Insights and Analysis

Brexit Lessons for ASEAN: Exiting Not a Good Option

July 13, 2016

By John J. Brandon

In 2013, I had dinner with six Thai high school teachers who had been my students back when I taught English at a university in Bangkok in the late 1970s. A few of them I had not seen in more than 30 years. Most of our conversation focused on the personal, talking about family and friends, and how our lives had evolved after first meeting 35 years ago. When we were younger, politics was rarely discussed, as the violence of the October 1976 coup that resulted in a deadly clash with student protesters was an immense shock on the psyche. I was reminded more than once by university administrators not to speak of politics in or outside the classroom.

But over this dinner, the conversation did turn to politics, but not so much about Thailand’s political challenges, but about ASEAN of all things. At the dinner, I learned that my former students were receiving training on how to talk about ASEAN to their students in preparation for Thailand and other member countries to form “a community” that would be integrated based on three pillars – political, economic, and socio-cultural. With the exception of one former student, they were not enthusiastic.


The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), which was established last year, will create one of the largest single market economies in the world. Photo Conor Ashleigh

This was viewed as another task imposed by senior bureaucrats in addition to their other responsibilities. When I asked them if they identified themselves at all as “citizens of ASEAN,” they said they felt a cultural affinity for people from Laos, Cambodia, and to a lesser extent, Myanmar, but in the end they were “Thai,” and could appreciate the economic benefits of enhanced trade with the region. One former student, perhaps accurately, but nonetheless sarcastically, said, “John, you probably understand ASEAN better than we do.”

While my conversation with former students does not serve as a representative sample of what the Thai population might think about ASEAN, I think it does present insight on how people in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia might have reservations about ASEAN, especially in light of the recent decision by Great Britain to leave the European Union, known the world over as “Brexit.”

The EU and ASEAN are two very different organizations. The EU is a supranational organization with a bureaucracy based in Brussels that is committed to a “union” of nations that are all democratic and have developed economies. ASEAN is an inter-governmental regional organization where national sovereignty is virtually sacrosanct and the levels of political and economic development are diverse. Those in the UK supporting the “leave” platform capitalized on economic inequality and anti-immigration sentiments to suggest Britain would be better off on its own. Such talk can resonate strongly in Southeast Asia where wealth is highly concentrated. According to Shishir Sinha of the Frontier Strategy Group, if ASEAN’s five major emerging markets – Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam – were merged into one big country, and the provinces were compared to each other, 75 percent of the GDP would be located in less than 25 percent of this imaginary nation’s provinces.

The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), which was established last year, will create one of the largest single market economies in the world, facilitating the free movement of trade, services, and professionals. With 289 million people in ASEAN under the age of 35, a young work force brings with it a higher agility to move jobs. ASEAN is facing an increasing demand for talent, but is experiencing a lack of supply. Seventy-five percent of ASEAN college graduates are likely not considered employable by multi-national companies. Potential employers cite poor English language skills and the low quality of educational standards, thus creating a competition for the same resources. There is tension in ASEAN countries about foreign workers in unskilled jobs. For example, there was an advertisement for a vacuum cleaner last year in Malaysia that said “Fire Your Indonesian Maid Now!” With reports of abuse and torture, the treatment of Indonesian migrants by Malaysians has been a constant source of tension between the two countries.

If ASEAN is to succeed at regional economic integration, there is no room for protectionist sentiment. However, a strong rupiah, anti-foreign sentiment, increased Chinese competition, and lobbying by local business interests has pushed Indonesia, the region’s largest economy, toward protectionism. Indonesia envisions itself as wanting a greater role in global affairs. But for this to happen, Indonesia will need to develop greater economic clout that would be commensurate with the political clout it aspires to. Some in Indonesia believe ASEAN weighs down Indonesia’s potential. But this begs the question: Will Indonesia need to show regional leadership before it can command greater attention on the world stage?

A 2013 European Commission survey found that half of EU citizens said they did not know how the EU worked. Perhaps not surprisingly, only 25 percent of Southeast Asians know what ASEAN is. Although English is not a native language in any Southeast Asian nation, it is the official language of ASEAN, which perhaps instills a sense in Southeast Asians that ASEAN is elitist and therefore not representational of the average person in the region.

Although ASEAN is striving to be “one community,” it does not have one voice. It is indeed divided on issues pertaining to territorial disputes in the South China Sea and damming on the Mekong Rover, among others. However, ASEAN has achieved peace and stability and strong economic growth. But ASEAN leaders need to demonstrate to citizens that increased regional economic integration can better distribute wealth and help its members address important transnational issues such as migration, human rights, human trafficking, climate change and maritime security. Opting out is not an option. Those in Britain who voted to leave the EU will soon learn this. Hopefully ASEAN can learn from the experience of the EU sooner than later.

John J. Brandon is senior director for The Asia Foundation’s International Relations programs in Washington, D.C. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

Related locations: Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand
Related programs: Inclusive Economic Growth, Regional and International Relations
Related topics: ASEAN


  1. Many thanks for these insights John. The language observation is key — The EU has several “official” languages — perhaps the time has come to have ASEAN examine the possibility of another “official ” language (s) so that there is more widespread engagement and knowledge of ASEAN’s important role and work in the region.

  2. Hi John,
    I was searching BREXIT on google and stumbled upon your article. I’m glad that I did.
    It was a nice reading. Thanks for sharing.

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