Asean season is already upon us, with member nations busily hosting international seminars,
workshops and conferences about the regional organisation.
Some of these events were held in close succession in Kuala Lumpur recently. As a prime mover and
founding member of Asean, how can Malaysia and Malaysians do any less?
Chief among these was IS Malaysia’s Asia-Pacific Roundtable (APR), the largest annual event of its
kind in the world: a Track Two (non-official conference on official security matters) convention on
current regional concerns.
Anything concerning Asean would involve concepts, terminology and inevitable layers of diplomatic
nuances behind and between them. It is an established Asean sub-culture.
Thus, the first APR session saw two former Asean secretaries-general on the panel concluding by
looking back on the term “constructive engagement.” One of them denied a suggestion that he had
coined the term.
Participants seemed to have forgotten that “constructive engagement” was the positive spin President
Ronald Reagan gave to continued US dealings with apartheid South Africa, in the face of international
criticism and calls for a boycott.
Later, when Western criticism was aimed at Asean members for dealing with the pariah nation of
military-ruled Myanmar, Asean leaders replied by calling it constructive engagement too. Verbal
jousting runs both ways.
However, this did not sit well with a younger and more idealistic generation of Asean leaders at the
time. A cabal of younger ministers then, including the one on the recent panel, cast around for
One called for Asean’s “constructive intervention” in Cambodia which seemed then to have a
disintegrating coalition government. It was a bit much for Asean’s Old Guard, strictly abiding by the
principle of non-intervention.
Another Asean leader called instead for “constructive interactions,” which would soften the
interventionist element. However, it did not seem to go anywhere.
Yet another Asean leader advocated “flexible engagement.” But then it seemed too wobbly to be
Finally, Asean and its leaders settled on “enhanced interaction,” which contained all the right positive
notes without any conceivable setbacks. And so the work of regional diplomatic wordplay was done.
However, the situation on the ground in Myanmar, Cambodia and elsewhere remained much the
same. The problems abated only with time, and with these countries’ eventual accession to Asean
More Asean terminology arose from attempts to bring Asean to the people of south-east Asia.
Asean’s albatross had long been the closed intergovernmental nature of its being, operating
essentially for elites to sustain the status quo.
In time, a sense of Asean’s mortality prompted efforts to make Asean “people-oriented” or “peoplecentred.”
Unfortunately, undue confusion reigned.
A view persists that “people-oriented” came first, which then developed progressively with Malaysia’s
urging into the more substantive “people-centred.” Another view presumes the opposite.
These terms originated in the recommendations of two separate panels appointed by Asean to
provide inputs for the prospective Asean Charter: the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) and the High-
Level Task Force (HLTF).
Some academic references add to the confusion by tracing these terms only to 2008. Others cite how
several hopeful civil society groups responded positively by offering their views, but found the EPG
indifferent and only the HLTF was encouraging.
A closer examination would reveal the opposite. The HLTF seemed officious while the EPG, chaired
by former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Tun Musa Hitam, was more positive.
The result was the 2006 EPG document “Report of the Eminent Persons Group on the Asean
Charter.” This 49-page report contains one reference to “a people-oriented Asean” and three
subsequent references to “a people-centred organisation.”
This may have served to credit Malaysia for spearheading a humanistic approach to a new improved
Asean. But it was also enough to worry undemocratic Asean regimes, only too mindful that their
leaders were occupying positions that were not the will of the people.
These leaders could just about tolerate “people-oriented,” which would still mean top-down changes
they could control, but “people-centred” would be too much for them. Ordinary citizens could well get
the idea that they could choose their government.
Upon closer inspection, however, a serious tussle within Asean between the two terms did not
develop into a full-blown affair. Documents such as the 2015 “Kuala Lumpur Declaration on a Peopleoriented
and People-centred Asean” contain both terms.
The terms that would unite all Asean leaders, whether budding democrats, residual autocrats or
hybrids somewhere between, relate to Asean’s “centrality” in occupying the “driving seat.”
This involves Asean’s aspirations to exert an influence outside its immediate region. Such Asean-led
institutions as the 18-member East Asia Summit and the 27-member Asean Regional Forum already
exist for this purpose, even when sometimes seeming rudderless.
The problem may not be in the choice of metaphors, but in what the metaphors unwittingly imply,
reveal or foretell.
Centrality (leadership) may not come with being in the driving seat, and driving the vehicle may not
mean deciding on the destination. This is as true of a chauffeured VIP limousine as of a common taxi
or a bus.
Passengers who pay decide where they wish to go, and passengers who pay more also decide on
how to get there. Not least among Asean’s concerns is whether member nations have sufficient
economic clout to decide on the region’s destiny.
South-East Asia as a region is a subset of the larger East Asia, where major global powers roam.
How do Asean members measure up in a time of growing interest from China, Russia, India and
Japan, besides the US?
Then came a term for this region not unique to Asean: “arms race.” Typically, it was from conference
participants unfamiliar with the region’s security situation.
Government officials everywhere dislike the term either because it calls undue attention to their arms
trade, with or without shady deals, or it alarms and scares off investors for fear of regional instability.
But seriously, is there an arms race in this region? There are clearly increased defence budgets for
several countries, but does that necessarily amount to an “arms race”?
The same question had been asked some 25 years before with even greater intensity. And the
answer, from the late Australian security specialist Prof Des Ball, was a firm no.
I then published a paper in Singapore explaining why there was no arms race here. There is still none
today, not even after half a century of Asean – perhaps partly because of Asean.
As some conference participants explained, increased defence budgets do not equate squarely to
increased arms purchases. The bulk of defence expenditures typically pay for the salaries,
allowances and benefits of personnel.
A “race” is a competitive relationship between two or more players. Even when arms purchases grow,
the motivation could just be having more to spend, or some threat perception or contingency –
whether justified or not.
Unless and until the sole or primary motivation is to outdo the other country or countries in arms
acquisitions, there is no race to speak of. There is still no reason for such a race.
Even if all the 10 Asean countries can put their military strength together, and double it, that would still
be no match for the major global powers in East Asia.
Article by Bunn Nagara appeared in The Star , 4 June 2017.