A group of students carry the ASEAN and member states' flags in preparation for ASEAN Day celebrations. (Photo: BeansproutP / Shutterstock).

Is ASEAN Truly for the People?


Joanne Lin explores the importance of a people-centred ASEAN and ways that the organisation can enhance engagement with its people, ahead of the 56th ASEAN Day celebrations.

ASEAN will be celebrating its 56th ASEAN Day on 8 August to commemorate the establishment of ASEAN. Celebrations across all ten ASEAN member states and 55 ASEAN committees in various capitals of the world are meant to promote awareness of ASEAN by showcasing its achievements. More importantly, it is to reinforce a sense of regional identity and solidarity to foster stronger regional ties.

The importance of people at the heart of ASEAN’s efforts has found its way into the organisation’s famous catchphrase of a “people-oriented and people-centred ASEAN”.  Likewise, ASEAN’s motto of “One Vision, One Identity, One Community” points to the importance of having a sense of belonging in ASEAN. Such noble goals are reflected in the ASEAN Charter and across most ASEAN documents. However, are citizens really at the core of ASEAN’s decision-making processes, and do their views matter to the ASEAN elites? In the State of Southeast Asia 2023 Survey, a growing number of regional respondents (from 39% last year to 46.6% this year) felt that ASEAN is elitist and disconnected from ordinary people.

Observers have often viewed ASEAN as a community of nations rather than a community of people for reasons that decision-making in ASEAN is concentrated in the highest echelon of leadership with little public engagement. A study by a group of scholars from Malaysia shows that ASEAN’s community building will be perceived as elitist and state-centric if it did not involve the people. Furthermore, such views will affect negatively on the perceived benefits of ASEAN’s citizens and the support they will lend to ASEAN’s efforts in community building and integration.

Another survey, a Poll on ASEAN Awareness has indicated that a high percentage of the general public in the region did not understand the purpose of the ASEAN community although they could identify themselves as citizens of ASEAN. In depth interviews with civil society organisations (CSOs) and the private sector revealed their skepticism about the benefits of the ASEAN community, citing a lack of information and demonstration of policy impacts by policy elites in ASEAN. As a result, only 15% of businesses and CSOs are content with the way ASEAN communicates with them.

CSOs have also reported that they have no working relations with ASEAN, noting that social policies are usually cascaded down from national governments with no reference to ASEAN objectives. As such, they are unable to determine if benefits are a direct result of ASEAN cooperation. Similarly, in the same poll, businesses in the region have expressed that they have no clear understanding of the visions and policies of ASEAN. Apart from the lack of accessibility to information, businesses also felt that available information was not timely enough or useful. This is not surprising given that a considerable amount of information on ASEAN’s cooperation is kept to government officials and only basic or fundamental information (such as those on the ASEAN’s website) is revealed to the public. Furthermore, available information is often outdated or left unattended.

As a result of a lack of engagement, the private sector, in particular the Micro, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (MSMEs), may not be fully aware of how to tap into the full suite of ASEAN’s economic initiatives including free trade agreements (FTAs), other agreements and instruments. For example, few companies are aware of the ASEAN Customs Transit System (ACTS) in which cross-border traders can make a single e-declaration for all entry and exit points across borders in ASEAN and to use a single truck to move goods along the North-South corridor through Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, as well as the East-West corridor through Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. This arrangement will allow traders to bypass duties and taxes at transit stops and to avoid changing trucks in each country. Understanding such benefits will enable them to make well-informed decisions that would increase logistics efficiency, reduce transaction costs and transport time.

Greater engagement and communication between policy makers in ASEAN and the private sector (a key partaker of ASEAN’s economic cooperation) will not only result in better utilisation of ASEAN’s initiatives and programmes but also allow businesses to provide valuable feedback for future improvements.

Apart from businesses, understanding the needs of the other segments of society such as the youths (an important group that will sustain ASEAN in the future), women, elderly, differently-abled groups, marginalised communities, interfaith groups, and academics can help ASEAN understand the needs and priorities of its people. This will allow ASEAN to prioritise its cooperation in areas that matters ranging from the promotion of education and employment, to ensuring environmental sustainability, the development of MSMEs and combatting transnational crimes.

Support from ASEAN’s dialogue and external partners will provide the much-needed resources to deliver myriad forms of cooperation. However, ASEAN’s outward looking approach should also be complemented with an inward understanding of the ideals and aspirations of its people (principles that were espoused in the ASEAN Declaration signed 56 years ago). In a symposium on ASEAN identity held last year, a regional expert noted that there should be clear benefits and opportunities accorded to people within ASEAN as opposed to those outside of it. After all, ASEAN cannot boast of its success without its great asset of over 650 million people.

The ASEAN motto, anthem, slogans and aspirational statements on paper are good but will not suffice. Establishing direct relations with stakeholders will not only promote inclusivity but will help increase the participation of ASEAN’s citizens in its community building. ASEAN’s relevance will depend on how willing its elites are to engage and involve its people in creating a sense of collective ownership.

Engaging with its people does not require an overhaul of ASEAN’s processes. A conscious effort to organise engagements with non-state actors regularly by the Secretariat such as briefings on new initiatives and programmes to provide awareness and to receive feedback will be welcomed by the people. Providing information to businesses in understanding ASEAN’s FTAs and agreements including through social media will help companies especially the MSMEs to tap into the benefits of the ASEAN community. ASEAN leaders should also organise listening sessions with the grouping’s various stakeholders. This would enable ASEAN to receive valuable views in identifying priority areas of cooperation and in negotiating agreements with external partners.

Equally important is ASEAN’s ability to communicate effectively to its citizens. A people-centred community cannot be realised if its people are dissociated from the outcomes of ASEAN’s meetings. As such, it will be important for ASEAN to consider using language that is understood by the masses. Translating dry and technical statements that are inundated with abbreviations and jargon into language that speaks to the people will be important. Likewise, having multiple language options for the ASEAN website will allow information to penetrate greater segments of society apart from the English-speaking.

There are plenty of options for engagement. ASEAN’s new Secretary-General Dr Kao Kim Hourn has shown himself to be forward-looking and engaging to lead such efforts. The ASEAN Day will be a good occasion to remind ASEAN countries that its people are at the core of the organisation. It is now up to the ASEAN’s policy-makers if they are willing to walk the talk to turn visions into reality.

Editor’s Note:
ASEANFocus+ articles are timely critical insight pieces published by the ASEAN Studies Centre. 

Joanne Lin is Co-coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Lead Researcher (Political-Security) at the Centre.