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Can Malaysia Bring ASEAN Closer to the People?

February 18, 2015

By Herizal Hazri

2015 is a crucial year for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – particularly so for Malaysia which officially assumed its chairmanship last month. Among other goals, December 31 is the target date for the creation of an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) – a single market that would integrate the region’s 600 million people into the seventh largest in the world with a combined GDP of $2.5 trillion.

Kuala Lumpur

2015 is a crucial year for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – particularly so for Malaysia which officially assumed its chairmanship last month. Photo/Flickr user mohammad khedmati

To manage such high expectations, Malaysia has a huge role to play. It is envisaged to lead the way in guiding the 10 Southeast Asia countries to regional integration as a means of advancing regional stability, building prosperity, and addressing global challenges. While many are sceptical that the ASEAN countries would be able to meet the deadline, Malaysia has commenced the formulation of the “post-2015” 10-year roadmap for this community-building exercise.

In his welcoming remarks at the National Colloquium on Malaysia’s Chairmanship of ASEAN 2015 in April 2014, Prime Minister Najib Razak emphasized the creation of a “People-Centered ASEAN” and one that would no longer be solely “the domain of the elite and specialists alone.” It sets an optimistic tone, but the challenge of advancing this solidarity under ASEAN among its citizens remains.

Educating the younger generation – over 60 percent of ASEAN’s population is under 35 years old, and after China and India, ASEAN has the world’s third largest labor force – is critical, as is engagement with the respective country policymakers at the ASEAN level. As chair, Malaysia should take this opportunity to promote a “Peoples’ ASEAN” domestically as well as regionally by setting good examples for all members. As the ASEAN agenda has been predominantly elite-driven, there is still a disturbingly low level of awareness among the public about ASEAN’s benefits. The idea of bringing ASEAN closer to the people has to be shared widely if Malaysia is to live up to its theme, “Our People, Our Community, Our Vision.” Ultimately, the sense of commonality needs to be cultivated.

In Malaysia’s growing role as peacemaker in the region as highlighted by Prime Minister Najib, ASEAN’s informal approaches and “quiet diplomacy” are still widely regarded as practical way to help resolve challenging issues such as armed conflicts. One good example of how Malaysia is well positioned to play this role is its recent success in assisting the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in signing the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) to end the armed insurgency in Mindanao.

Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman recently emphasized Malaysia’s push for a moderating approach as a means of promoting regional peace and security during its tenure as ASEAN chair. With Malaysia’s concurrent role as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, it will be a challenge for Malaysia to juggle protecting its interests and keeping regional peace, and at the same time preserving its relationship with other countries.

While the idea of an integrated region involves a politically cohesive, economically consolidated, and socially responsible community, more focus has been on economic integration in the region. Malaysia has made clear that accomplishing the AEC by the December deadline will be one of its main priorities for its 2015 chairmanship. As reaffirmed by Prime Minister Najib and the Minister of International Trade and Industry (MITI), Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed, in an essay he penned, Malaysia is set to address the sensitive issue of protectionism among ASEAN member states. Such an effort would neutralize one of the major challenges that stands in ASEAN’s way of realizing a region characterised by “free movement of goods, services, investment, skilled, labour, and freer flow of capital.”

ASEAN has indeed come a long way in creating favorable conditions for the development of the region. But in order for an ASEAN community to move forward, the people of the region will need to feel a growing sense of common ASEAN citizenship and be more connected to one another. The Malaysian government has an enormous responsibility to popularize the idea of an ASEAN community to its citizens. This is an opportunity for Malaysia to bring together different sectors of society, including the private sector, civil society, and the general public to push forward an inclusive ASEAN community. Ultimately, the success of regional integration will be measured by whether the people of ASEAN feel a sense of “ASEAN-ness” in the integration process.

Herizal Hazri is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Malaysia. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.


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