by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published by the Borneo Post Online 15 August 2014

AMIDST the asinine squalor of domestic politics centred on egos, greed, broken promises, claims of disloyalty and presumptuous attempts to reconcile interpretations of “what the voters actually want” with the manner in which the state constitution actually endows legitimacy, shafts of optimistic light have, thankfully, managed to shine through this post-Raya period.

August always features a high density of student events as organisers take advantage of overlapping holidays for students from local and foreign universities, but this year I haven’t been able to say yes to as many speaking invitations as I would like.

So far I’ve done a book sharing session for ‘Roaming Beyond the Fence’ at the remarkable Popular Book Fest (where I was nominated for the Readers’ Choice Award but gladly lost to Tim Donoghue’s ‘The Tiger of Jelutong’), and then co-judged a group of pre-university students at the LSE Malaysia Club’s inaugural Economic Leadership Forum.

But so far the most engaging session has been at UKM, where Professor Datuk Saran Kaur Gill, executive director of the Asean Youth Volunteer-Leaders Secretariat and a deputy vice-chancellor, invited me to speak about the role of Asean civil society — a topic which I had spoken about some months to a group of mostly Malaysian civil servants (see ‘Strengthen civil society in Asean’, Conservatively Speaking Freely, April 14, 2014 in The Borneo Post). This time, at this second Asean Youth Volunteer Programme, the audience was 50 youth volunteers, selected competitively from 1,400 applicants from across all 10 member countries.

This fact alone suggested that these youths were genuinely committed to Asean, unlike many politicians sent on conferences across the region to pay lip service to an entity that they have no motivation in actually promoting. I told the 18- to 30-year-olds that no community can be forced into being: leaders cannot simply tell 600 million people of diverse national, cultural, religious or ethnic backgrounds that they are now part of a community and expect them to embrace it (particularly when some of these leaders promote or tolerate division in their own countries if it suits their political survival).

Rather, the successful realisation of an Asean community depends on a cohesive Asean civil society that concerns itself with issues across the region. Unfortunately, the differing levels of democratic health across the 10 countries means that for now, civil society flourishes in certain places and is stifled in others: indeed, official Asean events with civil society have seen the farcical inclusion of only ‘government-sponsored NGOs’ — a despicable contradiction in terms.

Last year the programme’s theme was protecting Asean’s environment, and this year it is on Asean’s heritage: worthy causes, for sure — and since they’re going to Melaka I pointed out that democratic principles such as rule of law and separation of powers as well as free movement of capital, goods and labour as espoused by the Asean Economic Community are nothing new, and a far cry from being alien concepts that are incompatible with our cultural traditions.

However, if we want to forge something that can truly be called ‘Asean civil society’, rather than just an amalgam of unequal civil society landscapes across the region, then democratic institutions need to be strengthened everywhere, and I hope the organisers fully dedicate a future edition to this theme. Encouragingly, the representatives from Vietnam and Myanmar agreed with me, and then the Indonesians and Filipinos in the group, shyly at first but quickly more confidently, alluded to the complementary features of strong democracy that I had mentioned in my speech — decentralisation (via the example of the rise of President-Elect Jokowi), limiting executive authority, the importance of a truly private (instead of a crony-capitalist) sector — and how they too wanted to ensure these things were protected. The CLMV participants seemed comforted to share in similar challenges.

Towards the end one lady wondered whether national sovereignty should be obsolete in a future Asean: I asked her to consider why you would want to transfer sovereignty when the risks are so high. For the foreseeable future, our nation states are more likely better protectors of individual rights and freedoms than a hypothetical superstate, and the idea of centralising decision-making power should only be revisited once there is more democratic parity in the region.

Egotistical and greedy politicians like to cause chaos when the prize is substantial power and resources: imagine the power and resources a hypothetical Asean President or Prime Minister (that constitutional question would be a headache in itself) would have. And imagine the chaos, when the tussle over the leadership of a single state in one of Asean’s comparatively better democracies is chaotic enough.

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Tunku Abidin Muhriz is president of IDEAS.

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