The ASEAN Community: A Lofty Historical Challenge
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By Michael S. H. Heng

The ASEAN Community: A Lofty Historical Challenge

May. 09, 2017  |     |  1 comments

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was founded in 1967. Its 50th anniversary this year is a good time to take stock and to look ahead. ASEAN was established with the goal of preserving long-term peace in region at a time when the First Indochina War was raging, even though its explicitly stated goals were economic growth, social progress, and cultural development. One of its guiding principles is to abide strictly by the modern international system of sovereign states where countries do not interfere in each other’s internal affairs. ASEAN’s leaders have chosen to make decisions by consensus, and to avoid airing their differences in the public.

ASEAN has scored significant success as an economic community, due largely to the activities of global production networks in the region. In the assessment of a senior Chinese official speaking at a workshop in 2009, ASEAN is the healthiest and most integrated regional organization in Asia and it should be the center and platform to promote Asia’s economic integration.

However, one cannot ignore the failure of ASEAN to resolve significant intra-ASEAN problems such as the Thai-Cambodian border dispute, the annual haze originating from Indonesia, and the blatant violation of human rights in Myanmar. Such problems cannot be resolved within ASEAN because of the strict non-interference policy in each other’s internal affairs. But conditions in the international arena today are different from when ASEAN was formed half a century ago. Environmental pollution, climate change, epidemics, terrorism, and transnational crime cannot be solved without close international cooperation. In the event of large scale violations of human rights, sovereignty cannot be used as a cover for the state to fan off interference by the international community. With the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, the concept of state sovereignty in the past few decades has acquired subtle but important new interpretations. ASEAN’s strict insistence on non-interference is out of sync with prevailing international norms.

Before the 1997 Asian financial crisis, global capital had focused on gaining market access and investment in Southeast Asia. In the wake of the crisis, it began to be disenchanted with the region’s failure to respond effectively to the crisis. Meanwhile, critical examination of the financial meltdown revealed some serious flaws among the political leadership in most ASEAN member states. This period also saw the rise of China and India as new economic powers next door. Between them, these events prompted soul-searching within ASEAN.

Driven by internal and more so by external developments, ASEAN has strived to deepen and widen its integration and has set its sights on becoming a community of nations. To do so, it has to look beyond the geopolitical and economic dimensions, and widen its scope to include the social and cultural dimensions. Though some progress has been made in this direction, especially in their agreement to the terms of the ASEAN Charter, it remains to be seen whether the member states will be able to live up to the ideals as enshrined in this document. Even if they do so, they need to go further than this document in order to be in tune with prevailing international norms as adopted by the United Nations.

Unity in Diversity

One of ASEAN’s achievements has been its ability to group together ten member states with different political systems, population sizes, geographical sizes, languages, religions, historical backgrounds, and stages of economic development. It should come as no surprise that the ASEAN Charter has adopted as its principle the concept of “unity in diversity.”

Unity in diversity is the concept of “unity without uniformity and diversity without fragmentation” — thereby moving and raising the focus from unity based on mere tolerance of physical, cultural, linguistic, social, religious, political, ideological and/or psychological differences towards a more complex unity based on an understanding that differences enrich human interactions. One should add that this understanding should go beyond the utilitarian aspect to one founded on the basis of appreciating and cherishing differences. No wonder that unity in diversity is said to be the highest possible attainment of a civilization, a testimony to the noblest potential of the human race.

ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint

Just like unity in diversity, the concept of social justice is found in many ASEAN documents. For example, the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint of 2009 claims that “ASEAN is committed to promoting social justice and mainstreaming people’s rights into its policies and all spheres of life, including the rights and welfare of disadvantaged, vulnerable and marginalized groups such as women, children, the elderly, persons with disabilities and migrant workers.” The reality in the ASEAN countries however shows clearly that there is a wide mismatch between such lofty statements and what the people experience.

A close reading of the ASEAN Charter will reveal that it has some lofty and high sounding concepts. For example, ASEAN and its Member States shall act in accordance with, among others, the principle of “adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government.” This sounds hollow when its member states undermine the independence of their judiciaries, allow corruption to run wild, pay scant attention to protect their environment, indulge in gerrymandering, and harass their political opposition.

Same Journey but at Different Speeds

ASEAN may be seen as a fine example of unity in diversity. But to strive towards the goal of a community of nations, they must live up to the goals and aspirations as written in their own official declarations. One way to do so is to emulate the best among them in a given area. For example, Indonesia has made significant progress in democratic transformations, and can fairly be said to be the most democratic of the ten. While Indonesia should continue to make progress, the other nine should be inspired by the success of Indonesia and follow its example. Similarly, Singapore’s achievement in economic development and clean government should spur the other nine to do the same.

The common struggles of the ASEAN peoples across the region will be a firm foundation for the growth of ASEAN solidarity, shared consciousness, sense of common interests, and an ASEAN identity.

It is of special importance that Indonesia can carry out democratic reforms, and Singapore can practice clean government. It means that these institutions and practices are not alien to Southeast Asia or in a wider context to the non-Western world.

Unity in diversity here may take on additional meanings: united in pursuing the goals of social justice, economic prosperity, clean government, human rights, democracy, etc. but with different member nations proceeding at different speeds. Those moving ahead should nudge and help those trailing behind.

Promoting Knowledge at the People-to-People Level

According to the Charter, community building is to be intensified through enhanced regional cooperation and integration via the means of the security community, economic community, and socio-cultural community. The first two have enjoyed the lion’s share of official attention. The third deserves to be given its due attention.

A recent study reveals that the general public in cities in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore perceive the formation of the ASEAN Community as beneficial, but they see the formation as elitist and state-centric as it did not involve the people. This is a disturbing finding. City residents are generally more well-informed and involved in the political life of their countries. If they do not feel so involved in the formation of the ASEAN Community, one can imagine how low the sense of involvement can be in the rural areas. Much more must be done therefore to create and nurture a sense of participation by the citizens.

There is a useful role to be played by ASEAN’s professional bodies, like the ASEAN Associations of Lawyers, Engineers, Doctors, Accountants, Architects, Journalists, Writers, Teachers, etc. Through their regular contacts and sharing, we have new channels for evolving ASEAN styles of landscaping, architecture, paintings, music, and so on. The Association of Doctors could also be a good forum for them to develop a teaching program on traditional medicine based on research and as practiced by their ancestors.

In additional to the above are regular exchanges of cultural troupes. Their works should be featured on national television channels, and tickets should be subsidized by sponsors. For those more inclined to intellectual discussions, their interests can be served by local think tanks hosting talks and seminars by public intellectuals and thinkers on topics concerning the broader and long-term future of the region.

Looking Ahead

From its humble beginning, ASEAN has grown into a regional body that is courted by major world powers. Given the different historical backgrounds, cultures, political systems, and their lack of complementary economic activities, its endurance and success might come as a surprise. Credit must be given to its political leaders for being able to respond well to the emerging challenges and opportunities.

The success of ASEAN can also be seen as a clever response to the challenges posed by globalization. This is clearly seen in how the Asian financial crisis prompted ASEAN to speed up and deepen its integration. The same was again seen in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. The latest is how global production networks have integrated the ASEAN economies with that of China, forming the basis for the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement.

But the imperatives for regional integration need to be combined with an awareness of the limitations arising from inter-state competition and divergent domestic capabilities within its member states. Here there is a need to work for the greater common good and with a long-term perspective. There are at least four areas where this approach is needed. The first concerns industrial policy. The member states need to sit down and formulate industrial policies which are complementary to each other. Doing so will increase intra-ASEAN trade, which currently constitutes only 25 percent of ASEAN’s trade. The second concerns protection of the environment, a point that was touched on earlier. The third concerns supporting local cultures and intellectual activities, so that Southeast Asia can boast its own world-class writers, painters, thinkers, musicians, and architects. The fourth and arguably the most difficult, is to translate into real practice the paper commitment of ASEAN member states to democracy and social justice. It includes protecting and respecting the rights of minorities, appreciating the political opposition as assets of the countries, and guaranteeing freedom of the press and association.

As an economic power, ASEAN is small by international standards. Given the level of development and technological base, ASEAN is unlikely to make a big impact on the global economy.

Perhaps the most important area which ASEAN can contribute to the world is to bring about the ASEAN Community with cultures and historical backgrounds different from those of the European Union. The new global conditions present Southeast Asia with opportunities and challenges. The greatest opportunities are the big avenues for economic growth in the region, and long-lasting peace. Territorial contestation leading to war is for most countries a thing of the past. Some challenges are persistent — nationalism, ethno-religious parochialism, discrimination against women, massive natural disasters, diseases, and poverty. Some challenges are new — climate change, environmental degradation, depleting natural resources, transnational crime, and terrorism. The challenges call for political, religious, opinion, and business leaders to re-orientate their courses of action toward the greater common good of the people in the region.

What is more crucial and effective is for the citizens of ASEAN countries to render support to each other in their struggle to realize the ideals of the ASEAN Charter such as environmental protection, rights of migrant workers, human rights, and social justice. It would be difficult for the governments to suppress these struggles because these are struggles inspired by a document crafted and endorsed by the government leaders themselves. The common struggles of the ASEAN peoples across the region will be a firm foundation for the growth of ASEAN solidarity, shared consciousness, sense of common interests, and an ASEAN identity.

Like other historical processes, the journey to the formation of the ASEAN Community will take time and will not be easy. There is still a wide gap between the deeds and words of the government leaders of ASEAN. If and when the realities on the ground are in line with the lofty proclamations of the ASEAN documents, then and only then will the ASEAN Community be no longer a dream but a reality. It will be an ASEAN with a new identity, for it will represent a new moral and political order, able to articulate global issues in international forums with moral authority and coherence.

1 Comments To This Article

  • David Chester
    David Chester

    on May 12, 2017 at 02:32 PM - Reply


    I am greatly concerned that the governments of the Asian countries have not taken into account the teachings of the Chinese Leader Sun Fat Sung whose philosophy followed that of the US economist Henry George, and provided a way for greater fairness in the macroeconomics organization of our corrupt society. The formula is very simple, to tax land values instead of labor. The follow essay explains why: Socially Just Taxation, and Its 17 Effects On: Government, Land Owners, Communities and Ethics Our present complicated system for taxation is unfair and has many faults. The biggest problem is to arrange it on a socially just basis. Many companies employ their workers in various ways and pay them diversely. Since these companies are registered in different countries for a number of categories, the determination the criterion for a just tax system becomes impossible, particularly if based on a fair measure of human work-activity. So why try when there is a better means available, which is really a true and socially just method? Adam Smith (“Wealth of Nations”, 1776 REF. 1) says that land is one of the 3 factors of production (the other 2 being labor and durable capital goods). The usefulness of land is in the price that tenants pay as rent, for access rights to the particular site in question. Land is often considered as being a form of capital, since it is traded similarly to other durable capital goods items. However it is not actually man-made, so rightly it does not fall within this category. The land was originally a gift of nature (if not of God) for which all people should be free to share in its use. But its site-value greatly depends on location and is related to the community density in that region, as well as the natural resources such as rivers, minerals, animals or plants of specific use or beauty, when or after it is possible to reach them. Consequently, most of the land value is created by man within his society and therefore its advantage should logically and ethically be returned to the community for its general use, as explained by Martin Adams (in “LAND”, 2015, REF 2.). However, due to our existing laws, land is owned and formally registered and its value is traded, even though it can’t be moved to another place, like other kinds of capital goods. This right of ownership gives the landlord a big advantage over the rest of the community because he determines how it may be used, or if it is to be held out of use, until the city grows and the site becomes more valuable. Thus speculation in land values is encouraged by the law, in treating a site of land as personal or private property—as if it were an item of capital goods, although it is not (Prof. Mason Gaffney and Fred Harrison: “The Corruption of Economics”, 2005 REF. 3). Regarding taxation and local community spending, the municipal taxes we pay are partly used for improving the infrastructure. This means that the land becomes more useful and valuable without the landlord doing anything—he/she will always benefit from our present tax regime. This also applies when the status of unused land is upgraded and it becomes fit for community development. Then when this news is leaked, after landlords and banks corruptly pay for this information, speculation in land values is rife. There are many advantages if the land values were taxed instead of the many different kinds of production-based activities such as earnings, purchases, capital gains, home and foreign company investments, etc., (with all their regulations, complications and loop-holes). The only people due to lose from this are the "army" of tax collectors employed by the government, as well as those who exploit the growing values of the land over the past years. Here “mere” land ownership confers a financial benefit, without the owner doing a scrap of work. Consequently, for a truly socially just kind of taxation to apply there can only be one method–Land-Value Taxation. Consider how land becomes valuable. New settlers in a region begin to specialize and this improves their efficiency in producing specific goods. The central land is the most valuable due to easy availability and least transport needed. This distribution in land values is created by the community and (after an initial start), not by the natural resources. As the city expands, speculators in land values will deliberately hold potentially useful sites out of use, until planning and development have permitted their values to grow. Meanwhile there is fierce competition for access to the most suitable sites for housing, agriculture and manufacturing industries. The limited availability of useful land means that the high rents paid by tenants make their residence more costly and the provision of goods and services more expensive. It also creates unemployment, causing wages to be lowered by the monopolists, who control the big producing organizations, and whose land was already obtained when it was cheap. Consequently this basic structure of our current macroeconomics system, works to limit opportunity and to create poverty, see above reference. The most basic cause of our continuing poverty is the lack of properly paid work and the reason for this is the lack of opportunity of access to the land on which the work must be done. The useful land is monopolized by a landlord who either holds it out of use (for speculation in its rising value), or charges the tenant heavily for its right of access. In the case when the landlord is also the producer, he/she has a monopolistic control of the land and of the produce too, and can charge more for this access right than what an entrepreneur, who seeks greater opportunity, normally would be able to afford. A wise and sensible government would recognize that this problem derives from lack of opportunity to work and earn. It can be solved by the use of a tax system which encourages the proper use of land and which stops penalizing everything and everybody else. Such a tax system was proposed 136 years ago by Henry George, a (North) American economist, but somehow most macro-economists seem never to have heard of him, in common with a whole lot of other experts. (I would guess that they don’t want to know, which is worse!) In “Progress and Poverty” 1879, REF. 4, Henry George proposed a single tax on land values without other kinds of tax on produce, services, capital gains etc. This regime of land value tax (LVT) has 17 features which benefit almost everyone in the economy, except for landlords, tax-men and banks, who/which do nothing productive and find that land dominance has its own reward. 17 Aspects of LVT Affecting Government, Land Owners, Communities and Ethics Four Aspects for Better Government: 1. LVT, adds to the national income as do other taxation systems, but it should replace them. 2. The cost of collecting the LVT is less than for all other production-related taxes, since tax avoidance becomes impossible--the various sites are visible to all, and their ownership is public knowledge. 3. Consumers pay less for their purchases due to lower production costs (see below). This creates greater satisfaction with the management of national affairs. 4. The speculation in and withholding of unused land is eliminated, see item 7 and the national economy stabilizes. It no longer experiences the 18 year business boom/bust cycle, due to periodic speculation in land values (see below). Six Aspects Affecting Land Owners: 5. LVT is progressive–owners of the most potentially productive sites pay the most tax. Urban sites provide the most usefulness and resulting tax. Big rural sites have less value and can be farmed appropriately to their ability to provide useful produce. 6. The land owner pays his LVT regardless of how his site is used. A large proportion of the present ground-rent from tenants becomes the LVT, with the result that land has less sales-value but a significant “rental”-value (even when it is not used). 7. LVT stops speculation in land prices because the withholding of land from proper use is not worthwhile. 8. The introduction of LVT initially reduces the sales price of sites, even though their rental value can still grow over a longer term. As more sites become available, the competition for them is less fierce. 9. With LVT, land owners are unable to pass the tax on to their tenants as rent hikes, due to the reduced competition for access to the additional sites that come into use. 10. With LVT, land prices will initially drop. Speculators in land values will want to foreclose on their mortgages and withdraw their money for reinvestment. Therefore LVT should be introduced gradually, to allow these speculators sufficient time to transfer their money to company-shares etc., and simultaneously to meet the increased demand for produce (see below, items 12 and 13). Three Aspects Regarding Improved Communities: 11. With LVT, there is an incentive to use land for production or residence, rather than it being unused. 12. With LVT, greater working opportunities exist due to cheaper land and a greater number of available sites. Consumer goods become cheaper too, because entrepreneurs have less difficulty in starting-up their businesses and because they pay less ground-rent–demand grows, unemployment decreases. 13. Investment money is withdrawn from land and placed in durable capital goods. This means more advances in technology and cheaper goods too. Four Aspects About Kinder Ethics: 14. The collection of taxes from productive effort and commerce is socially unjust. LVT replaces this national extortion by gathering the surplus rental income, which comes without any exertion from the land owner or by the banks– LVT is a natural system of national income-gathering. 15. The previous bribery and corruption for gaining privileged information about land cease. Before, this was due to the leaking of news of municipal plans for housing and industrial development, causing shock-waves in local land prices (and municipal workers’ and lawyers’ bank balances). 16. The improved use of the more central land of cities reduces the environmental damage due to a) unused sites being dumping-grounds, and b) the smaller amount of fossil-fuel use, when traveling between home and workplace. 17. Because the LVT eliminates the advantage that landlords currently hold over our society, LVT provides a greater equality of opportunity to earn a living. Entrepreneurs can operate in a natural way– to provide more jobs because their production costs are reduced. Then untaxed earnings will correspond to the value that the labor puts into the product or service. Consequently, after LVT has been properly and fully introduced as a single tax, it will eliminate poverty and improve business ethics. TAX LAND NOT LABOR; TAX TAKINGS NOT MAKINGS! References: 1. Adam Smith: “The Wealth of Nations”, 1776. 2. Martin Adams: “LAND– A New Paradigm for a Thriving World”, North Atlantic Books, California, 2015. 3. Mason Gaffney and Fred Harrison: “The Corruption of Economics”, Shepheard-Walyn, London, 2005. 4. Henry George: “Progress and Poverty” 1897, reprinted by Schalkenbach Foundation, NY, 1978.

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