55th ASEAN Day celebrations at the ASEAN Secretariat. (Photo: Kusuma Pandu Wijaya, ASEAN Secretariat)

ASEAN @55: Adapting to Global Disruptions


This year ASEAN celebrates its 55th founding anniversary. ASEANFocus is privileged to feature ASEAN Secretary-General Dato Lim Jock Hoi’s perspectives on various global challenges and what ASEAN has done to adapt to new realities.

Editor’s Note:
This is an adapted version of the Insider Views article from ASEANFocus Issue 2/2022 published in September 2022. Download the full issue here.

H.E. Dato Lim Jock Hoi has served as ASEAN Secretary-General from 2018 to 2022. During his tenure, Dato Lim has strengthened the capacity of the ASEAN Secretariat and driven various cross-sectoral initiatives across the three ASEAN Community Blueprints. Under his leadership, ASEAN successfully commenced the work of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in January 2022, the world’s largest trade deal to date. He is regarded as the Secretary-General who weather-proofed the region from the long COVID-19 storm.

AF: ASEAN has been praised for its achievements in the past 55 years and its multilateralism spirit. What can ASEAN do to protect the multilateral order in view of growing protectionism and the erosion of international rules-based order? 

Dato Lim: For decades, ASEAN has played a central role in regional affairs by establishing and advancing its ASEAN-led mechanisms, such as the East Asia Summit (EAS), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) to promote peace, stability, and development in the region through cooperation. 

The ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the world’s largest trade agreement which came into force in January 2022, is a case in point. The RCEP is the culmination of nearly a decade’s worth of trade negotiations amongst ASEAN member states (AMS) and several of its external partners, and is the manifestation of a multilateral spirit.  

Furthermore, initiatives such as the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) with its four priority areas of maritime cooperation, connectivity, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and economic as well as other areas of cooperation, provide multiple channels for multilateral cooperation.

Multilateralism is not necessarily an end itself, but one of several approaches for effective international collaboration. In the face of multidimensional challenges in the evolving landscape, we need to examine the current way of doing things to ensure multilateralism remains relevant in the future.

AF: A High-Level Task Force (HLTF) has been established to discuss the ASEAN Community’s Post-2025 Vision. What are some priority areas which have been identified?  

Dato Lim: Indeed, the High-Level Task Force (HLTF) on ASEAN Community’s Vision Post-2025 commenced its work this year and has held three meetings thus far, where two were convened at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta and one in Bangkok. 

The HLTF is still in active consultations and the initial envisioning exercise of the core elements is expected to be completed by April 2023. The core elements of the post-2025 ASEAN Community will be pragmatic, forward-looking, and dynamic to chart the course to further deepen regional integration. The elements should also promote ASEAN Centrality, maintain ASEAN’s role as the driving force in regional affairs and to project a united voice in global affairs. 

In light of the increasing complexities and multi-faceted nature of our Community-building, the HLTF is expected to discuss the critical subject of cross-pillar cooperation to address current and emerging challenges for the benefit of the ASEAN people. Mega-trend issues such as climate change and sustainability, as well as the Fourth Industrial Revolution and digital transformation, will be considered in our discussions.

Leaders convene for the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit 2022 in Washington D.C. (Photo: Press Bureau of the Presidential Secretariat)

AF: Increasing contestation in the regional architecture and the promotion of national interests have weakened ASEAN’s unity. How can ASEAN strive to maintain its unity amid global challenges? 

Dato Lim: For the past 55 years, ASEAN has continued to implement its regional integration and Community-building agenda despite the remarkable diversity of cultures, languages, political systems, customs, and religions amongst AMS. ASEAN is a good demonstration of ‘unity in diversity’. Despite our differences, we remain committed to the core aims of maintaining peace, security, and prosperity in the region as well as promoting friendship and solidarity amongst our people. 

Nevertheless, I acknowledge that there are some new groupings and configurations in the regional architecture, and some questions in the media over ASEAN’s future. For ASEAN to stay relevant, we need to enhance its credibility, resilience, and effectiveness from within, as well as in ASEAN’s external relations in the evolving regional architecture. However, it must be stressed that ‘national interest’ is not antithetical to ‘regional interest’, and the contention that national interests weaken ASEAN’s unity does not always hold true.  

I believe the cohesion and unity of ASEAN, as a regional organisation, lies in the ability of its members to align their national interests with regional imperatives. Hence, I see the value of AMS continuing their practice of internal consultations, especially through the convening of ASEAN caucus meetings, and in ensuring that ASEAN speaks with one voice when engaging with external partners.

AF: The COVID-19 pandemic and recent geopolitical tensions (e.g. US-China trade war and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) have further increased the risk of global supply chain (GSC) disruptions. Are the ASEAN Economic Community instruments such as ASEAN+1 FTAs and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) sufficient to enhance ASEAN’s resilience? 

Dato Lim: Over the past decade, ASEAN has deepened its integration into global and regional supply chains. This success is both an opportunity and a risk. On the one hand, deeper integration into the global supply chains serves as a major driver of growth and job creation. However, this also accentuates our dependency on the global market and exposes our economies and growth to external factors. 

ASEAN has taken steps to protect and enhance our supply chain resilience, including through the Ha Noi Plan of Action on Strengthening ASEAN Economic Cooperation and Supply Chain Connectivity in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic which was rolled out in June 2020.

Supply chain related risks could also be mitigated through diversification strategies, particularly in expanding our markets and trade networks. This is in line with our Global ASEAN ambition, which has been extensively implemented through our ASEAN Plus One Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), as well as the RCEP.

Efforts are also currently undertaken in reviewing or upgrading our existing FTAs, including the ASEAN Trade in Goods Agreement (ATIGA) and the ASEAN’s Plus One FTAs. While upgrade negotiations of the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand FTA were formally launched in 2020, ASEAN is also reviewing possible upgrades of its FTAs with China, the Republic of Korea, and India.

AF: The world is facing a severe food crisis exacerbated by war, supply chain disruptions, and sustained inflationary pressures. Over the past two years, some AMS imposed temporary export bans on rice (e.g. Vietnam and  Cambodia in 2020), palm oil (e.g. Indonesia in April 2022), and chicken (e.g. Malaysia in May 2022). What are the key ASEAN initiatives to enhance regional food security in the wake of the global food crisis? 

Dato Lim: Agriculture plays an important role in the economic development of our region, accounting for over 15% of GDP and more than 40% of the labour force in some of our member states. The sector also accounts for about 10% of the US$ 1.7 trillion export earnings of ASEAN in 2021. As such, food insecurity remains a key concern for our region.

Over the past two years, various initiatives and programmes have been effectively implemented to enhance food security in the region in the wake of the global food crisis. Notably, the Statement of ASEAN Ministers on Agriculture and Forestry in Response to the Outbreak of the COVID-19 to Ensure Food Security, Food Safety and Nutrition in ASEAN was adopted in April 2020 with a commitment to minimise disruption in regional food supply chains by ensuring that markets are kept open, transportation of food facilitated, and that quarantine or other non-tariff measures do not slow down the free flow of agricultural and food products. 

To this end, ASEAN strives to reduce excessive price volatility and provide timely and accurate market information through the effective implementation of the ASEAN Food Security Information System and ASEAN Plus Three Emergency Rice Reserve

Recently, the ASEAN Regional Guidelines for Sustainable Agriculture has been agreed upon by ASEAN, and we hope that these guidelines will galvanise the development of an ASEAN sustainable food market in the face of an increasing number of trade barriers and other restrictions imposed on ASEAN agricultural and food products.

ASEAN is also proactively discussing how to extend and expand the scope of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the Implementation of Non-Tariff Measures on Essential Goods, including those that impede the smooth flow of agri-goods and services. This MoU is critical to maintaining resilient supply chains, enhancing cooperation, and facilitating the smooth flow of essential goods.

AF: Building a regional digital economy is one of the key priority areas in ASEAN’s economic integration. How long would it take to establish the regional digital economy in ASEAN? 

Dato Lim: The transformation of ASEAN into a digital economy is on-going and will continue to evolve to keep up with the fast-changing pace of technology, and to meet the needs of the markets and consumers. The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated the region’s digital transformation and will spur the growth of our internet economy which is expected to reach US$ 300 billion by 2025. Digital trade is also expected to be a major driver of economic growth in Southeast Asia, estimated to be worth around US$ 1 trillion by 2030. Recognising the region’s potential, ASEAN has actively put in place relevant policies and initiatives to accelerate digital transformation. At the ASEAN Summit in October 2021, ASEAN Leaders issued their Statement on Advancing Digital Transformation in ASEAN, which calls for the strengthening of digital integration and transformation in the region to enhance ASEAN’s competitiveness.

In addition to adopting the Consolidated Strategy on the Fourth Industrial Revolution for ASEAN to help guide the ASEAN Community’s progress towards digital transformation, ASEAN Leaders also endorsed the Bandar Seri Begawan Roadmap (BSBR) on ASEAN Digital Transformation last year. The BSBR underscores, for the very first time, a specific timeline for ASEAN to commence negotiations for an ASEAN Digital Economy Framework Agreement by 2025. 

All of these will be implemented in tandem with ASEAN’s other digitalisation initiatives, such as the ASEAN Digital Master Plan 2025, ASEAN Digital Integration Framework Action Plan 2019-2025, and the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity. This will not only assist ASEAN’s work towards an inclusive and sustainable recovery, but also help realise its vision of transformation of becoming a leading digital economic community in the coming years.

AF: Youth participation in ASEAN community building is critical. What are the strategies to empower and promote inclusivity among ASEAN youths so that they can contribute to regional integration?

Dato Lim: Youth participation is a crucial part of our on-going ASEAN Community-building efforts. Under the ASEAN Work Plan on Youth (2021-2025), one of our priorities is to strengthen youth participation in ASEAN regional platforms for human resource development, which provides inclusive access to skills development, internship, and other school-to-work transition programmes. 

In acknowledging the importance of the youth and their capacity to participate in ASEAN Community-building, ASEAN under Cambodia’s Chairmanship has declared this year as the Year of ASEAN Youth. One of the flagship activities in commemorating this was the convening of the 1st ASEAN Youth Dialogue held in Siem Reap last July, which gave youth representatives from all member states an opportunity to engage in policy discourse and to exchange views with government officials.

As one of the deliverables of the Brunei Darussalam’s ASEAN Chairmanship last year, ASEAN has also embraced the Youth, Peace, and Security agenda to bring our young people closer to the forefront of building a sustainable, stable and peaceful region. The fruition of these efforts would deepen ASEAN integration through the cultivation of substantive people-to-people ties at all levels of the Community.

The 8th Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Ministerial Meeting in 2020. (Photo: ASEAN Secretariat)

AF: AMS have been talking about a transformative change to low-carbon economies. Is ASEAN planning its own green transition and if so, what are the key policies and interventions that ASEAN can undertake?

Dato Lim: I am pleased to highlight that all AMS have ratified the Paris Agreement and several initiatives have been undertaken to mainstream climate change within the ASEAN Community. ASEAN’s objective, as reflected in the ASEAN State of Climate Change Report, is to pursue net-zero carbon emissions as soon as possible in the latter half of this century. In realising this goal, ASEAN adopted the Framework for Circular Economy for the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) last year which aims to support sustainable development by making effective and efficient use of materials and energy, thereby promoting sustainable production and consumption patterns.

Other key interventions include the launch of the ASEAN Taxonomy for Sustainable Finance, which serves as one of the key building blocks in guiding investments and financial flows towards sustainable activities in the region, along with the ongoing development of the ASEAN Carbon Neutrality Plan, which is expected to provide an orderly, inclusive and safe transition pathway that complements AMS’ Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) under the Paris Agreement.

In addition, ASEAN is also looking forward to the establishment of the ASEAN Centre for Climate Change in Brunei Darussalam which aims to enhance climate change coordination and cooperation amongst AMS to realise a climate-resilient and low-carbon ASEAN region.  As part of ASEAN’s efforts to advance nature-based solutions and biodiversity conservation, the ASEAN Senior Officials on the Environment endorsed some key guiding documents, including, the ASEAN Work Programme on Urban Biodiversity and Greenery 2022-2032 and the flagship ASEAN Green Initiative launched in July 2019 to further demonstrate our region’s commitment to work together in restoring our biodiversity.  

AF: What are some of your challenges and personal achievements in helming the top administrative position of ASEAN? Should the mandate and role of the Secretary-General be strengthened? 

Dato Lim: The role of the Secretary-General has evolved considerably during my five years in office. As the work of ASEAN becomes more complex and multifaceted, so too has the work of the Secretary-General. Beyond efforts to realise the ASEAN Community Vision 2025, there are many cross-cutting challenges that must be addressed such as climate change, sustainable development, the digital economy, as well as the region’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. I am privileged to be able to take part in laying the important groundwork for the next stage of ASEAN Community building efforts.

Certainly, addressing the pandemic has been one of the greatest challenges during my time as Secretary-General. I commend AMS for their commitment in collectively responding to the outbreak of COVID-19 through several measures which have cleared a pathway for us to emerge stronger, safer, and more resilient as a Community. 

I am pleased that the region’s trade volumes have returned to pre-pandemic levels and ASEAN’s economy is forecasted to grow by 5.0% this year and 5.2% next year. AMS have also started to gradually reopen this year ushering a return of tourism, a significant part of the region’s economy.

The entry into force of the RCEP, an ASEAN-driven initiative, earlier this year is also something that I am very happy with, since I was involved in the negotiations of the agreement since its inception, long before I assumed the role of Secretary-General. 

Another area of cooperation which has expanded significantly during my time as Secretary-General is the provision of humanitarian assistance in the region. Southeast Asia is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to climate-induced disasters, which has affected our infrastructure, food security, and people’s well-being. Notably, the Asian Development Bank estimated that the region has suffered financial losses worth US$ 91 billion from 2004 to 2014 due to the impacts of typhoons, floods, drought, and earthquakes. As the Humanitarian Assistance Coordinator for ASEAN, I worked closely with the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management in responding to natural disasters and humanitarian emergencies across the region.

One initiative that I am grateful for is the construction of the ASEAN Village located in the city of Palu in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia. This project was part of the rehabilitation efforts following the earthquake and tsunami that struck the area in 2018. The construction of the village utilised crowdfunding as a modality, and demonstrated how ASEAN can mobilise our people’s contributions toward relief and recovery efforts in the spirit of solidarity and good-neighborliness. 

In addition to natural disasters, ASEAN has also provided humanitarian assistance for human-induced emergencies. ASEAN has made substantial progress in facilitating the provision of humanitarian assistance to Myanmar.  To date, humanitarian assistance worth more than US$ 18 million has been delivered to Myanmar, which includes US$ 8 million worth of medical supplies and equipment distributed to healthcare facilities across all 17 states and regions in Myanmar. 

Another priority for me in the past five years has been strengthening the effectiveness of the ASEAN Secretariat in supporting our members, especially in providing analytical support, including in the areas of cross-sectoral and cross-pillar cooperation. At the same time, we have worked closely with member states to improve the welfare, benefits, and job security of more than 400 staff of the ASEAN Secretariat.  

Towards this end, we are enhancing the capacity of the ASEAN Secretariat to host more high-level and working group level meetings. In April last year, the secretariat hosted its first ever ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting. Increasing the number of meetings hosted at the Secretariat would further advance our credentials as the hub of ASEAN Community-building and the home of ASEAN.

Lim Jock Hoi has served as ASEAN Secretary-General from 2018-2022.