Southeast Asia's Stillborn Child? The ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community

Terence Chong | 11 Apr 2020

When the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) unveiled the three pillars of regional integration at the 9th ASEAN Summit in 2003, it did not surprise many that the ASEAN Security and Economic Communities took centre-stage while the Socio-Cultural Community was often spoken of as an afterthought. This was understandable given the raison d'etre of ASEAN and the current economic challenges that a rising China poses.

The ASEAN Security Community (ASC) is in essence a continuation of ASEAN's original function, that is - to ensure that the institutionalisation of intra-ASEAN relations thwarts the possibility of open and violent conflict between member states. To this end, ASEAN has been successful in developing its own brand of conflict management, a large part of which rests on the principle of non-interference and informal diplomacy, euphemistically referred to as the "ASEAN Way".

Nevertheless, while traditional concepts of a "security community" entail the avoidance of war, today however, with the forces of globalisation increasingly more influential in everyday life, the concept of security has expanded to account for the different types of transborder flows from migrant labour, to infectious diseases that could be equally disruptive and de-stabilising. The ASC takes globalisation seriously in emphasising the need for state-to-state sharing of vital information, the setting up of parallel counter-part institutions for speedier responses, while engaging with the ASEAN Regional Forum in order to confront challenges from beyond the region.

The ASEAN Economic Community is, similarly, borne from the urgency of impending need. The objective of a single production base and a single market, with free movement of goods, services and capital recognises that the chances of economic survival are better as a regional market than as a multitude of national ones. The ability to function as a coherent economic unit also places the region in a better position to take advantage of an economically booming China.

Given these pragmatic and material considerations, it is not surprising that ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) has been viewed by many as less important than the other two. At best, it is tasked with fostering an "ASEAN Identity"; at worse, it is a mere showcase for banal cultural dances.

Perhaps most instrumentally, the ASCC was conceived as a buffer to the side effects of economic integration. Indeed, the tone of the 2004 Vientiane Action Programme (VAP), which focuses on deepening regional integration and narrowing the development gap among member countries, particularly the least developed countries, seems to support this. According to the VAP, the ASCC "focuses on four strategic thrusts to support [the] other ASEAN Community goals", one of which is the need for "social governance that manages the impacts of economic integration". The VAP goes on to make clear that "since economic growth could be threatened by social equalities", the ASCC must be "linked inextricably with the economic and security pillars of the ASEAN Community".

While a strong ASCC should not preclude the ability to soften the side effects of economic integration, there are concerns that, given the specific interests of governments, the ASCC would be seen as little more than a convenient folder for non-security and non-economic issues.

This would be a pity given the strong universal and humanistic objectives of the ASCC, such as raising living standards of disadvantaged groups and accessible education for all. This concern was well articulated by ASEAN non-government organisations (NGOs) when they met the High Level Task Force's (HLTF) to offer feedback to them on the formulation of the ASEAN Charter last month, in Manila, Philippines.

To boost the standing of the ASCC, the ASEAN NGOs hoped that the tone of the VAP would be replicated and enshrined in the ASEAN Charter. This necessitated a mind-set change on the part of the policy-makers to also recognise the ASCC as an autonomous community that would be instrumental in formulating an ASEAN identity and developing an ASEAN consciousness. Furthermore, if the overall objective of the ASCC is the betterment of Southeast Asian lives, then it may be argued that the ASC and the AEC should be subservient to it, and not the other way around.

The ASEAN NGOs also suggested other ways to flesh out the ASCC. One of them was to ensure that the ASEAN Charter had provisions for a stronger paragraph on the youth involvement and participation. This move would serve to pay due attention to the moulding of a still nascent regional identity amongst younger Southeast Asians but, more importantly, offer a way to monitor generational shifts in attitudes and values.

Another proposal to strengthen the ASCC vis-a-vis the ASEAN Charter was to define a more liberal role for the media. As with the region's eclectic mix of political regimes, the Southeast Asian media is rather diverse in their roles and freedoms. To address press freedom issues, the ASEAN NGOs called for the ASEAN Charter to provide for "access to and uninterrupted flow of information for the media". Such a call stems from the experience of Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia where the press has played a crucial role in the democratisation process. The fact that the media in many Southeast Asian societies have had to resist threats and expose corruption has led to a heightened appreciation of its role and strengthened the conviction that its autonomy must be jealously safeguarded.

Lastly, the concept of human rights will mostly likely be enshrined in the ASEAN Charter, although its precise wording and definition is not yet clear. The HLTF made clear that the introduction of human rights was not to target Myanmar. And as if to underline this point, provisions for sanctions and expulsions will not be included in the ASEAN Charter. While governments are constrained when it comes to human rights violations by member states, ASEAN NGOs are now better placed to take advantage of the human rights clause inclusion to pressure recalcitrant regimes. The ASCC would thus be greatly enhanced if an ASEAN human rights regime could be established.

In sum, there are of course a myriad of other ways to develop and strengthen the ASCC. Nevertheless, attention to the youth, media and human rights should be considered vital steps towards the nurturing of regional identity and personal freedoms, both of which do not rank very high on the agenda of the ASC and AEC.

 The writer was one of the Singaporean representatives at the dialogue between the HLTF and ASEAN Civil Society Organisations, on the Drafting of the ASEAN Charter , 27 March 2020, Manila.  

Terence Chong is a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.

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