50 Years of Asean: How five ministers from South-East Asia forged the region's most important group
Special Report on how in 1967, those ministers spent a few days together at the secluded Thai beach resort of Bang Saen, and diplomacy played out on the golf course and friendships were forged over dinner, drinks and laughter
It was the first display of what would later be dubbed the "sports shirt diplomacy". In 1967, five ministers from South East Asia spent a few days together at the secluded Thai beach resort of Bang Saen, where diplomacy played out on the golf course and friendships were forged over dinner, drinks and laughter. On August 8, 1967, four days after those informal interactions began, the Association of South East Asian Nations was born. The five ministers \- Adam Malik of Indonesia, Tun Abdul Razak of Malaysia, Narciso Ramos of the Philippines, S Rajaratnam of Singapore and Thanat Khoman of Thailand \- signed the Asean Declaration.
Also known as the Bangkok Declaration, it paved the way for what is today the most important intergovernmental organisation of Asian nations. Brunei joined the grouping 17 years later in 1984, followed by Vietnam in 1995, and Laos and Myanmar two years after that. Cambodia was the last country to join Asean in 1999. Fifty years on, Asean boasts an impressive collective GDP of US$2.5 trillion and was the sixth largest economy in the world in 2016, according to the World Bank. While the bloc has brought peace and prosperity to the region, its unity cannot be taken for granted. The trends point towards a disjointed Asean as the members of the grouping give precedence to national interests rather than demonstrating a regional ego to secure the peace and prosperity in South East Asia, Singaporean diplomat Ong Keng Yong, who was secretary general of Asean from 2003 to 2007, said.
_**Born in adversity**_
The birth of Asean was nothing short of a miracle. The bloc was born out of fear rather than idealistic convictions about regionalism, one of its founding fathers, Singapores S Rajaratnam, said years later. The region was in the throes of turmoil in the 1960s, with the Vietnam War at its height, Indonesia emerging from a bloody military coup and Thailand under martial law. The Philippines and Malaysia both staked claims over the state of Sabah, while Indonesia had just ended its crush Malaysia campaign. Singapore had also separated from Malaysia after two stormy years. Beyond South East Asia, the Cold War was at its peak and China was on the cusp of the Cultural Revolution. It appeared then that both the East and West winds of communism had joined forces to sweep over South East Asia, Rajaratnam said in the early 90s. At that time, the five countries were fighting off communist\-led insurgencies within their borders, and grappling with the power vacuum left by the departure of their colonial masters. Except for Thailand, all of South East Asia had been colonised by western countries before the Second World War. We do not want to be dictated from Europe, or from America, or from Moscow, or from Peking \[China\], or from anywhere else, Thailands foreign minister Thanat Khoman, another founding member, said on the day of Aseans formation.
> 'We want to be free, we do not want to be under the influence of anyone, large or small. We do not want to depend on the outside world, we want to depend on each and every one of us.'
**_Peace_ ** **_and stability_**
**_'It is easy to give birth to a new organisation_** **_but the creation of an organisation of this nature is the most simple of all tasks._** _**It is a mere skeleton that we have erected. Now the really difficult task is to give flesh and blood to this concept.'**_ _S Rajaratnam, Singapores foreign minister, a founding member of Asean_
Asean has brought peace and stability to the region, which in turn helped accelerate economic growth and social progress in South East Asia for the last 50 years. Apart from the EU, no other regional organisation comes close to matching Aseans record in delivering five decades without any major conflicts, Kishore Mahbubani and Jeffrey Sng said in their book, _The Asean Miracle_. In many ways, the Asean project is synonymous with peace. To maintain the delicate peace, Asean states have adopted the principle of non\-interference in the internal affairs of other members \- an issue that has come under frequent criticism. Critics say it encourages the grouping to side\-step contentious issues such as human rights abuses in Myanmar, the military coup in Thailand and the ongoing territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
Aseans decision\-making process by consensus has also been blamed for hindering progress. The criticism levelled against Asean originates from a one\-dimensional bias, Ambassador Ong told _The National_. No international or regional grouping can claim freedom from consensus\-driven decision\-making. As an intergovernmental regional body without supranational authority, he added, every initiative in Asean needs buy\-in by all its members. The goal is to keep all member states together and find the common ground to effect regional economic integration and political cooperation for the benefit of all. Asean operates in a step\-by\-step way at a pace comfortable to all member states.
Professor Mahbubani, the co\-author of _The Asean Miracle_ and Singapore's former ambassador to the United Nations, agreed. Everyone expects things to change overnight in Asean but Asean doesnt work that way, Prof Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said. Asean moves likes a crab it takes two steps forward, one step backwards, one step sidewards. When you look at it in slow motion, Asean seems to be moving round in circles, but if you examine the statistics decade by decade you see that every decade it leaps ahead very fast, very high, he said. Evidence of this is in Aseans economic growth in the last 50 years. The bloc is expected to become the fourth largest economy in the world by 2050.
Another milestone was the establishment of the Asean Economic Community in 2015. The initiative brings the bloc closer to establishing a single market and production base, with a free flow of goods, services and labour across the 10 member states. The Asean Economic Community is a pretty big deal, Murray Hiebert, deputy director of the South East Asia Programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said. It pushed Asean to work towards regional economic integration. The AEC has brought down many trade barriers and tariffs, which is significant in a region where many of the countries are trading competitors, he said. There's still a lot of things that haven't been resolved and they're still ongoing. I would give them high marks for what they've achieved but they still have a long way to go. Asean has also established the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership between member states and the countries with which it has free trade agreements. The 16 participating countries \- Asean states plus Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand \- account for almost half of the worlds population, and contribute about 30 per cent of global GDP and over a quarter of world exports. Due to be finalised at the end of 2017, it is widely seen as an alternative to the Trans\-Pacific Partnership trade deal that Donald Trump pulled out of in January.
**_Model_ _for_** _**integration?**_
South East Asia \- a melting pot of religions, languages and ethnicities \- has a vastly diverse political, social and economic landscape. Some experts say Aseans unity despite its diversity makes it a compelling model for regional integration. With a combined population of nearly 640 million people, the region is home to 240 million Muslims \- more than in the Middle East. South East Asia also has 140 million Buddhists, 130 million Christians, seven million Hindus, and other religious groups including Taoists and Confucianists. Political systems vary widely as well. Brunei is an absolute monarchy, Laos and Vietnam are one\-party communist states, and Thailand has been under military rule since a coup in 2014. Democracy is practised with varying degrees in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines and Singapore. Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia are constitutional monarchies. Asean nations also differ in stages of economic development. Singapore, one of the regions richest countries, boasts a GDP per capita of US$51,431 \(Dh188,950\) while poorer nations like Cambodia and Myanmar have a GDP of $1,308 and $1,374 respectively, according to the International Monetary Fund. "No other region on planet Earth is as diverse as South East Asia, said Prof Mahbubani. If Asean can create regional co\-operation in the most diverse region on planet Earth, it becomes a role model that everyone should follow. In fact Asean should become the model for regional integration, he said. Up to now, the most successful model for regional co\-operation has been the European Union. Number two has been Asean, he said. But the European Union is now about to break up if the UK leaves Asean looks by comparison more successful because it hasnt broken up. Mr Hiebert from CSIS was less sanguine. I would agree it's a model for integration it has a bunch of weaknesses, so I would hate to call it the model. The EU's got some problems but it's a very different model, where they have a much closer political and economic integration, including currency. Asean is not even remotely close to that, Mr Hiebert said. If you want a model that gives each country quite a bit of independence, then Aseans a pretty good model.
Aseans relationship with the Gulf Co\-operation Council only began formally in 1990, when foreign ministers from both sides met for the first time on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. Ten years later, in 2000, the Asean Riyadh Committee was formed to further enhance ties between Asean and the GCC. Since then, three foreign ministerial meetings between the two sides have taken place. The two regions will benefit from working together to keep markets open and vibrant for globalised trade, said Mr Ong, who sought to further ties with the GCC while he was Asean's secretary general. Both sides must work hand\-in\-hand and not let domestic and other distractions hinder stronger co\-operation. The GCC and Asean depend on an open international trading regime for their respective economies, and Asean has been a champion of free trade agreements, he added. In this respect, both sides will benefit from working together to keep markets open and vibrant for globalised trade. Describing the importance of the UAE, Mr Ong said: The UAE occupies a strategic geographical location between the Asean region and Asean key trading partners in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. Asean companies depend heavily on the air and shipping connections from the UAE to the markets in these faraway countries. The UAE is also at the forefront of transforming traditional emirates into dynamic modern economies, he said. The transformation of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, for example, shows what systematic planning and visionary leadership can do.
_**Delicate**_ **_as a vase_ **
While Asean has enjoyed relative peace and stability in the last 50 years, challenges remain. Domestic problems can prevent member states from being fully committed to Asean, said Mr Hiebert. Malaysias prime minister is shaking off corruption charges at home, Thailands military junta continues to tighten its grip on dissent three years after the coup, and the Philippine president is under criticism for the 8,000 people killed during his war on drugs \- even as his country struggles to stem an Islamist insurgency in the south. You have almost every country except probably Vietnam and Singapore that is very inward\-looking right now, solving domestic problems." Citing another key threat to the unity of the bloc, Mr Ong said: Some Asean member states do not appreciate the strategic value of Asean in maintaining regional autonomy and avoiding taking sides in big\-power competition and rivalry in South East Asia. They see their respective bilateral relations with individual big powers as more important than the abstract notion of Asean staying cohesive and united, he said referring to China and the United States. Rising tensions between Beijing and Washington will also be a challenge for Asean. It is inevitable that US\-China tensions will rise in this region, said Prof Mahbubani. If it rises, theres a danger that the United States might use Asean against China, or that China might use Asean against the United States. In that process, Asean might get broken up, he said.
> 'One message I have to Beijing is: please treat Asean as a delicate Ming \[Chinese dynasty\] vase. Dont break it. Thats the biggest danger that Asean faces today.'
The contested claims in the South China Sea could also hurt relations among member states. It pits nations with competing claims \- such as the Philippines and Vietnam \- against those with no direct stakes in the dispute but are dependent on Beijing \- such as Cambodia and Laos. Cambodia has on several occasions blocked Asean consensus on strong wording against China in the dispute. One threat is the problem where Cambodia will do Chinas bidding if it gets enough aid where China gets Hun Sen \[Cambodian prime minister\] and Cambodia to do its bidding by giving them a whole chunk of foreign aid, said Mr Hiebert. That really is a bit of a threat if one of the superpowers can do this, he said.
**_Sports shirt diplomacy_**
Little is known about the fact that five very unlikely friends born in five different countries, speaking different languages and from different faiths were brought together on the golf course in 1967 during the humble beginnings of Asean. In Bang Saen, less than 100 kilometres south\-east of the Thai capital of Bangkok, they negotiated over the Asean declaration on the golf course, which they later came to describe fondly as "sports shirt diplomacy. While informal talks were held during golf games, they were far from easy, the Philippines foreign minister Narciso Ramos said. They truly taxed the goodwill, the imagination, the patience and understanding of the five participating ministers. The background of the five men were as diverse as Asean itself. Thailands foreign minister Thanat Khoman, was a Buddhist educated in France, who spoke English and French fluently. Filipino Narciso Ramos, a Christian, was a lawyer, journalist and politician educated in Manila. Indonesias Adam Malik and his Malaysian counterpart Tun Abdul Razak were Muslims. Malik was born in Sumatra, Indonesia, spoke Bahasa Indonesia and Dutch fluently, while Razak was born in Pahang, Malaysia and educated in Singapore. He furthered his studies in Londons Lincoln Inn, where he met Singapores S Rajaratnam, a Hindu born in Sri Lanka but raised in Singapore. "Each man brought into the deliberations a historical and political perspective that had no resemblance to that of any of the others, according to an Asean publication to commemorate the blocs 30th anniversary. "But with goodwill and good humour, as often as they huddled at the negotiating table, they finessed their way through their differences as they lined up their shots on the golf course and traded wisecracks on one anothers game, a style of deliberation which would eventually become the Asean ministerial tradition."
Many Asean problems were resolved over golf games, said Prof Mahbubani. Playing golf helps people develop a camaraderie, and as a result of that camaraderie, you get over all the disputes and differences that you have.
**Credits** Graphics: Ramon Peas and lvaro Sanmart Multimedia: Kevin Jeffers and Andrew Scott Photo editor: Olive Obina Photos: Agence France\-Presse, Alamy, Getty
Updated: August 7, 2017 12:03 PM