Asean countries should worry about themselves too

FEBRUARY 22 — The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is a great graphic novel. That Singapore’s National Arts Council withdrew its funding because it did not  regurgitate the usual Singapore Success Story and offered perspectives of Lee Kuan Yew’s opponents is a real shame. 

What makes art great is diversity, and for an Arts Council to discourage different views is self-defeating.

Asean leaders consistently showcase the strength of their people’s diversity. Like art, diversity and differences is what makes a nation great -- new ideas make old ones better. 

But this is hypocritical. Malaysia and Singapore have been under one party rule since independence. The Cambodian prime minister’s family effectively owns Cambodia. And Brunei never had an election since 1962. These governments consolidated their power by weakening the judiciary, legislative, and media. 

If political differences cannot be tolerated within, how can one expect them to tolerate each other? Through the Asean way of not intervening in each other’s affairs. With economic development still being the overriding goal (see Asena Economic Community), the post-AFTA agenda is much more important than interfering in each other’s political goals.

But as Singapore’s Bilahari Kausikan said, “Frankly, we have been interfering mercilessly in each other’s internal affairs for ages, from the very beginning.” One paper demonstrates how the Asean way only applies whenever it suits them. 

An example is when Indonesia annexed East Timor (now Timor Leste) and justified it at the UN with its Asean colleagues. Like how Russia justified its invasion of Crimea because there were claims for the Kremlin’s assistance, Indonesia justified their annexation similarly. Sexual slavery, forced famines and genocides ensued. Thankfully today, Timor Leste is now recognised by the UN as independent.

Moreover when Malaysia’s Najib Razak called on Muslim countries to condemn the Rohingya genocide, the Myanmar government said it was “regrettable” that he would undermine Aung San Suu Kyi’s efforts to address the issue. One could argue this was “soft” interference, but it can be argued the Malaysian prime minister did this to attract voters in predominantly Muslim states as elections approach. 

When Asean governments pursue their own political goals, non-interference seems inevitable. Reflect on the Russian hacking during the recent US elections and American influence in Middle East politics. Governments always meddle with other governments. 

And even if citizens disagree with their own governments meddling, it is hard to do something about it due to the lack of democratic mechanisms. It’s worse when problems arise when they never meddled in the first place. 

When powerful interests can stop policies that are good for the majority, domestic problems that arise from this can severely disrupt regional goals such as Asean. How?

The US presents a scenario. Although it is not as authoritarian as some Asean governments, it is a “flawed“ democracy. Reasons for this are gridlocks and powerful lobbyists in Congress, making government ineffective for the public good as power is concentrated in powerful interests. 

When Americans elected Trump, the anti-establishment president, people genuinely hoped Washington would finally work for them. But now, we see the US withdrawing from the TPP and NAFTA renegotiations. Both trade agreements immensely benefit US citizens, but instead scapegoats are made out of immigrants, and more worryingly, economic integration with the world.

Post-Brexit Britain also offers a perspective. Who would have thought the British would be swayed by populist lies to ditch their largest trading partner? Had the Conservatives forgone fiscal austerity during the economic slump, and backed its welfare system, the EU might not have been made a scapegoat. 

Asean should realise that domestic political problems do not occur in a vacuum with regional goals. Its current goal is to economically integrate in order to raise living standards. But the more interconnected Asean is, the more one country’s problems will affect the other. 

And if citizens in each Asean country are prevented from making the best decisions for themselves due to undemocratic systems, then the time may come when something goes wrong, and nothing can be done about it — other than to blame globalisation and skilled immigrants, the very things we benefit from. 

Free trade is good, and economic giants such as China and India will be a challenge in the future, but Asean cannot ignore the fact that its own domestic problems can threaten its own project of free trade. To prepare itself for the best outcomes, it must look within for internal cracks and have democratic mechanisms to change them. 

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

Related Articles

Up Next