Purpose of Paper

1. The purpose of this paper is to define the regional and global settings that ASEAN had operated in the past, is operating now and will be operating in the future and based on these periods identify the leadership characteristics, styles, and necessary behaviours as well as how the performance of leaders could be evaluated.  It is hoped that this paper will provide the basic ingredients for the development of a more reflective and viable leadership index for ASEAN that the peoples of ASEAN and leaders of ASEAN themselves could utilise to evaluate the performance for a more effective and viable ASEAN Community in the 21st Century.

Definition of Leadership

2. Although the study about leadership is only 100 years old, interest in leaders and leadership dates back to thousands of years.  Despite the vast literature on leadership, there seems to be no single all encompassing definition of leadership.  Some are short or long and others are scientifically or practitioner oriented.  The difficulty in definition arises because leadership is a complex process involving numerous fundamentally different types of acts.  It is technical competence and achieving results, working with and through people, making sure that the organisation is in alignment with the environment, and ensuring there is appropriate and consistent adherence to organisational goals, principles and norms, among others.

3. Despite the lack of a common definition for leadership, there are three factors that we need to take into account when we look at a suitable leadership model for ASEAN. First is the leader’s style as it will be the first demonstrable action towards their stakeholders, organisation, environment, and so on.  It represents too the behaviour variables exhibited by the leaders.  Second is the contingency factor, which determines the behaviour or style of the leader.  Some situations or conditions would enhance the desired outcomes and others may hamper the expected outcomes.  Thus, the contingency factor affects the strength, quality and success of a particular behaviour or style.  Third, will be the performance goals, which could include efficiency of regional cooperation, peoples’ satisfaction and development, effective external alignments and organisational changes to meet emerging challenges or changing environment. This will determine the nature of leadership needed, and the style and behaviour required.

Past, Present and Future ASEAN Leadership

4. In order to understand the leadership style of ASEAN in the past and present, we will have to look at the developments and accomplishment of ASEAN.  The period 1967 to 1990, ASEAN was led by leaders who had witnessed the “Cold War” era, “Big Power” rivalry, communist insurgency, racial riots, and inter-state tensions.  As such, their leadership and management styles were more authoritative, directive and rationalistic.  The role of government in decision-making and policy formulation was dominant in ASEAN.  Most often, the governments played the key role in forging regional cooperation rather than the other stakeholders, even though the intellectuals, businesses and civil society organisations had their own informal or formal networks.  Interestingly, governments and its officials were termed as Track One; intellectuals and academics were Track Two; and civil society organisations as Track Three in that order in ASEAN cooperation.

5. National interest was then and to a larger extend now is the predominant driver of regional cooperation.  The formation of ASEAN in 1967 was primarily due to the need to promote regional resilience so that the region would not succumb to the “proxy wars” and interferences of Major and Super Powers.  When national interest coincided with regional interest, leaders during that period of ASEAN development tend to cooperate.  This is because the element of sovereignty of Member States was sacrosanct in regional cooperation and there was no tolerance for the concept of pooling of sovereignty even when the ASEAN Charter was being drafted.  The EU integration is based on pooled sovereignty, and the concept of subsidiarity .  This is an understandable reaction as many Member States were newly independent and guarded their freedom and sovereignty. Hence, the irregular ASEAN Summits in the first two decades of ASEAN.  Cooperation was “loose”, informal and sometimes one-off in nature in the first three decades of ASEAN.

6. Indeed, the highlight of the first three decades of ASEAN cooperation was confined to political diplomacy to ensure a peaceful and stable Southeast Asia so that newly independent countries could focus on national development.  This spurred developments such as signing of two international treaties — the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and the Treaty on Southeast Asia Weapon Free Zone.  Other initiatives were the development of the concept of the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality, and the establishment of the ASEAN Regional Forum.  The only exception was the establishment of the ASEAN Free Trade Area in 1993, which marked the first step towards a more regional approach to ASEAN cooperation.

7. In most of the instances, such initiatives and developments came from a top down process reinforcing the authoritative and directive style of leadership based on the unwritten ASEAN goals, principles and norms.  The leadership behaviours were more task-oriented and organisational in nature. The common leadership traits that were exhibited were self-confidence, decisiveness, resilience, personal integrity, and willingness to assume responsibility.

8. While the ASEAN goals, principles and norms remain the same and are now codified in the ASEAN Charter, ASEAN has set itself a new direction of establishing an ASEAN Community by the year 2015, guided by its Charter and the Blueprints for ASEAN Political and Security Community, ASEAN Economic Community and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community as well as the Second Work Plan on the Initiative for ASEAN Integration.  ASEAN is now working towards a people-orientated ASEAN Community supported by a rules-based framework.

9. The new orientation of the ASEAN Community and a new rules-based system implies that ASEAN must also renew its leadership style, approaches and behaviours based on the requirements for community-building as well as the ever changing global and regional environments.

10. It is important first to understand how the ASEAN Charter has transformed the orientation of ASEAN.  The first preamble of the ASEAN Charter mentions for the first time in ASEAN’s history as “We, The Peoples of the Member States of ASEAN as represented by the Heads of State or Government” instead of the usual reference of “We” to the Governments of Member States.  Under purposes, the Charter introduces new elements such as democracy, good governance, rule of law and human rights in a key ASEAN document.  It also emphasises the promotion of a people-oriented ASEAN, where all sectors of society are encouraged to participate in and benefit from community building and integration.  In terms of principles, the Charter articulates vividly the shared commitment and collective responsibility of Member States to regional peace, security and prosperity; peaceful settlement of disputes; adherence to rule of law, good governance and principles of democracy; promotion and protection of human rights; and ASEAN rules-based regimes for effective implementation of economic commitments.  It elevates the role of the ASEANSecretary-General and the ASEAN Secretariat by providing enhanced mandates for compliance monitoring of the implementation of regional commitments and dispute settlement decisions by Member States, and the provision of good offices, conciliation and mediation by the Secretary-General of ASEAN.

11. The three Community Blueprints reinforces the ASEAN Charter.  For example, the Scorecard of the ASEAN Economic Community reinforces the ASEAN rules-based regimes for effective implementation of economic commitments and the adoption of a comprehensive Communication Plan for each of the Community reinforces the promotion of people-oriented ASEAN, where all sectors of society are encouraged to participate in and benefit from community building and integration.

12. The second phenomenon that ASEAN should be cognisant of would be the dynamic changes in global and regional environments that led to ASEAN undergoing a transformation from the 1990s onwards.  The region, which was once categorised as a flashpoint, due to the potentials for territorial disputes, has now become a region of peace, stability and prosperity where Member States could address issues candidly and with utmost respect for one another at the table.  The ASEAN process has given the much needed confidence for the region’s leaders, ministers and officials to discuss ASEAN and wider regional issues at the ASEAN meetings and meetings with its Dialogue Partners as well as bilateral issues bilaterally at the sidelines of ASEAN meetings.

13. The current global crisis has also focused the attention on East Asia as the engine of growth for the world for the foreseeable future.  This includes ASEAN, China, India and Japan.  With their combined large population (a young population from the standpoint of India), accumulated reserves, domestic consumption potential of their middle and lower-middle income segments of population and the integration of production networks in East Asia, East Asia could make a key difference to the world and regional growth.

14. At the same time, the issues that the region is grappling with are more transnational rather than national in nature.  But such transnational issues have important bearing on national resilience and well-being.  These issues include the ongoing financial and economic crisis, climate change, food and energy security, widening development gaps, and poverty.  No single country could tackle the issue unilaterally and therefore cooperation, engagement and collective responses are needed to tackle the issues effectively both at the regional and global perspectives.

15. In the case of the current financial crisis, ASEAN had to coordinate its fiscal stimulation policies to ensure that there is no massive outflow of capital.  At the same time, the region together with its partners China, Japan and South Korea will soon be launching the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralisation that will serve as a buffer to countries facing balance of payment problems.  In the area of trade, ASEAN Member States are committed to avoiding any protectionist tendencies as such inward-looking measures may result in retaliation from other Member States and therefore hamper the ASEAN Economic Community that envisages free flow of goods within the region by the year 2015.  The region has now strategic plans for cooperation in the areas of food security and energy security therefore strengthening the regional resilience further should a food or energy crisis occur in the future. Several schemes are now in place too for narrowing of the development gaps within ASEAN, which include the Initiative for ASEAN Integration, the ASEAN-Mekong Basin Development Cooperation and other sub-regional growth areas.

16. Another change dimension in ASEAN is the involvement of the other stakeholders instead of just governments, especially in the non-political and security arenas.  The private sector is increasingly an active partner of governments in ASEAN economic integration initiatives from trade, investment, food security, disaster management, environment, among others.  Such participation further strengths ASEAN as peoples’ involvement is crucial to community-building and long-term sustainability and development of the ASEAN Community.

17. From the strategic angle, a more coherent and dynamic ASEAN will be able to ensure its centrality in East Asia is maintained and its relevance in regional and global affairs.  Hence, ASEAN integration and community building is the core for ASEAN to ensure this as ASEAN has to speak in one voice and act in unison.  Otherwise, the centrifugal forces may cause the centre of gravity to move away from ASEAN to other parts of the wider East Asia.  This means ASEAN will have to do more strategic thinking, planning, coordination and assessments even prior to working together jointly with its East Asian partners.  This would require more understanding among Member States of their respective positions, more caucus among ASEAN Members and decisive stand with one single voice at the end of the consultation and consensus-building process.  This has to be done much quicker as ASEAN integrates as the new mechanisms such as the ministerial councils and the Committee of Permanent Representatives should be able to facilitate this.

Leadership for the New Era

18. Given the above changes and developments, the leadership style will have to be more accommodative and participative rather that the authoritative and directive style of leadership of the past.  This requires more than the task-oriented behaviours and must imbibe behaviours such as consultation, faster paced consensus-building, managing conflicts, motivating stakeholders, following rules-based procedures, and ensuring timely implementation of commitments.

19. In the light of the above, the picture of a regional leadership, irrespective of the level and sector, should conform to the new requirements of the ASEAN Community.  First, he or she must have a good grasp of the history, principles, norms and goals of ASEAN and the challenges that ASEAN as a Community is facing and will be facing in the future.  Second, he or she must be a consensus builder who is sensitive to the interests of the various Member States.  Third, he or she must be a strategic thinker who is able to draw-up plans to tackle an issue or support a new initiative.  Fourth, he or she must be able to communicate and engage the various stakeholders in ASEAN to win trust and support.  Fifth, he or she must be able to execute the plan in a decisive manner as well as by mobilising the required resources.  Sixth, he or she must be able to trouble-shoot, and steer the plan to its rightful direction and destination should it be affected in any way.  Seventh, he or she must be pragmatic and should monitor and evaluate the impact of the plan and take remedial actions to ensure the best outcomes for ASEAN, if necessary.  Eighth, he or she must be able to communicate the results, and benefits to the stakeholders and in the process facilitate buy-in for ASEAN integration and community building efforts.  In return, he or she must seek feedback and incorporate constructive inputs into ASEAN policies.

20. In order for a regional leader to accomplish the above, he or she must have the following qualities: self confidence, decisiveness, resilience, energy, motivation to achieve, willingness to accept responsibility, personal integrity, high morality, and emotional maturity.  More importantly, he or she must have the passion for and belief in ASEAN and empathy for the peoples of ASEAN.

21. This requires more people oriented behaviour from the future leaders.  They must consult more, plan and organise resources, develop their technical and analytical competence, social skills, motivate stakeholders, manage expectations and conflicts as well as changes as the external environment changes.  In terms of organisational behaviour, there must be more scanning of the environment to keep updated of changes, strategic planning capabilities to steer ASEAN to vantage positions in issues and opportunities, ability to article a convincing vision and mission, apt skills for networking and partnering, and a swifter decision-making capability.

22. In terms of development and evaluation of the future leaders of ASEAN, we need to invest in more continual learning, sharing of experiences and ideas, targeted training and education based on needs.  Similarly, evaluation of the future leaders should be based on their technical performance, performance of their stakeholders, organisational alignment to changing environment and a service mentality with an ethical focus since we are building a Peoples’ ASEAN.


23. The future of ASEAN rests on the leadership it can provide for its internal integration, the evolving architecture of East Asia as well as its role in global affairs.  The leadership style, approach and behaviour should be shaped by the needs of the ASEAN Community and the changing regional and global environments.  If an ASEAN leadership Index is to be developed it must reflect the leadership requirements for the new ASEAN.  This does not mean we have to give up the styles, approaches and behaviours that had characterised the past contributing to ASEAN’s success but modify and update them for the changing times and be open to accepting new approaches.  ASEAN leadership must be nimble and start adopting a “think regional, act ASEAN” policy for regionalism to take firm root in Southeast Asia and spread its wing to the rest of East Asia. The ASEAN Community is the primer for this to be realised.