Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Challenges Facing ASEAN in a More Complex Age

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Challenges Facing ASEAN in a More Complex Age

Article excerpt

Relations between members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) took a dramatic turn in late 1998. The presidents of Indonesia and the Philippines criticized the Malaysian Government's treatment of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. Indonesian President B.J. Habibie cancelled a visit to Malaysia, and at one point both he and Philippine President Joseph Estrada contemplated boycotting the APEC summit in Kuala Lumpur in November. Thai leaders also expressed sympathy with Anwar, and Singapore's Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew said it was "bad" if Anwar had been bashed while in jail. Malaysia, in turn, insisted that the Philippines and Indonesia refrain from interfering in its internal affairs, and postponed a meeting on border matters with the Philippines. Several Malaysian leaders, together with the pro-government media, also commented unfavourably on presidents Habibie and Estrada.

A little earlier, other bilateral conflicts had grabbed media attention. The most dramatic were between Malaysia and Singapore, over issues including commercial disagreements, the location of Malaysian customs, immigration and quarantine (CIQ) operations for train services, the supply of Malaysian water to Singapore, alleged violations of Malaysian airspace by Singapore military aircraft, and a book of memoirs by Senior Minister Lee. Security co-operation under the Five-Power Defence Arrangements was disrupted for the first time, with Malaysia suspending the 1998 exercises, ostensibly for budgetary reasons. Indonesia-Singapore relations were affected by Senior Minister Lee's February 1998 criticism of B.J. Habibie's possible appointment as Vice-President. In a memorable retort, President Habibie told the Asian Wall Street Journal in August that Singapore was "just a little red dot on the map".

ASEAN's image was tarnished by these events. And indeed, there had been much questioning of ASEAN's usefulness since the middle of 1997.(1) The regional economic crisis was part of the reason for this - the perception of individual countries as exemplars of the "Asian economic miracle" was affected, and ASEAN as an organization seemed unable to respond. At the same time, ASEAN was seen as ineffective in addressing the haze that engulfed the region in the second half of 1997, the Hun Sen coup in Cambodia in July, and human rights concerns in Myanmar after that country was admitted into the organization. The international media began to describe ASEAN as a failure. The July 1998 Annual Ministerial Meeting (AMM) did little to redress this perception. Thailand's proposal for a move to "flexible engagement" - widely considered a departure from the principle of non-intervention - was supported only by the Philippines, and seen as indicating further divisions within ASEAN's ranks.

At the December ASEAN Summit in Hanoi, most government leaders reflected on these problems. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad observed that the economic crisis had "created the impression of an ASEAN in disarray, its members at odds with one another". His Singapore counterpart, Goh Chok Tong, lamented that some Dialogue Partners believed ASEAN had been "exposed as ineffective" - a perception that was "not entirely without basis". Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai observed that: "The economic and financial crisis we are going through has somewhat eroded our self-confidence. It has raised doubts and questions about whether ASEAN can regain its vibrancy and vitality. Some have gone so far as to write us off."(2)

These developments have opened up some major questions. Is the perception of an ASEAN in disarray - or even in crisis - warranted? Is the economic crisis the main cause of ASEAN's problems? How is ASEAN responding? Is ASEAN still needed?

ASEAN in Crisis? Two Reasons For Caution

Claims that ASEAN is in disarray or in crisis have frequently been made in the past, but subsequently disproved. When ASEAN was formed in 1967 it was divided by almost all kinds of differences conceivable - historical, racial, cultural, political, and economic. …

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