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Eight challenges ASEAN must overcome

Since its founding 48 years ago, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has grown to see greater integration among its members and attracts interest, including from global powers, around the world, says former Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai. But ASEAN still faces major challenges in its goal to move towards a rules-based community, he said in a speech at an international conference in Thailand on Friday to mark the grouping’s 48th anniversary on Aug 8. Below is an excerpt of the speech by Dr Surakiart,who is now chairman of the Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council.

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Since its founding 48 years ago, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has grown to see greater integration among its members and attracts interest, including from global powers, around the world, says former Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai. But ASEAN still faces major challenges in its goal to move towards a rules-based community, he said in a speech at an international conference in Thailand on Friday to mark the grouping’s 48th anniversary on Aug 8. Below is an excerpt of the speech by Dr Surakiart,who is now chairman of the Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council.

Exactly 48 years ago, the foreign ministers of the five founding members of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) gathered in Laemtan, Bang Saen (a seaside town 80km south-east of Bangkok) to chart a new course for this region.

It was said that the founding fathers and their senior officials, whenever they agreed on something, would take a break and play golf. And when they could not agree on something, they would also take a break and play golf. This is the story I like to tell people whenever they ask me — what is the ASEAN Way? The golf story reflects a camaraderie born of mutual respect, a culture of doing things consensually, in an informal atmosphere of abiding friendship, and with a sense of hope and optimism.

Much water has passed under the bridge since those times. ASEAN has gone from five to 10 member states. With a population of 620 million and a combined GDP worth over US$ 2.4 trillion (S$3.3 trillion), ASEANhas grown into a strong and resilient entity that continues to aspire to achieve more.

It has become a natural habit for our leaders, ministers and senior officials, as well as civil societies to meet and consult. Last year alone, ASEAN had more meetings than in its first 20 years combined.

But the successful ASEAN we all want to see built and that we all aspire to is still a work in progress.

The advent of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) at the beginning of next year provides an opportune time for stocktaking and perhaps a fewadjustments.


There are eight main challenges that ASEAN still has to overcome.

First, South-east Asia has incredible diversity in terms of religion, language, ethnicity and culture. There are several forms of government, there are also different interpretations of what human rights means, and what is the proper relationship between the individual and the state.

Indeed, there are different understandings of what are natural and what are man-made disasters. It is nothing short of remarkable that 10 states of such vast differences could have achieved all that they have, can cooperate as much as they have, and have been growing economically as much as they have.

But until we can achieve a better understanding of what the differences are, how they can be lessened, and the commonalities that we can hope to achieve, our diversity will be a weakness — not a strength.

Second, the implementation of agreements reached is still at a minimum. A recent survey reveals that only 30 per cent of commitments made among the ASEAN member states are ever implemented. There is no central mechanism to enforce compliance. In addition, there is no properly functioning dispute-settlement mechanism, whether it be in the economic or political spheres. The ASEAN Secretariat is far from becoming a supranational body. There are perhaps good reasons for this. Nevertheless, the rate of compliance will have to be improved. Otherwise, the many ASEAN meetings and resolutions will increasingly not be justifiable.

Third, there must be greater attention paid to small and medium-sized enterprises, small-scale farmers and entrepreneurs, if the ASEAN Economic Community is to succeed. More information and technical assistance should be provided to them.

Fourth, there must be more connectivity between the AEC and the other two pillars, namely the Political-Security Community and the Socio-Cultural Community. At present, the emphasis appears to be on the AEC, but such an economic community cannot be sustained without a strongpolitical-security framework, and a robust sociocultural underpinning.

Fifth, there is still a lack of a sense of ownership of ASEAN among our populations. Our citizens do not as yet identify themselves as ASEAN, unlike the citizens of the European Union (EU), who increasingly identify themselves as Europeans first and their national identities second. The peoples of ASEAN still do not participate in the decision-making process of the association. It is still regarded as a forum for policy-makers and bureaucrats.

ASEAN does not have a common foreign policy, common economic policy, or common security policy. This is perhaps understandable given the history of the association and the diversified political culture of its member countries.

While the lack of common policy may lead to a lack of a sense of ownership of ASEAN, it is perhaps the lack of common policy that has made it a strong, progressive and relatively cohesive association for the past 48 years. It is this perceived weakness of ASEAN that perhaps is its strength.

Although a lack of enforced common policies can be seen as a welcome “non-rigidity” within the organisation, it indicates a lack of putting the interests of the collective ASEAN ahead of the interests of individual member states. This, in my view, is the sixth weak point of the association. There is no principle of “ASEAN affairs come first”. There is no shared feeling of ASEAN peoples, that “we are ASEAN, and ASEAN is us”.

In politics and security, this translates into a deficit in trust. Policymakers seek independence over interdependence. This limits ASEAN’s ability to encourage cooperation — even in areas that should not be controversial, such as disaster relief, and other issues of human security.

Seventh, knowledge about each other is still not high among the ASEAN countries. There are certainly more people in ASEAN who know the name of the American President than the name of the Vietnamese President,for example. International mass media based outside the region continues to be our main source of information not only about the world, but about one another. The efforts we are making in schools to add more knowledge about other ASEAN states must be supplemented by more space and coverage in our local media.

Eighth, there is a continuing tension between a rules-based community which is implicit in the efforts to achieve the AEC, and that of theASEAN Way of doing things.


Overall, South-east Asia is still very much about states, borders and governments. It is not just that the interests of individual states usually come first, but that the state often dominates at the expense of ASEAN.

Granted, this is not wholly unjustified. Many of the association’s member states face significant domestic challenges. It is understandable that states feel the need to get their own houses in order before turning their attention to the region.

This is compounded by economic and political differences among member states, geopolitical interests and great power rivalries, and social and cultural issues.

But a focus on domestic politics has overshadowed an important reality: that ASEAN and its community are about giving and receiving. By putting more into it, a state gets more out of it — we all benefit together. Any “zero-sum” mentality towards ASEAN must be cast away.

Part of this lack of priority of ASEAN by national governments comes from a lack of awareness and knowledge — both of ASEAN itself, and of other ASEAN states among the citizenry. People do not readily see how ASEAN impacts their lives, nor do they realise what potential it has to affect their lives for the better.

This could partially be because the association has not communicated or marketed itself well enough to its citizens, and because ASEAN itself has not focused on people as much as states. The establishment of the ASEANSociocultural Community would be a great step forward, but it must be given as much attention as the Economic Community pillar.

The lack of knowledge of other ASEAN peoples is an even bigger obstacle to building a real ASEAN community. Old prejudices and misconceptions still swirl around our collective memories. Grudges against neighbours for perceived wrongdoings 20, 100, 500 years ago still shape many of our interactions. These old biases breed distrust, they breed chauvinism, and they prevent a united ASEANfrom meeting its full potential.

How can we overcome the deeply held, resentful misconceptions? We have to meet each other.

The citizens of ASEAN need to travel within and around Southeast Asia, absorb the diverse cultures, religions, languages, ethnicities of the region. Our youth need to cross borders. Our businesses have to be able to trade freely. We need to learn each other’s languages. We need to talk, trade and come together as one to break down old barriers and build trust.

ASEAN is building a foundation for this already. The ASEAN Sociocultural Community which will come into being at the beginning of next year, has pushed for greater people-to-people linkages and narrowing of human and social development divisions.

Visa restrictions are slowly being eased; just last month Myanmar and Thailand finalised visa-free travel between our countries. The ASEAN Single Aviation Market and Open Skies policies have made it easier to fly across the region.

But what is still missing is the necessary physical infrastructure, roads, bridges and rail, for business and travellers to move through the region. This demand for infrastructure and greater connectivity in ASEAN is real and urgent.

Through construction of the hardware — infrastructure, roads and rails — combined with improved software — lowering of tariffs and non-tariff barriers, improved customs procedures and the removal of visa restrictions — will make trade within ASEAN and the AEC much easier and profitable, and allow firms to build better knowledge and understanding of neighbouring markets.


Despite its shortcomings, ASEAN can build on solid foundations and past successes. First, let us look at what ASEAN is. It is made up of 10 states and more than 620 million people. ASEAN is blessed by its geography; we are at the maritime and mainland gateway between the Indian andPacific Oceans.

We are the buffer between the region’s two resident superpowers and most populous countries, China and India. ASEAN’s economic growth will come from our own drive and dynamism, and its ability to connect to these large neighbouring markets and other regions of the world.

Indeed, ASEAN and its member states are critical and highly desired partners for each of the world’s major political and economic powers. Not just China, India and the United States, but also middle powers such as the EU, Japan, Australia, Russia and South Korea which are treating ASEAN as a focal point for their foreign policies.

ASEAN, for its part, has balanced these often-competing interests very skilfully. Not only are ASEAN and its member states part of most international organisations, but the world wants to be a part of ASEAN’s institutions. It has an unparalleled convening power.

ASEAN has extended its own multilateral practices to gather in other states, welcoming them to enter into dialogue and to find consensus. It does this through the East Asia Summit, ASEAN+1, ASEAN+3, the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting, the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Post-Ministerial Meeting or the PMCs and more.

ASEAN is not just a consensus-builder, but also an agenda-setter. Attempts to construct security and economic architectures in East-Asia are almost entirely centred around ASEAN, if not led by it. This has served to deepen ASEAN’s credibility, trust and ability to increase other states’ levels of comfort. The result is that ASEAN is seen internationally as an opportunity — never a threat.

Whatever complaints one may have about the way ASEAN does things, the reality is that it is at the core of the emerging regional architecture of the 21st Century. Many of the rules of the game are set by ASEAN. Its centrality has emerged as the status quo for 21st Century Asia-Pacific regionalism.


ASEAN has been an avenue through which domestic difficulties or political transitions can be slowly reconciled and worked through without having the added multiplier of external press or relentless condemnations from neighbours.

Its approach to create a level of comfort within the grouping has allowed and driven cooperation and collaboration. No state has left because of fear or pressure of regime change.

Ultimately, ASEAN is a regional bridge, balancer and a stabiliser. Its integration is deep and broad, but not too much. It includes countries big and small, but no single country dominates.

It has its critics and its champions,but neither is too loud nor too quiet. It attracts interest from every country on earth, but so far, none has been able to dominate the fluid and dynamic region of South-east Asia. For nearly half a century, ASEAN has managed to navigate an ideal balance over just about every dimension.

In a few words, it has been “just about right” — both for its member states and for the international community, and this is the reason for its intense charm and power of attraction. Perhaps, this is something even the EU could learn from.

The ASEAN Way, which proclaims the importance of mutual respect, non-intervention in neighbours’ domestic affairs, and freedom from external interference can be a double-edged sword.

In terms of promoting peace and stability between the countries of South-east Asia, it has been a stunning success. Early in ASEAN’s history, it was a vital tool to mitigate against further conflict within ASEAN. It helped to create a comfort level for countries of different backgrounds and conditions.

Indeed, many believe the ASEAN Way is the linchpin that has held everything together.

But it has also meant that reaching a consensus is often time-consuming, and on some issues not even attempted. Consensus, when it can be reached, is often compromised to the lowest common denominator. What is to be done when consensus cannot be built? How can it establish and enforce a rule-of-law, which implies doing things that some of its members would not like?

Since the Asian Financial Crisis, adherence to the principle of non-interference has moderated. In fact, ASEAN has become institutionalised to an extent that appears to violate the principles of non-interference.

There are special institutions such as the Commission on the Status of Women and the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. The ASEAN Community itselfis a vehicle for further institutional and aspirational change within ASEAN’s member countries, predicated on establishing a stronger normative and rules-based foundation.

These changes represent the growing demands among South-east Asia’s leaders and citizens for ASEAN to be a vehicle for a better region, to press for improved human rights, democracy and good governance.

ASEAN has had to deal with new problems that require collective, rather than just cooperative, coordination on issues such as cross-border diseases, transnational crimes, terrorism and non-state actors playing a much larger role in the world at large.

It is shifting itself away from an association guided by the ASEAN Way to a rules-based community under the ASEAN Charter.

This balance between the old and the new will be difficult to pinpoint. It will remain fluid, and this fluidity reflects what modern ASEAN is. It is more than a cooperative balance against the Russians, Chinese and Americans in a Cold War context; more than a vehicle for absolute economic gains; and more than a tool to avoid conflict between its members.

ASEAN has become a major power in its own right. It is an economic leader, and a regional agenda and norm setter. It is becoming a vehicle for change.

There will always be a fine line between the ASEAN Way and the advent of a rules-based community. There will be issues where ASEAN activism succeeds in getting this balance right, there will be other times where its response will seem woefully inadequate.

So far, in the 48 years since the five founding fathers met in Laemtan, ASEAN has this balance between continuity and change “just about right”.But keeping this balance will be no easy task.

The Asia-Pacific is going through tectonic changes; we are in the midst of a once-in-a-generation great power transition, and it is happening right on our doorstep. We are feeling the effects of geographical and maritime disputes, extremist terrorism, transnational crime, climate change and cyber-warfare.

Paraphrasing Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the future is what we make of it ... ASEAN must become a haven of tolerance, harmony and progress.

As we enter the era of the ASEAN Community, its economic, politico-security and sociocultural pillars will be the vehicles through which we can reach the common goal of fostering a peaceful and stable region under the aspirational theme of One Vision, One Identity and One Community.

It will drive us to greater economic property and be the backbone of an ASEAN-centric regional architecture. We must all work harder and closer to bring about its full realisation.

If we succeed, we will live up to the standards set by the founding fathers, and we will be building a strong home to pass to future generations.

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