ASEAN Foundation’s Executive Director, Dr Yang Mee Eng, making a courtesy call on Lim Jock Hoi, the Secretary General of ASEAN, on 6 March, 2020. (Photo: Kusuma Pandu WIJAYA for ASEAN Secretariat/ Flickr)

ASEAN Foundation’s Executive Director, Dr Yang Mee Eng, making a courtesy call on Lim Jock Hoi, the Secretary General of ASEAN, on 6 March, 2020. (Photo: Kusuma Pandu WIJAYA for ASEAN Secretariat/ Flickr)

Time for ASEAN to Have a Female Secretary-General?


As ASEAN faces the twin crises of the coup in Myanmar and the raging Covid-19 pandemic, it might well be time to consider a female at the helm of the grouping’s secretariat.

ASEAN is soon approaching its 54th anniversary. Its first Secretary-General (SG) took office at the ASEAN Secretariat’s headquarters in Jakarta 45 years ago. Since then, all those who occupied the post have been males. 

The ASEAN Charter which came into force in December 2008 stipulates that “the Secretary-General of ASEAN shall be appointed by the ASEAN Summit for a non-renewable term of office of five years, selected from among nationals of the ASEAN Member States based on alphabetical rotation, with due consideration to integrity, capability and professional experience, and gender equality” (italics added). There is no denying that the last criterion has somehow been missing in the decision-making process for almost the past half a century. Granted, two female Deputy SGs (DSGs) have served at the ASEAN Secretariat; one from Cambodia during 2006-2009, and another from the Philippines during 2012-2015. Both were nominated by their respective governments but they are just two among a total of some 25 DSGs to date, which does not even represent 10 per cent. It is worth noting that both the above-mentioned female appointments oversee essentially the socio-cultural sectors of ASEAN cooperation.

There has been modest progress breaking the gender glass ceiling at the sectoral level. Yet, most of these appointments are again related to the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community and at the periphery of ASEAN’s core decision-making process. This includes Yang Mee Eng of the ASEAN Foundation (and before her, Elaine Tan being the first female chief), Adelina Kamal at the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance (AHA) Centre, and Theresa Mundita Lim of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity. The latter two are the first female heads of their respective organizations. 

The current SG, Dato’ Paduka Lim Jock Hoi from Brunei, will end his five-year term in eighteen months’ time. The next SG is expected to be from Cambodia according to the stipulated rotation cycle and will also be the first national of that country in this position. Unless Cambodia also takes the extraordinary lead by appointing the first ever female SG in ASEAN’s history, the next window of opportunity would only come in early 2028 when it would be Indonesia’s turn to fill the post. 

Surely it is time… for a more feminine leadership style in both person and practice and start correcting the glaring gender deficit at the highest echelon at the ASEAN Secretariat.

Breaking the glass ceiling on gender equality especially in high positions is almost always challenging to say the least. It demands significant mindset changes on the part of both genders at societal and governmental levels. The ASEAN Secretary-General is always a political appointee. The candidate’s criterion is determined by the nominating state. In the ASEAN SG case, besides meeting set qualifications, it requires good orchestration and groundwork preparation, including a concerted campaign to raise awareness on the gender disparity issue and to actively look for qualified female candidates by the nominating state. This would perhaps have to be complemented with some necessary mentoring and nurturing of these individuals to beef up their credentials and knowledge on relevant subject matters across the whole spectrum of ASEAN regional cooperation and community building. It would also require sharpening their diplomatic savviness to navigate the unique modus operandi of ASEAN that would then make them highly qualified candidates for the esteemed position.

A good analogy for comparison is the head of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). It was founded in 1947 with its original headquarters in Shanghai but the office moved to Bangkok in 1949. During ESCAP’s first 60 years, eight males successively served as its Executive Secretary (ES). Since 2007, however, the position has been occupied by three females in succession including the current ES, Dr. Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana from Indonesia. While this could be a good example for ASEAN, ESCAP’s long transition from male to female ES appointments might mean that ASEAN could take at least another half-century to achieve gender parity in the organisation’s leadership position. 

Gender and leadership research suggests that female leaders typically emerge during times of crisis and instability by offering an alternative. For example, the election of the first female World Health Organization Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland in 1998 and Christine Lagarde’s appointment in 2011 as also the first female head of the International Monetary Fund happened in the wake of internal problems and existential crises within these organisations due in no small part to the actions of their male predecessors. Female leaders like New Zealand’s Jacinda Arden, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Finland’s Sanna Marin are seen as better leaders during this current period of unprecedented global socio-economic downturn due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

This could also hold true for ASEAN as it faces one of its greatest crises in its 54-year history. The challenge of addressing the still raging pandemic in the region and Myanmar’s political crisis following the military coup of 1 February 2021 have provoked questions about ASEAN’s relevance and centrality amidst big power geo-political competition in the region. Surely it is high time to begin a conversation about having a female ASEAN SG and for a more feminine leadership style in both person and practice, and start correcting the glaring gender deficit in the top echelon at the ASEAN Secretariat. After all, females make up half of the population of ASEAN, and as such, women deserve their fair share of representation at the apex level of ASEAN’s policy making and implementing processes.  


Apichai Sunchindah is an independent Development Specialist and former staff of the ASEAN Secretariat and Executive Director of the ASEAN Foundation.

Sharon Seah is Senior Fellow and concurrent Coordinator at the ASEAN Studies Centre and Climate Change in Southeast Asia Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. She is also editor of Building a New Legal Order for the Oceans.