Written by Khoo Ying Hooi.

ASEAN was founded in 1967. However, after five decades, to many, ASEAN is a solely government affair and it remains challenging for ordinary citizens to relate to the concept of an ASEAN Community.

During Malaysia’s 2015 chairmanship, the notion of a people-centred ASEAN was framed to be a powerful vehicle for the realization of people’s aspirations, good governance, transparency, social development, women and youth empowerment, and opportunities for all. It was put forward by the ASEAN Chair that ASEAN Community building has been too top-down, and it is timely that ASEAN now approach it from the bottom-up, where ASEAN governments should listen to their people.

There is no ASEAN community without knowing the aspirations of the ASEAN people. Civil society serves as the bridge in bringing in the people’s grievances to the governments.

In the Kuala Lumpur Declaration on ASEAN Community Vision 2025, signed by leaders during 27th ASEAN Summit in April 2015, the formulation is as follows: “We resolve to consolidate our Community, building upon and deepening the integration process to realise a rules-based, people-oriented, people-centred ASEAN Community, where our peoples enjoy human rights and fundamental freedoms, higher quality of life and the benefits of community building, reinforcing our sense of togetherness and common identity, guided by the purposes and principles of the ASEAN Charter.”
Despite this declaration, the challenge remains: how do we develop an ASEAN identity and to build a people-oriented ASEAN where people are at the centre of community building through the participation of all sectors of society?  In relation to that, I would like to focus on two themes: the promotion of ASEAN identity and engagement with civil society.

The question of the lack of ASEAN identity among the Southeast Asian citizens is often recognized. After 50 years, it remains as a major challenge. In the past, a number of public opinion surveys have shown that very little is known about matters related to ASEAN.  With the introduction of the ASEAN Charter, and subsequently the three pillars of the ASEAN Community, fostering a community spirit of belonging should come naturally but this is unfortunately not the case.

Malaysian former prime minister, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, once said that the ultimate measure of the ASEAN Community’s success depends on how well the organization has brought change to its 600 million people in the region. He has rightly pointed out the challenge of ASEAN. The idea of ASEAN identity remains exclusive only to those who work directly related to ASEAN.

What is needed is public outreach and advocacy on educating people on the roles that they can play as ASEAN citizens. At the same time, it is also essential for ASEAN citizens to realise that the policies or regulations formulated by ASEAN leaders could impact on them.  It is also equally important to build a sense of identity among ASEAN communities because no ASEAN-nites should feel unfamiliar in another ASEAN country.

It is a reality that ASEAN member governments do not have homogenous political systems, with varied levels of political development and different levels of openness to the concept of people participation.  The relationship between ASEAN’s member governments and civil society have not been harmonious due to various reasons, with one reason being suspicion and mistrust. Approaches of different ASEAN governments to civil society are varied, some have consistently resisted civil society participation and engagement.

Civil society groups through the established ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ ASEAN People’s Forum (ACSC/APF) have limited access to the key policy-makers of ASEAN. Last year, the ASCS/ APF did not manage to take place in Laos due to concerns over limited freedom of expression on key issues of concerns of ASEAN, which are inconsistent with the agreed ACSC/APF’s modality of engagement. The event finally took place only in Timor Leste, although Timor Leste has not yet been accepted as a member of ASEAN.

The 50th anniversary of  ASEAN provides a good opportunity to take stock of the achievements made thus far and the plans to meet the challenges of the future. Basic elements of participation such as access to information, information dissemination, consultations, reporting, monitoring, feedback giving are building blocks for people-centred processes and good governance for the region.  Greater knowledge about civil society amongst ASEAN member governments could potentially minimize the existing mistrust and suspicion amongst them. Therefore, the openness to listen to the voices of civil society on various issues is important.

There is no ASEAN community without knowing the aspirations of the ASEAN people. Civil society serves as the bridge in bringing in the people’s grievances to the governments. But there has to be political will from the ASEAN member governments to listen to them.

Khoo Ying Hooi (@khooyinghooi) is Senior Lecturer at the Department of International and Strategic Studies, University of Malaya. Her research interests include non-state actors, transnational activism, protest research, human rights and democratization with a regional focus on Southeast Asia. She is the author of “Seeds of Dissent” (2015), a compilation of her commentaries on academic freedom, human rights, protests and political change in Malaysia. Image: Eduardo C. Tadem. This image is licensed under Creative Commons License.


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