Increasing ASEAN’s Democratic Legitimacy

By Tunku 'Abidin Muhriz
Increasing ASEAN's democratic legitimacy

In my last article, I concluded that most people living in ASEAN countries are not likely to have paid close attention to the high-level meetings that took place in November: namely the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), the 19th ASEAN Summit and the sixth East Asia Summit (EAS). Indeed, they are more likely to have followed the events of the Southeast Asian Games.

While this lack of interest is oft-lamented by officials and proponents of ASEAN themselves, the remedies offered usually take the form of simple exhortations for citizens to take notice, and impressing upon stakeholders that they have a duty to spread awareness of the agenda and impact of the ASEAN project. Of late, the business community has taken up the challenge, as shown by the launch in October of the ASEAN Business Club, whose council comprises two leading corporate figures from the “ASEAN 5” countries, namely Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. At the CIMB ASEAN Conference held just prior to the club’s launch and inaugural gala dinner, the CEO of CIMB Group Dato’ Sri Nazir Razak suggested that ASEAN’s next Secretary-General should be appointed from the corporate sector.

Given the eagerness of the business community to see greater economic integration as promised by ASEAN Economic Community, due to be realised by 2015, one can understand why such a suggestion would be mooted. A corporate Secretary-General would inherently grasp the enormous benefits of freer trade and simpler regulations for business across borders, and also be able to more easily secure the buy-in of regional entrepreneurs in this endeavour.

Let us assume that the proposal is a sound one. How would one go about it selecting a corporate Secretary-General of ASEAN? Before we get that far, we have to ask how the ASEAN Secretary-General is selected now. All the ASEAN Secretariat website says is that “the Secretary-General of ASEAN is appointed by the ASEAN Summit for a non-renewable term of office of five years, selected from among nationals of the ASEAN Member States based on alphabetical rotation”. It is not the most transparent or democratic system.

And how are the other ASEAN institutions populated? Who sits on the various committees? Who are these mysterious Senior Officials and what do they do? The answers to these questions are not public knowledge, and they are certainly not taught at school, in the same way that children are taught about the powers and appointments of kings and presidents and prime ministers.

Indeed, for decades the roles and responsibilities of ASEAN have slowly increased – evolving from an association concerned with security to one aiming to achieve an economic and socio-cultural community – but with little commensurate increase in the legitimacy and transparency of the institutions tasked with executing them. It is taken for granted that national governments will see to it: they will appoint the best people from their own diplomatic and civil services to ASEAN bodies to ensure the execution of what the national leaderships have decided. Thus, the ultimate responsibility for the state of ASEAN’s institutions lies collectively with national governments.

The processes of diplomacy are murky to most outside the political and diplomatic community at the best of times. The lengthy negotiations and deals done behind closed doors – where reservoirs of patronage are often tapped into – are not subject to media scrutiny and thus there is no opportunity for the public to judge them.

There will be those who argue that there is nothing wrong with this, and that ASEAN’s objectives can be fulfilled without major reform to these institutions. That seems unlikely given that years of cajoling citizens has not aroused their interest in ASEAN. One way to arouse interest, not previously attempted, would be to increase the democratic legitimacy of ASEAN institutions directly.

At first glance it might be pie in the sky to suggest that the Secretary-General of ASEAN could be directly elected, bypassing national governments completely (although clearly there would have to be a formula to weigh the votes so that Brunei’s 400,000 citizens feel that their votes count for something against Indonesia’s 240 million). On the other hand, individual countries within ASEAN have seen much more tremendous internal reform in the appointments of their chief executives.

The other objection would be that Secretaries-General by their title must by definition represent governments, not their people. A direct vote would confer popular sovereignty upon that institution and turn it into more of a presidency. This would be intolerable to those who place a high value on the role of ASEAN Chair (again, an enigma to most citizens in the region), which is rotated annually amongst the member countries; and anathema to those who will guard national sovereignty at all costs. The key question is: can the dream of an economic and socio-cultural community be realised without either an endowment of popular sovereignty or a transfer of national sovereignty?

We shall see. But analysts have already predicted a decline in ASEAN’s influence as the countries chairing ASEAN in the next three years – Cambodia, Brunei and Myanmar – will potentially not live up to the high standard set by Indonesia’s and Vietnam’s chairmanships in the past two years. How then will they fare in progressing towards the ASEAN Economic Community?

One thing seems certain: if the objectives are achieved to a level deemed satisfactory by national governments themselves, then the status quo is likely to continue. Only a major failure might catalyse the further democratisation – or dismissal – of ASEAN.


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