Going beyond the economy in the ASEAN community

The ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) was first proposed by Indonesia in 2003 to balance the Singapore-proposed ASEAN Economic Community. However, it remains lagged more than a decade later as it still struggles to achieve any balance.

Devina Heriyanto | The Jakarta Post
Jakarta | Mon, September 5 2016 | 09:31 am

The ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) was first proposed by Indonesia in 2003 to balance the Singapore-proposed ASEAN Economic Community. However, it remains lagged more than a decade later as it still struggles to achieve any balance.

APSC becomes the main topic for a panel consisting of three experts from three different ASEAN member states, in a discussion being held on Thursday to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Centre of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Singapore Institute of International Affairs chairman Simon Tay chairs the discussion between former Indonesian foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda and founding president of the Institute for Strategic and Development Studies Philippines Carolina Hernandez.

CSIS executive director Philips J. Vermonte said the topic of APSC is fitting since ASEAN will reach its 50th anniversary next year.

The regional grouping has had a significant role since its inception in 1967 and is praised by many as one of the most successful regional groupings for its ability to maintain peace in Southeast Asia. This “relative peace and security” was dubbed by Hassan as “the greatest achievement of ASEAN”. However, the referred to “maintenance of peace” was quickly commented by an audience as the mere “avoidance of conflict.”

Still, the presence of ASEAN is not to be taken for granted. “In an absence of strong world order, it’s necessary to develop a strong regional order,” said Hassan.

Although crucial, mainly forgotten are the political-security and socio-cultural areas as the two other pillars in ASEAN Community 2025, shadowed by the much more illustrious ASEAN Economic Community (AEC).

The idea of APSC resonates within article 1 paragraph 7 of the ASEAN Charter, regarding the purpose of ASEAN “to strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law and to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.”As a political and security community, ASEAN faces challenges with democracy, good governance and human rights. There are problems not only in the promotion of these values within the region, but also in the differences in understanding these values.

“It’s one step forward and two steps backward,” commented Hassan on the implementation of these values within APSC.

Meanwhile, Fernandez emphasized that the understanding of democracy and human rights in ASEAN remains a challenge, since these understandings are “based on individual experience.” It is inconceivable for 10 ASEAN member states to stand as a single, united political and security community without common values, or precisely, without common understanding of these values.

The promotion of democracy and human rights remains a challenge at the domestic level: Myanmar is criticized with the persecution of ethnic Rohingya; Thailand’s new military-backed constitution is seen as a step back in its democracy; Indonesia’s human rights record is tainted by the use of the death penalty for drug-related crimes; the Philippines have a president who openly asked whether drug users are human; the more economically advanced Singapore has draconian laws limiting civil and political rights.

A more challenging obstacle for the ASEAN Community is the involvement of the people itself. During the seminar, Fernandez repeatedly asked, “What is a community without people?”

A prominent critique of ASEAN is the elitist nature of the organization. The motto “One Vision, One Identity, One Community” seems ironic since most of over 600 million people in ASEAN do not even know or understand the organization, let alone hold common vision, identity or community.

A 2014 survey on ASEAN awareness among young people at universities showed that over 80 percent of the 4,007 respondents were only somewhat familiar with ASEAN. The number seems quite positive on surface, but not considering the context. In Indonesia, only three universities are surveyed – the University of Indonesia (Depok, West Java), the University of Syiah Kuala (Aceh) and Nusa Cendana University (Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara) – and Indonesia’s higher education enrollment is still relatively low. According to the country’s Central Statistics Agency, only 5,839,587 university students were enrolled in the academic year 2013/2014. For the rest, ASEAN might as well be an alien.

Fernandez commented on ASEAN identity. “How can we define a single identity within a very diverse community?” she asked. Indonesia alone has more than 300 ethnic groups, regularly faces interracial conflicts and still struggles to define a national identity that encompass all, while leaving no one behind.

Furthermore, Fernandez encouraged the leaders of ASEAN to take the concerns of the people seriously. “There’s a disconnect between what ASEAN leaders think about and what the people want to happen,” she added.

Indonesia as the primus inter pares in ASEAN is expected to step in. “Indonesia’s leadership should go beyond the concept of the ASEAN Community and its values,” said Fernandez, “But [with] initiatives to encourage people to understand these concepts.” (dmr)


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