ASEAN Headquarters, Jakarta. CREDIT: <a href=<"">Gunawan Kartapranata</a> via Wikipedia
ASEAN Headquarters, Jakarta. CREDIT: Gunawan Kartapranata via Wikipedia

The "Living, Breathing Modern Miracle" of ASEAN

Aug 23, 2016

Southeast Asia is the most diverse region on Earth, says Kishore Mahbubani, yet instead of a clash of civilizations, ASEAN is bringing about a fusion of civilizations--something that other regions could learn from. "So Southeast Asia, especially ASEAN, brings a lot of hope to the world. That's why I call it a living, breathing modern miracle."

JOANNE MYERS: On behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to welcome all those listening to this podcast, which is coming to you from the Carnegie Council in New York. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Program here at the Council.

Today our guest is, without doubt, one of Asia's leading thinkers, Kishore Mahbubani. He will be talking to us from Singapore and discussing the living, breathing modern miracle that is ASEAN, which is an acronym for the Association of South East Asian Nations.

Professor Mahbubani's reputation as an acute political observer of all things Asian precedes him. As a student of philosophy and history, he has had, and continues to have, quite an interesting career, which began in government service. As a Singaporean diplomat, he served in Cambodia in 1973 and 1974, in Malaysia, in Washington, and as Singapore's ambassador to the United Nations, where I first met him about 15 years ago.

Currently, he is dean and professor in the practice of public policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy of the National University of Singapore. He maintains an international presence by serving on boards and councils of several institutions in Singapore, Europe, and North America, including the Yale President's Council on International Activities, the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Geo-economics, etc.

Thank you, Kishore, for taking the time to speak to us.


JOANNE MYERS: Earlier you had mentioned to me that you are in the process of writing a book about ASEAN that will be coming out just in time for ASEAN's 50th anniversary in August of 2017. Therefore, this morning is a bit of a preview for the book you will be publishing.

But before we get into the salient issues about why you believe ASEAN is a modern miracle, perhaps you could spend a few minutes giving us a brief history and some background information about ASEAN—who were the founding members, how many were there, and what was its purpose and what was its overall mission.

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: Well, ASEAN was founded on 8 August 1967. It was founded by five countries: Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines. What brought together the five ASEAN countries was not a four-letter word called love but a four-letter word called fear. At that time, the five ASEAN countries were all very frightened of communist expansionism in Southeast Asia. There was a fear that the non-communist countries of ASEAN would fall like dominos as communism expanded. So, in response, they decided to come together and protect themselves by creating ASEAN on 8 August 1967.

JOANNE MYERS: What was its purpose? I mean did it have a particular mission, other than the fear that generated this and started them?

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: Well, I mean, of course in the ASEAN Declaration founding it they didn't speak about the fear. Of course they spoke about economic and social cooperation and coming together. But everyone knew the real political agenda was trying to come together to ward off the threat of communist expansionism in the 1960s.

JOANNE MYERS: Well, they certainly achieved that. But did they have any other purpose in mind? You talked about the economic idea, maybe to become more successful as an association and bringing all those skills together?

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: I think certainly they spoke about economic and social cooperation. But it did not happen right away, in the 1960s and 1970s. The economic cooperation came much later. Fortunately, it was very successful. So ASEAN today is the seventh-largest economy in the world and on its way to becoming the fourth-largest economy in the world by 2050.

JOANNE MYERS: Is that why you call it "a living, breathing modern miracle," or is there more to this wonderful description? I guess for political reasons and for economic reasons it has had much success. But are there other reasons why it is this miracle?

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: Well, I think it's a living, breathing modern miracle because we live in a world today when more and more people, especially in the West, believe that different civilizations can't get together. And certainly, in the West there is this deep sense of Islamophobia that is growing. If you want proof of it, just listen to Donald Trump and you understand what Islamophobia is all about.

What is amazing is that Southeast Asia is one corner—in fact, it's the only corner—on planet Earth where all the major civilizations come together. Among the 600 million people who live in ASEAN, you have about 250 million Muslims; over 100 million Christians; over 150 million Buddhists, and of course in Buddhism you have the Hinayana Buddhists and the Mahayana Buddhists; and in addition to that, you have the Hindus, the Taoists, the Confucianists, and even the communists in Southeast Asia. So there is no corner of our planet anywhere that is as diverse as Southeast Asia is.

Amazingly, in the most diverse corner of planet Earth, where you should be seeing a clash of civilizations, instead what you are seeing is a fusion of civilizations in Southeast Asia. So Southeast Asia, especially ASEAN, brings a lot of hope to the world. That's why I call it a living, breathing modern miracle.

I think one important point to recognize about Southeast Asia is that it has always been recognized as the Balkans of Asia. And indeed, as the Balkans of Asia, it is much more diverse even than the Balkans of Europe. Quite remarkably, when the Cold War ended, everyone anticipated that the Balkans of Europe would remain at peace and the Balkans of Asia would erupt into conflict. Instead, the exact opposite happened. While historians will continue to argue for a long time why that happened, there is absolutely no doubt that the main reason why the Balkans of Asia remain at peace is because of ASEAN.

JOANNE MYERS: How did they actually create this sense of community? I mean there are 10 nations now and it has remarkable diversity, but there's a sense of trust and confidence. Is there a key to this or a guiding principle that you've found in your research that has allowed them to be so successful?

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: In my forthcoming book on ASEAN, I actually explain how this ecosystem of peace was created. But I can tell you, when you talk about trust, when I first began attending ASEAN meetings in the early 1970s, there was a massive amount of distrust among the five founding states because every pair of the founding states who were neighbors had had problems with each other. So there was a lot of distrust in the room whenever the ASEAN countries met.

But amazingly enough, when I was permanent secretary of the foreign ministry in Singapore, and I went back to attending ASEAN meetings in the 1990s, the distrust had been replaced by trust. That's a result of constant meetings. We know when you get to know people on a personal basis the distrust disappears.

JOANNE MYERS: Right, consultation.

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: One funny point I make in my book is that one key reason that ASEAN has succeeded is because of a four-letter word beginning with G, called golf. I know for a fact that many difficult problems among the ASEAN countries were resolved over golf games. Two decades of playing golf also contributed to bringing peace and trust in Southeast Asia.

JOANNE MYERS: It's like soccer is also a way that people come together, but often not as congenial as, I guess, a golf game, right?

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: Yes. So golf was very, very critical.

JOANNE MYERS: So that is sort of the networking part of it. And also, you have talked before about consultation.

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: Yes, the networking was certainly a key part of it. And also, in the intervening period, because in the 1980s the founding ASEAN member countries, who were then joined by Brunei and became six, were fighting against the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, which took place in 1979. So a decade of collaboration to reverse the Vietnamese occupation in Cambodia led to a culture of cooperation, a deep culture of cooperation, which in a sense provided the foundation for the trust that you see in ASEAN today.


KISHORE MAHBUBANI: What is truly ironic is that even though ASEAN was founded to fight communist expansionism, when the Cold War ended, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia all joined ASEAN and became happy members of ASEAN.

JOANNE MYERS: Well, that is a success story. But as you said, as you begin to write your book, it's a time to reflect back and take stock and have a serious analysis of the association's strengths and weaknesses. We talked a little bit about the strengths. But what do you see as weaknesses?

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: Any organization has weaknesses. In the case of ASEAN, there are several weaknesses.

One, there is always a gap between what ASEAN promises and what ASEAN delivers. There is always a lag time between what ASEAN promises and what it delivers. So, for example, if it says that it will reduce tariffs to, let's say, 5 percent within two years, don't expect it to be done in two years. It may take three to four or five years.

But the good news is that eventually it gets done. ASEAN, I always say, moves like a crab—it takes two steps forward, one step backwards, one step sidewards—but, somehow or other, despite this circular motion, if you analyze ASEAN decade by decade, at the end of each decade it has moved forward quite significantly. That's why ASEAN today has become the second-most-successful regional organization in the world after the European Union.

JOANNE MYERS: But yet, you've also written that it doesn't have the strong institutions or the ownership that the European Union has, because the European Union has France and Germany. Who do you see among the 10 nations is taking ownership and creating the strong institutions that people will look to for guidance?

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: Well, you are absolutely right. One other weakness of ASEAN is the fact that the ASEAN secretariat is extremely weak. In fact, in my book I argue strongly for the ASEAN secretariat to be significantly strengthened. Even though the combined ASEAN GNP, which is now close to $2.5 trillion, is massive, it still has a tiny secretariat with a tiny budget. So I think the time has come for the ASEAN countries to spend more and do more to strengthen the ASEAN secretariat. I hope that that will be one of the effects of my book when it comes out.

JOANNE MYERS: But in Europe it's often spoken that many of the European countries don't want to give up their sovereignty to the European Union, the European Commission. Do you find that still as a problem among ASEAN countries, or are they more willing to find one strong body, like the secretariat, to make decisions for them?

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: Well, you know, ASEAN has learned many positive lessons and many negative lessons from the European Union.

One positive lesson we have learned from the European Union, because the European Union is by far, I would say, the most civilized club in the world, and it is the most civilized club in the world because among the EU members you don't just have zero wars between any two EU Member States, you have a zero prospect of war. Among the ASEAN countries we have had zero wars, but we haven't yet achieved the European Union's standard of zero prospect of war. That's a positive lesson that we can learn from the European Union.

On the negative side, I think the European Union, by contrast to ASEAN, has created far too big a bureaucracy and created all kinds of rules that have become stifling for the average European citizen. So clearly, what we need to do is to find a happy medium between the sort of massive bureaucracy that the European Union has and the tiny bureaucracy that ASEAN has.

But I must emphasize one point. None of the ASEAN countries are prepared to give up their sovereignty as of now to any kind of regional organization. So ASEAN is not founded on the basis of sacrificing your sovereignty, but actually using your sovereignty to collaborate and cooperate with each other.

JOANNE MYERS: Sounds like a very healthy way.

Do you think it has something to do with the words chosen, too? There's a European Union, there's an African Union; but this is an association. So I was wondering if definitions mean things.

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: Oh certainly. I think it was a big mistake, as I say in my book, for the African Union to learn from the European Union how to cooperate. In fact, ASEAN would have been a better model for the African Union because it's much looser and much more pragmatic in the way it collaborates with each other.

So there are many lessons. In fact, one of the things that I hope the book will do is to persuade the Europeans that they should begin to learn lessons from ASEAN. But as you know, the Europeans have become very arrogant over the years and cannot even conceive of the possibility that they can learn lessons from ASEAN. But in my book I give several examples of where they could have done better if they had learned lessons from ASEAN.

JOANNE MYERS: Well, it sounds like ASEAN is very successful. But there also are threats in the world. You've painted a very rosy picture. But could you talk to us about the risks going forward and geopolitical challenges that ASEAN countries are going to face?

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: I think it's very clear that the ASEAN countries are going to face serious geopolitical risks. In fact, the one big one that has already hit ASEAN is increasing geopolitical competition between the number-one power in the world, which today is the United States, and the number-one emerging power, which today is China. As history has taught us, whenever the number-one emerging power is about to surpass the number-one power in the world, you get rising levels of competition and sometimes conflict.

I don't think there will be conflict between the United States and China, but there will be greater competition. The one regional organization that will be most affected by this U.S.–China competition will be ASEAN, because the ASEAN countries will be forced to choose sides between China and the United States. Now, clearly they don't want to choose sides, they'd rather not be involved in the geopolitical competition, but quite often you have to choose.

To give you an example, when China proposed the idea of setting up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the United States immediately opposed it. Many friends of the United States were told not to join it. But all the ASEAN countries decided to join it despite American pressure not to do so.

JOANNE MYERS: So if we're looking at it as a whole in going forward, what would you say are the lessons we can learn from ASEAN and that we can take with us and apply to the rest of the world, like the Middle East, which you alluded to earlier?

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: I think there are several lessons to learn from ASEAN. I think the world can become a much more peaceful place if we learn lessons from ASEAN.

To give just one example, there are two countries in the world that had military regimes that were in power for a long time. One country is called Syria. The other country is called Myanmar, or Burma in the West. The way the West decided to solve the problem of Syria was to impose sanctions on Syria. The way that ASEAN decided to solve the problem of Myanmar was to welcome it as a member and to engage it and to talk to the people of Myanmar, to invite the officials of Myanmar to visit the rest of Southeast Asia to see how far behind Myanmar had fallen.

Today just look at what's happened. The Western policy of sanctions in Syria has created a broken country and it is still struggling to find peace. By contrast, Myanmar is a miracle story of how a country has made a peaceful transition from a military regime to a peaceful, democratic transition. This, as my book documents in great detail, would not have happened if the ASEAN countries had not decided to engage Myanmar for 20 years or so.

JOANNE MYERS: Well, as anticipated, Kishore, you've given us an excellent window into ways in which ASEAN can bring some hope to our troubled times. For if five men—one Buddhist Thai, one Christian Filipino, two Muslims, and a lapsed Hindu—could come together to sign the original ASEAN Declaration, bringing peace to one of the most uncompromising regions of the world in the most uncompromising times, and who came from such diverse cultural universes, could agree on so many things, then perhaps there is hope for others. Once again, through your analysis, we have a greater appreciation of the living, breathing miracle that ASEAN is.

Thank you so much, Kishore, for your time.

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: My pleasure. Thank you.

You may also like

Street corner in Yangon, Myanmar. CREDIT: Devin Stewart

JUL 24, 2013 Article

Burma's Reforms and Regional Cooperation in East Asia

"Though the 2010 elections that brought a civilian government to power were not free and fair, the new president, Thein Sein, has embarked upon a path-breaking ...

Skyline of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia via <a href="">Shutterstock</a>

DEC 3, 2014 Article

Lawlessness: Malaysia and Its Law of Rules

With restrictive laws and harassment touching NGOs, journalists, religious and ethnic minorities, and the LGBT community, Malaysia's rule of law problem cannot be ignored. How ...

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, Singapore. CREDIT: <a href="" target="_blank">Khairul Nizam</a>

JAN 26, 2016 Article

The "Singapore School" of Asian Values: Down But Not Out?

When the Asian financial crisis of 1997 blunted the so-called "Asian Economic Miracle," critics--many Westerners, but also Asians tired of the tendentious claims of their cultural ...

The Act of Killing

AUG 26, 2013 Article

Ethics on Film: Discussion of "The Act of Killing"

It is not hyperbole to call this documentary an epochal film. It brings viewers into the minds of mass murderers, illuminates a horrific piece of ...

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation