Sunday, August 20, 2017

Four narratives make ASEAN unique at 50

ASEAN, which observes its golden jubilee on August 8, has come a long way, making a significant contribution to peace, security and prosperity. Now, when its future prospects and centrality look uncertain, it has four narratives to tell and two contrasting models from which to choose.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations was founded on August 8, 1967, with five members: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Between 1984 and 1999, five other nations – Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia – joined it to make it an association of 10 states. It is unique in its essential character for it is different from the European Union. Unlike EU, it is not a supra-national organisation. It may be recalled that following the turn of the century, ASEAN set for itself the goal of graduating to an ASEAN Community by 2015, a program that was launched with three pillars – political-security, economic, and social-cultural communities – which promised a comprehensive umbrella of functions. The member governments are all agreed on the roadmap that promises to take them to their common destination.

In the past, South-East Asia was a divided, sprawling culture, but for most of the past 50 years, it was held together by a unifying story. It was the story of accelerated economic growth, social progress and cultural development to provide regional peace and stability. ASEAN’s success was the story of leaving behind the mutual suspicion, and venturing into a wilderness to create a promising future for its citizens. That story rested upon an amazing level of consultation, compromise and consensus – ‘the ASEAN way’. There are four narratives in the ASEAN way.

First, there is a story of multi-cultural ASEAN. It sees ASEAN citizens as members of groups whose status is largely determined by their nationalities and their socio-cultural background. This multi-cultural narrative dominates ASEAN’s community-building process and educational systems. It makes the product of social-capital creation – the students, the future citizens of ASEAN – more able to think in terms larger than their own identity group, which means they can find common ground and effective arguments that can reach people of different backgrounds in the future.

Second, there is the narrative of a globalised ASEAN, which is dominant in urban centres and industrial parks. This story comes with an exhilarating ideology of economic integration supported by regional production networks that flatten economic hierarchies, strengthen local supply chains, discard old elites and empower low-middle income families and individual workers. But in real life, when you disrupt old structures, you end up concentrating power in fewer hands. This narrative worked well for people and industries who were prepared for competition but not so well for others.

Third, there is the liberation, but people-centred, narrative that dominates ASEAN as a land of free nations and individuals responsible for their own fates, both economically and socially. This story celebrates the dynamism of the economic integration that fulfills the social aspirations and hopes of the people. Its prime value is economic freedom and environmental sustainability, which in default brings human-centred progress, by regarding ASEAN as a community of entrepreneurs, taxpayers, consumers and workers – indeed everything except citizens.

Fourth, there is the narrative of ASEAN centrality, which resonates with ASEAN at the centre of an array of regional institutions involving partners in East Asia and beyond, such as ASEAN+3, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the Asian-Europe Meeting and the East Asia Summit. ASEAN centrality is the conviction that has brought new identity because of the unity and the strength – the unity in elite decision-making, which has no allegiance to a central authority but evolves through consensus and self-confidence. Maritime and territorial disputes threaten ASEAN unity and centrality, but this story is always forward-looking, pragmatic and optimistic. This narrative may have contempt for democratic norms and liberal values but stabilises the very idea of an objective ASEAN.

To take an objective view, ASEAN in the past 50 years has made significant contributions to peace, security and prosperity in the region. ASEAN has many socio-economic and political achievements to its credit, but the challenges are plentiful too. With a population of 628 million and a combined GDP of $2.4 trillion, it is the world’s seventh-largest market and third largest labour force, and it has been projected to become the fourth-largest economic bloc by 2030.

Mari Pangestu, a former Indonesian minister, said at an Economic Research Institute for ASEAN forum that ASEAN is now threatened by slow recovery in the global economy; increased anti-globalisation, anti-immigration and anti-elite sentiments; disruptive technologies that threaten job growth; and expanding demographic shifts. She recommends that it “speed up and widen the scope of regional economic integration”. But does ASEAN have the requisite will to execute this?

All four narratives provide a viable basis for successfully tackling this challenge. But, the future of ASEAN will be a competition between two other stories, which are sort of descended from the other four.

The first is the mercantilist model, which sees ASEAN not as the culmination of history and socio-culture but as one more economic power in competition with neighboring economies like China, India, and so on. In this, to be ASEAN implies a member of an economic clan, and the ideal ASEAN member states and its partners are purely protectors of this clan. ASEAN governments and corporations work together with their citizens and partners by closely controlling trade, investment and immigration. ASEAN’s wealthy would have an incentive to share their resources with workers because they need them to fight off competing economies.

The second is the empowered community of ASEAN. This story sees ASEAN as a melting pot of all socio-economic and political cultures and human history’s greatest laboratory for cultivation of new talents, skills and abilities. This model welcomes diversity in education, pluralistic views on innovation, open trade, meritocracy and immigration for all the dynamisms these things unleash with ASEAN centrality. This model heavily invests in social capital, especially the young and those who suffer from the downside of creative destruction and ASEAN community-building. In this model, every young boy and girl of ASEAN is enmeshed in the state’s care to arouse his or her inherent energy and propel social mobility.