After 5 decades — doing away with the Asean way?

The 10-country grouping needs to be more pragmatic if it wants to succeed in the next 50 years


AS ASEAN celebrates its 50th anniversary, the 10-nation bloc prides itself for “the Asean Way” — a political panache grounded by the principles of consensus and non-interference.

Over the last five decades, the regional grouping has transformed the region from a potential communist hotbed to a neutral diplomatic base in the Asia Pacific.

From the initial five-member grouping in 1967, the regional non-binding caucus has now 10 countries, which represent 600 million population.

On the economic front, Asean has established itself as a major destination for global foreign investment, with inflows surpassing that of China’s since 2013. This year, total foreign direct investment into Asean is expected to hit over US$100 billion (RM429.4 billion) as the global economy paces faster than in recent years.

Despite the progress, Asean is still far from realising its potential of being the fourth-largest economy in the world by 2030 — behind only the US, China and the European Union (EU).

Non-tariff barriers continue to hinder business activities and movement of skilled labour. Protectionism and nationalism, however, have hindered further integration for the Asean community.

The need to arrive at an extreme consensus has become a burden as Asean talks about operating as a single market. Industry and thought leaders want the 10-country grouping to be more pragmatic if it wants to succeed in the next 50 years.

ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute head of Asean Studies Centre Dr Tang Siew Mun said Asean has put itself in a quandary by raising expectations with the establishment of a “community”, while steadfastly sticking to its old ways of being firmly inter-governmental.

“Asean has to deal with the urgent question of institutional efficiency. What is the point of keeping the consensus model if the result is paralysis?” Tang told The Malaysian Reserve.

He said the consensus model could only work if there was a strong chemistry among a core group of Asean leaders and latitude to make compromises for the regional good.

“But this too has become scarce,” he added.

Tang said without any impetus for Asean to change, the complacency will likely see Asean fall into a “self-generate state of irrelevance” in the coming years.

Centre for Public Policy Studies fellow Jordan Heng Contaxis said the consensus model of decision making could erect more hurdles when confronted with new challenges.

“We saw a clear example of this throughout last year with Asean unable to come up with a coherent and united stance on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and similar fractures today with individual member-states’ responses to the Rohingya crisis.

“Without strengthening the capacity of its secretariat, domestic political agendas will continue to prevent Asean from acting in what is in its collective good,” Heng-Contaxis said.

Critics often point to the need for Asean to be more EU-like, with its supranational structure. Until Brexit became a reality, they seemed to have a point.

Now, the conundrum surrounding the withdrawal of the UK from the European coalition has made Asean the exemplary model for regional partnerships. But with cracks forming within the Asean household, it might just end up down the same path.