As ASEAN marks 55 years of existence, the pressing challenge of strengthening and empowering its Secretariat needs to be faced if the organisation is to remain relevant.
8 August 2022 marked the 55th anniversary of ASEAN’s founding. ASEAN’s foreign ministers, diplomats, stakeholders, and partners gathered virtually and physically at the ASEAN secretariat in Jakarta to celebrate its achievements. The celebration was replete with speeches boasting a long list of accomplishments and ASEAN’s indispensable and central role in the region.
Most practitioners prefer to look on the brighter side but some honesty is needed to reflect on ASEAN’s modus operandi and institutional shortcomings. ASEAN’s credibility and relevance have never been at greater stake than now. The State of Southeast Asia 2022 Survey Report showed that 70.1% of regional respondents were frustrated with the organisation: their top concern was that ASEAN was “slow and ineffective” and hence unable to cope with fluid political and economic developments.
ASEAN should heed these survey findings. Urgent institutional strengthening at its core is necessary, should ASEAN wish to remain relevant within the increasingly complex regional architecture. Former ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, who led the organisation from 2008 to 2012, has likened the Secretariat to “the heart of ASEAN” and the only ASEAN organ that represents its collective interests while comparing the leaders’ Summit to its brain. In his 2012 piece “Strengthening the Secretariat – the Heart of ASEAN”, he highlighted that for the bloc to sustain its centrality, it has to be internally strong.
The ASEAN secretariat’s work has been mostly obscured from public and media attention although it serves as the engine that powers ASEAN. It is the ASEAN organ that coordinates and serves all of ASEAN’s meetings, which number more than 1,500 per year.
In the early days, the Secretariat – which started operations nine years after ASEAN’s founding in 1967 – was little more than a ‘post-office’ headed by the Secretary-General (SG) and five staff. Now, the Secretariat has four Deputy SGs and over 270 staff. This significant expansion was to cater to the increasing workload of the institution, given the proliferation of new sectoral bodies and external partners, especially in the past two decades.
There are mixed views within ASEAN on the need for a strong secretariat. The predominant view at its inception was for the secretariat to fulfil basic functions without taking over the control of the organisation. In short, ASEAN member states (AMS) were careful not to surrender their decision-making power to a group of bureaucrats. This understanding can be described as a ‘political master’ (AMS) and ‘servant’ (the Secretariat) relationship, which has become part of the ‘ASEAN way’ of doing business over the years. The secretariat staff are expected to update meetings with only facts (not their opinions), to support (but not to criticise) the views of AMS, and not to shame or single out particular member states in meeting reports. In essence, such practices mean that there is no written record of exactly which AMS objected to which collective decisions over time. Just as maintaining consensus is important, this type of ‘face-saving’ is an important aspect of ASEAN’s normative culture.
The principle of equal contributions by AMS to the secretariat’s budget has resulted in a secretariat that is not only understaffed but has a salary structure that is well below the standard benchmark for international and regional organisations. For example, the starting monthly pay for a Senior Officer (with five years of work experience and a bachelor’s degree) at the secretariat is US$3,639 compared to US$6,490 for a similarly ranked P-3 officer at the United Nations. ASEAN’s salaries are basically insufficient to attract the best talents in the region to serve. This point was highlighted by retired diplomat Kishore Mahbubani in his essay, where he proposed changes to ASEAN’s principle of equal contribution to avoid the “permanent stunted growth” of the secretariat.
While the AMS recognise the merits of a strengthened secretariat, concrete actions to achieve this have been slow and inadequate.
According to the Asian Development Bank, the need for ASEAN to deepen its economic integration, to address emerging issues, and to tap into new opportunities means that ASEAN needs to augment its secretariat function. This will allow the secretariat to strengthen its research capacity and its policy advisory and monitoring roles to provide greater strategic support to the AMS.
The AMS can help to strengthen the secretariat by empowering it to chair or to moderate the negotiations for outcome documents. The secretariat (whose staff comprises various nationalities from all ten AMS, and whose responsibilities are, technically at least, exclusive to ASEAN and not the countries from which they hail) may be seen as neutral. They could help to prevent undesirable outcomes such as the failure of the ASEAN foreign ministers to issue a Joint Communique during Cambodia’s Chairmanship in 2012. A stronger and neutral secretariat will also ensure greater predictability and continuity in the work of ASEAN by moderating the whims and caprices of each rotating Chair country. But even a stronger secretariat might be overruled by the positions and interests of member states. For example, a potential impasse in 2026 might occur, when Myanmar is expected to take up ASEAN Chairmanship. Should ASEAN fail to broker some progress in the current political crisis in Myanmar, it will be inconceivable for Naypyidaw to take up the leadership of ASEAN.
While the AMS recognise the merits of a strengthened secretariat, concrete actions to achieve this have been slow and inadequate. Last year the ASEAN High-Level Task Force on the ASEAN Community’s Post-2025 Vision was tasked to look into strengthening ASEAN’s capacity and institutional effectiveness.
Proposals have been made to enhance the role of the Secretary-General to provide independent recommendations to ASEAN leaders and to play a greater role in managing crises or mediating conflict situations in ASEAN. Suggestions were made for the secretariat to serve as ASEAN’s ‘nerve centre’ to contribute more towards ASEAN’s decision-making and to host more ASEAN meetings at its premises in Jakarta, akin to how the United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan functions.
ASEAN’s future success will depend largely on the secretariat’s efficiency, which is central to the entire ASEAN endeavour. Would ASEAN still be relevant at 100? It all depends on how much ASEAN dares to change its culture and strengthen its institutions. Even if ASEAN does not want to rock the boat, it should realise that the shortcomings of the organisation may be the hole in the boat that causes it to sink.
Strengthening the Secretariat can be the first step in reinforcing its institutional core and equipping the organisation to face more uncertainty. Cambodia has appointed Dr Kao Kim Hourn (Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office of Cambodia) as the next ASEAN Secretary-General (for 2023-2027). He has the uphill task of leading ASEAN in perilous times. Ensuring that the Secretariat is upgraded in his term should be one of his core priorities.
Joanne Lin is Co-coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Lead Researcher (Political-Security) at the Centre.