On December 31, 2015 we formally declared the establishment of the ASEAN Community, marking the culmination of a decades-long effort to integrate, to cohere and to forge ahead together. It is a day that we have all been waiting for. It is a day that we – ASEAN – can be proud of: we have maintained the high ambitions we set for ourselves in the three community blueprints – economic, political-security, and socio-cultural. Our growth has been impressive. And ASEAN is increasingly seen not only as integral to the global economic and security architecture, but also as a region of tremendous opportunity. As the CEO of a major international banking group put it in 2015, “There’s a giant in Asia, shifting the tectonic plates of manufacturing, trade, services and the global economy. ASEAN is the next horizon.”
Imagine that we were living in this region today without ASEAN. What would it look like? Would we be living in a region as peaceful as it is today? Would we be enjoying the same standard of living? Would our combined GDP have grown to $2.6trn in 2014, a near-80% increase in seven years? Would we have the same levels of connectivity? Would we be talked about as the most dynamic and promising region on earth? Clearly the answer is no – we would not be what we are today without ASEAN. ASEAN has more than served its purpose, and has been a great success. With over 240m Muslims, 140m Buddhists, 130m Christians, and millions of Hindus, Sikhs, Confucianists, Taoists and others, as well as numerous different ethnicities, South-east Asia was once referred to as “the Balkans of the Orient”. We were, wrote one scholar, a “cultural and political fault zone”. Given this diversity, he continued, “wars of separation should emerge as a natural consequence”. And half a century ago, we were indeed a group of developing nations in a region riven by conflict and instability.
But in 1967 our forefathers formed a new association that has grown to 10 nations today. And we have advanced, and risen together, the ASEAN way. We have stressed community and consensus-building, over the excesses of individualism and the seeking of selfish objectives. We have chosen non-violence over confrontation, and moderation over extremism, showing respect not just to our friends, but also to our foes, for we know there is no virtue in humiliation. Peace-seeking and peace-building, instead of fanning the flames of conflict and war is our reality. We are a highly diverse collection of faiths and ethnicities. We have had to work together and overcome our differences. But in transcending them, we have become a unique example of how 10 different nations can form a shared vision. Although we are many, we are one when we come together as ASEAN.
But we must do more, and as a community, we owe it to our people to commit ourselves to specific deliverables and making good on our promises. It is imperative that we have solid progress to report the next time we meet in Vientiane. There is some low-hanging fruit we can focus on. For example, we should ensure that there are special lanes for ASEAN citizens at every international port, road and airport. We should have banners celebrating ASEAN food in cafés, warungs (small businesses), food courts and supermarkets. We need to prioritise the launch of the ASEAN business travel card, and strengthen ASEAN internship programmes. We should promote more ASEAN festivals and cross-cultural ties, and ensure that no student leaves school without having been taught about our shared history. We need that single market and production base we talk about. We need the free movement of goods, services, skilled labour, capital and investments. At the moment non-tariff barriers, which affect daily life and employment across our nations, are too extensive. But let us not forget the immense practical benefits our association has already bestowed to the hundreds of millions of people who live all around the ASEAN region.
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