Mr. Chairman,
Your Royal Highness,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen

On behalf of my Delegation, I join my ASEAN colleagues in congratulating Your Excellency, Domingo Siazon, Jr, on your election as Chairman of the 31st ASEAN Ministerial Meeting. I am confident that under your able and wise chairmanship, we can look forward to productive deliberations in the days ahead. My Delegation and I wish to register our appreciation to the Government of the Philippines for the excellent arrangements made. I would also like to underline our deepest appreciation to His Excellency, President Estrada, for his most inspiring speech earlier today.

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

2. When we met in Kuala Lumpur last year, for the 30th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, our mood was still one of optimism. Sadly for ASEAN, the circumstances have changed. A financial storm of unprecedented scale swept through our region. A year or so after one of our currencies was ravaged, most of our economies now are feeling the full impact of the financial turmoil. Forces largely beyond our control have undermined the decades of hard work in improving the standard of living of our peoples. Millions of our peoples are out of work. The economic and social cost to all sectors of our society continues to mount. We have been criticized for bad management and our value systems have been assailed. It is indeed ironic that the same quarters that once lauded us for creating the environment for our extraordinary growth are now chastising us.

3. We have exerted much effort to revive our economies. Notwithstanding all these efforts, the economic relief we seek is, not yet within sight. We must constantly review our efforts, persevere with measures that show promise, and dare to innovate where necessary. Equally evident is the fact that our economic recovery requires leadership and concerted action from those of our Dialogue Partners who are also the most important economic players in the world. Their economic and financial policies impact directly on our economic survival and ultimately, the economic health of the world. Given the challenges we face, Malaysia views the deliberations among ourselves beginning today, and those with our Dialogue Partners in the days ahead, as most opportune.

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

4. The temporary setback faced by ASEAN economics have given rise to the perception that ASEAN is in disarray, its unity imperiled and its image tarnished. ASEAN’s trademark, its approach, style and method of work that member countries have adopted in the conduct of affairs within the Association and in its relations with others have come under increasing scrutiny.

5. The constant building of consensus, and the supreme importance attached to maintaining cohesion, avoiding confrontation, and not interfering in the internal affairs of other member states have been the hallmarks of ASEAN existence. Now, there are calls, first from outside ASEAN and now also from within ASEAN, for change. The direction that we choose will affect each of our commitment to ASEAN and determine the future of our group as a successful organization.

6. I wish to recall that one of the main objectives for the establishment of ASEAN is to promote regional solidarity and cooperation with the view to strengthening regional peace and stability. The pursuit of this objective is as valid today as it was thirty-one years ago. It cannot be over emphasized that ASEAN encompasses, within its midst, countries which are divergent in their political and historical backgrounds, and different in their levels of economic and social developments as well as in their strategic perspectives.

7. In the wake of the economic turmoil, the pressure ASEAN countries are subjected to has intensified. Within some ASEAN countries, there have also been radical changes. At the same time globalization and technological advances continue apace. Under this complex situation, it is so tempting in the conduct of regional affairs to take the easy way out, to avoid the painstaking course of building consensus that is so important to promoting solidarity and maintaining cohesion. But to set aside the consensus principle would be to usher in a divided and fractious ASEAN and consequently, an enfeebled ASEAN in regional and international affairs. It does not need to be reemphasized that our strength and influence as a group has always been derived from our solidarity and our unity of purpose. There is more in common among us than the little that differs.

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

8. The fundamental ASEAN principle of non interference in the internal affairs of member states is now under scrutiny. It may be noted that observance of this principle is contained in various ASEAN agreements. It is one reason why many members find it comfortable to join ASEAN, and remain in it. The 1971 Kuala Lumpur Declaration recognized the right of every state to lead its national existence free from outside interference in its internal affairs. The same cardinal point has been recognized as a fundamental principle guiding the relations between states in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia or TAC. This is the Treaty that ASEAN is inviting non-regional states to adhere to when we sign the Second Protocol amending the TAC on 25 July. This is the internationally accepted principle governing relations between states, which has served to maintain the unity within the ASEAN diversity. To abandon this time-tested principle would set us on the path towards eventual disintegration.

9. Having put aside the suspicions and distrust that had characterized the past history of the region, I am afraid we may take for granted the stable political environment and the positive inter-state relations between ASEAN member countries. This healthy environment has much to do with our adherence to the principle of non-interference. It has also made possible cooperation in other areas, paving the way for the extraordinary growth that the region was renowned for and the basis on which ASEAN was courted by other countries and regional groupings.

10. It is said that the principle of non-intervention has prevented governments from commenting even when comments are called for or from expressing concerns even when such expressions are justifiable. We know that this cannot be further from the truth. We have not only commented and criticized, we have even expressed reservations when necessary. But we do all this quietly, befitting a community of friends bonded in cooperation and ever mindful of the fact that fractious relations undermine the capacity of ASEAN to work together on issues critical to our collective being. We do it in this quiet way because criticizing loudly, posturing adversarially and grandstanding bring less results and does more harm than good. Problems existing between two countries are best settled at the bilateral level. There is no need to transform such problems to become an ASEAN issue.

11. In the ASEAN context, this issue has less to do with the maturing of political systems but concerns more the level of political integration among member countries. The higher the level of integration among ASEAN countries the less would interventionism be a problem between them. Unless ASEAN countries are ready to discuss greater integration between them, I see little benefit in discussing this divisive issue of interfering in each other’s internal affairs.

12. We had problems, initially, to take collective action to combat regional forest fires last year. The problem was not the policy of non-interference but an absence of agreed rules of behaviour and cooperative measures to deal with transnational issues on a scale which we had never encountered before. Hopefully our ASEAN Vision 2020 would provide the framework for constructive discussion and effective action in dealing with such transnational issues as the environmental effects of regional forest fire.

13. The principle of non-intervention has also not constrained us from cooperating to address our present economic crisis. We have agreed on a regional surveillance mechanism to promote sound financial management within ASEAN countries. Some of us have agreed to trade in each other’s currencies. We must examine other areas of cooperation as well. Indeed, there may be other impediments to further cooperation, but they have little if anything to do with the principle of non-interference. We should however thoroughly discuss these matters, quietly and confidentially if need be.

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

14. Let there be not doubt. I am aware of the profound transformations that are taking place around ASEAN and within ASEAN. Technological advancement and information spread are bringing great changes to the way we live, the way we do things and the way we organize ourselves. Our actions impact upon each other like they have never before. We are intensely interdependent, not only among ourselves but also with our neighbours in the wider Asia Pacific region and the world. Our peoples demand to be heard.

15. I also believe that the greatest challenge, within our respective countries in ASEAN, has been and continues to be the advancement of the welfare of our peoples in all the spheres of their lives. This includes their fundamental rights and dignity as human beings. Much remains to be done in this respect. For reasons of history, some of us have more work to do than others. ASEAN has done much to provide the stable and harmonious environment for us to pursue this great objective. But ASEAN, the organization needs to be seen to do more for the region as a whole.

16. But I also do firmly believe that for ASEAN to do more, the way forward is not to talk about ditching the principle of non-intervention. The way forward remains cooperation, more cooperation and better cooperation. There can be no other basis for collaboration within ASEAN. In the long run, there is no substitute to cooperation to achieve our common objectives.

17. In complementing ASEAN as the regional vehicle for cooperation, there is much that civil society and non-government organizations can contribute. These are avenues where the people can make their voices heard. Let us leave it to them to do some of the things they are uniquely suited for.

18. Malaysia therefore believes that the ASEAN approach and process or the ASEAN way that had stood us in good stead all these years have much to recommend themselves. We need to remember that the ASEAN way has gone through many years of evolution. The approach has enabled us to deal with existing and emerging problems and challenges effectively in ways that have advanced and not compromised ASEAN’s interest. In fact, through the ASEAN way there are no problems or challenges that we in ASEAN cannot deal with. We need to interact more as we enter into the next millenium. Malaysia believes that the imperatives for constructive interactions are most persuasive and compelling for making changes among us.

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

19. Malaysia was the host of the Second ASEAN Informal Summit in December last year when the ASEAN Heads adopted the ASEAN Vision 2020. Now, we must strive to realize the vision of ASEAN as a concert of Southeast Asian nations, outward-looking, living in peace, stability and prosperity, bonded together in partnership in dynamic development and in a community of caring societies. We stand ready to work with other ASEAN member countries to formulate a pragmatic programme to realize the long term Vision, to help us restore growth and stability so necessary for our economic recovery. Malaysia looks forward to the adoption of this programme to be contained in the Hanoi Plan of Action that the Sixth ASEAN Summit will adopt in December this year.

20. As host also of the Summit Meetings between the Heads of ASEAN and that of China, Japan and the Republic of Korea, Malaysia found the discussions most useful. It provided a timely forum for East Asian countries to exchange views, identify common problems and consider common approaches to meet the challenges of the twenty first century. Malaysia believes that a continuing dialogue among these countries would be beneficial to the region particularly as we all are still reeling from the economic turbulence that had descended on us.

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

21. We are meeting on the eve of general elections in Cambodia. Malaysia wishes to commend all parties in Cambodia, the ASEAN Troika and the Friends of Cambodia for all their efforts in making this election possible, We are confident that the successful outcome of a free and fair election in Cambodia will facilitate the restoration of peace and political stability in the country and see Cambodia joining ASEAN as the tenth member of the Association. With all Southeast Asian countries in together in ASEAN, the vision of ASEAN Ten would be realized and the whole of Southeast Asia would be marching in tandem into the next millenium.

Thank you for your attention.