The eyes of the region and the world will be on Malaysia in 2015, a historic date which will see the establishment of the ASEAN Community. It is the culmination of a five-decade-long effort of region-building. The foreign ministers who signed the Bangkok Declaration in 1967, my father included, could scarcely have imagined the heights to which ASEAN would rise. Our region was associated with concepts such as “Balkanisation” and “domino theory”, and few would have predicted that South-east Asia would enjoy decades of prosperity and growing influence; fewer still, that we would be bound closer together with the passage of time.
ASEAN remains both the cornerstone of our foreign policy and the linchpin of our strategic interests. Firstly, Malaysia is situated at the heart of a strategic, resource rich, diverse and increasingly economically vibrant South-east Asia. Malaysia’s trade dependency ratio is the fourth highest in the world. To continue to prosper, Malaysia needs a stable regional environment, with open sea lanes, and transparent and predictable behaviour by major regional powers. ASEAN, and the institutions that it leads, are the best hope of achieving these objectives. These institutions and their processes provide the necessary platform to promote confidence, transparency and the development of rules and norms. In this regard, I recognise that the South China Sea issue continues to be of concern for the international community. However, it is sufficient for me to say that the discussions between ASEAN and China on the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) are making good progress. The DOC will be the key instrument in ensuring the proper management of these vital sea lanes, upon which so much depends.
Secondly, ASEAN plays a strong role in promoting a culture of peace. At present, the risk of military conflict between ASEAN members seems so small as to be negligible. However, conflicts between ASEAN members, be they due to ethnic strife or political differences, continue to be a cause of concern. I must reaffirm that Malaysia will continue to play a facilitating role in addressing internal conflicts whenever such a request is made. I believe moderation has an important role to play in promoting peace in the region.
Therefore, I am heartened that moderation has been adopted as a key ASEAN value. The challenge is how to turn moderation from a concept to an action. Organisations such as the Global Movement of Moderates should work closely with existing ASEAN institutions, such as the ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. At the same time, programmes related to moderation must be included in the successor document to the Roadmap for the ASEAN Community, which is to be adopted in Malaysia in 2015.
Thirdly, in an ever more connected and competitive global marketplace, open regionalism, which ASEAN promotes, can help members not only adapt to emerging economic trends, but to prosper. Fourthly, ASEAN and its institutions are playing an ever more prominent role in responding to the demands for better governance and increased democratic space.
ASEAN’s response is to strengthen its involvement in these issues, including by adopting the ASEAN Declaration on Human Rights. Additionally, for ASEAN to progress further, it must ride this wave, striving for better governance and giving our people a greater say in the way their societies are run.
For 40 years, governments in the region have signed agreements and treaties, and issued communiqués, statements and declarations. Progress has been achieved and an infrastructure for regional integration has been created; however, the instruments we have adopted will be of little use if people do not take advantage of them. Involving all sectors of society in the formulation and implementation of these agreements will make them more reflective of people’s needs. To use a plain metaphor, we have built an impressive house, but to become a true home, however, it needs be lived in.
The above is adapted from a speech given at the National Colloquium on Malaysia’s Chairmanship of ASEAN 2015 in Kuala Lumpur on April 8, 2014.
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