests in Vietnamese history
and religion, he is also an observer of Asean’s affairs. For any feedback, please contact:
siangkimchia@anbound.com.