June 12, 2008 — By Dr. Surin Pitsuwan
Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, a trustee of The Asia Foundation, was confirmed as Secretary-General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in January 2008. Forty years after the formation of ASEAN and 10 years after the Asian financial crisis, ASEAN faces mounting regional and global challenges such as terrorism, climate change, and economic growth. For the first time in its history, a new charter has been written to establish greater integration in the region on a more formal basis, including a set of norms in the areas of good governance, rule of law, and human rights. The ASEAN charter also commits its 10 member nations to achieving economic reforms that promote the free flow of goods, services and skilled labor. Dr. Surin will serve as Secretary-General through December 31, 2012. This is an exclusive excerpt from Dr. Surin’s electronic journal, edited for The Asia Foundation and published in In Asia, following his first 100 days of service as Secretary-General of ASEAN. These are Dr. Surin’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of The Asia Foundation.
The first trip out is Singapore, January 8. The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies organized its annual conference, “East Asian Outlook.” Then it was meeting the ASEAN Cultures Minister in Myanmar and after that the ASEAN Tourism Minister. Then the ASEAN senior officials meeting, and then, before I could return for a fresh set of clothes in either Jakarta or Bangkok, the ASEAN Standing Committee retreat in Brunei.
The World Economic Forum in Switzerland came before I could regain my composure from all the flying and airline meals. The leaders of ASEAN, led by the current Chair, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, brought ASEAN to the world stage, high in the Swiss Alps. It was a swift operation.
On stage, Prime Minister Lee was asked, “ASEAN is 40, and it now has a charter for the first time. With all the plans and projects that you have to build a community over there, don’t you need a strong central bureaucracy?” PM Lee answered, “Yes, we have the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta and our new Secretary-General is here with us. Surin, would you like to say something?”
All eyes turned to me on the stage, just behind Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi of Malaysia, flanked by Professor Klaus Schwab, Chairman and CEO of the World Economic Forum. I almost fell off my chair. Here I was, new in the post, in the company of the summit leadership of ASEAN and was being asked to say something about ASEAN.
I couldn’t shrink from this. I had to rise to the occasion. I leaned over, grasped the microphone in front of Professor Schwab and began my first sermon to the world about the “sanctity of ASEAN.” I belted out, in a clear and confident voice, “Our ASEAN Secretariat is based in the capital of Indonesia, the largest member of the group, a small contingent of 210 able men and women, fighting fit, serving 567 million people. We want to be one market, one production base.”
I received the applause of the full house. In such an atmosphere of anxiety over wars, tensions, terrorism, and economic uncertainty, a note of confidence from a corner of the world able to manage its own affairs fairly well seemed a relief to the participants.