ASEAN Celebrating Half-a-Century What Next?

In the conclusion of The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace (NUS Press, 2017), authors Kishore Mahbubani & Jeffery Sng state: “If such an imperfect corner of the world can deliver both peace and prosperity to its 625 million citizens, the rest of the world can surely replicate ASEAN’s imperfect record.”

On August 8, ASEAN will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding when the representatives of the original five nations–a Buddhist (Thai), a Catholic (Filipino), two Muslims (Indonesian and Malaysian) and a “lapsed” Hindu (Singaporean)–signed the Bangkok Declaration. In view of its “miraculous” achievements over this half-century, ASEAN, the authors argue, deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.

I happened to be in Bangkok in August 1967–although I must admit I was not conscious of this momentous event. Fresh out of university, I took an extended trip through Southeast Asia. It was, at the time, the world’s most hopeless and infernal hellhole. For one thing, it was dirt poor. Singapore had a per capita income inferior to that of Ghana: Indonesia’s was roughly half Nigeria’s. The U.S. was pounding Vietnam and Laos with bombs–including the chemical weapons napalm and Agent Orange. Indonesia had not recovered from the attempted coup in 1965, which in turn elicited an extremely violent reaction, including mass killings of the Chinese minority. Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand faced armed insurrections. Indonesia and Malaysia were verging on war, in what was known as Konfrontasi, while the Philippines and Malaysia had a threatening territorial dispute over Sabah.

ASEAN (which now counts ten member states) is incontestably the world’s most diverse region ethnically, religiously and linguistically–Indonesia alone counts over 700 living languages. The region was subjected historically to what the authors refer to as the “four waves”: the Indian, the Chinese, the Muslim and the Western wave, thus making it the global crossroads of all the world’s major civilizations. The authors estimate the contemporary religious demographics at 240 million Muslims, 140 million Buddhists, 130 million Christians, and 7 million Hindus, along with a not insignificant number of animists, Taoists and, of course, agnostics. If humanity’s default position for civilizations is to clash, then ASEAN should have been a Sarajevo writ large.

 By no means, however, should it be inferred that the last 50 years have been a bed of roses. The Vietnam War continued with all its brutality until the Americans withdrew from the devastated country in 1975. As bad was the American war in Laos (1962-75), in which 10% of the population perished and 25% were made refugees. The Khmer Rouge, in power in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, perpetrated one of the world’s worst genocides. And there is the current persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar.

What were ASEAN’s key success factors?

The geopolitical winds were, on balance, favorable. This was especially the case after Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in 1972 and the end of the Vietnam War. Even if on opposite sides of the ideological fence, the People’s Republic of China and the U.S. saw it in their mutual interest to cooperate in the Asia Pacific region in light of their common enemy, the USSR. This is important for, arguably, the greatest threat to ASEAN now could be U.S.-China regional rivalry.

 Also crucial were market-oriented reforms. The economies of a number of the countries grew significantly as foreign direct investments poured in, though there were laggards, notably the Philippines. In the 1980s, Thailand was known by the foreign investor community as the “standing-room-only country,” as the queues for submitting projects to the BOI (Board of Investment) were so long and competitive. Malaysia became a major hub of electronics, foreign investment and manufacture. Perhaps most dazzling is Vietnam, which, following a disastrous decade of Stalinist-style state control, undertook extensive radical reforms. Today Vietnam is one of the world’s most entrepreneurial societies.

What next? ASEAN faces a number of challenges; two in particular stand out. China-U.S. tensions will have immense repercussions throughout the world, especially in ASEAN. The South China Sea cauldron is a potential source of catastrophic conflict. And the authors acknowledge that ASEAN can be an elitist project. There may be great camaraderie between the political, thought and business leaders, but to the ASEAN men and women in the street, it does not represent very much. Greater efforts to bring ASEAN to the people need to be made.

One hopes that these challenges–and there are others, including overcoming political shenanigans and widespread corruption–will be met. ASEAN is a remarkable success story. The narrative should continue, not just for the sake of the 625 million citizens of ASEAN but also for the 385 million inhabitants of the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region and for the world in general. The citizens of MENA have a great deal they could learn from ASEAN and its large Muslim population. Indeed, replicating the ASEAN model would be a tremendous feat.


This piece was published in Forbes on 26 April 2017.