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ASEAN turns 45 this year. By human years, that would put the regional organization somewhere most people would describe as “middle-age”, or nearly there. This is also the time when many re-evaluate their lives, update their priorities and, with the experiences gained, explore ways to make things better.

In a similar spirit, Dr Surin Pitsuwan, Secretary-General of ASEAN, presented his Annual Report on the work of the group yesterday, at the ASEAN Summit at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

He recalled that after the ASEAN Charter entered into force in 2008, it took three and a half years for the ASEAN Member States to build its new institutions and decision-making processes. Then, at the 17th, 18th, and 19th Summits the Leaders called upon Dr. Surin to reflect on the strengthening of the ASEAN Secretariat on behalf of ASEAN.

In December 2011, the Secretary-General conveyed his Report, “ASEAN’s Challenge: Some Thoughts and Reflections on Strengthening the ASEAN Secretariat” to the ASEAN Foreign Ministers.

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“If the ASEAN Summit is the brain, then the Secretariat is its heart,” he told ASEAN Leaders gathered here for their 20th Summit.

The Sultan of Brunei was first to take the floor after Dr. Surin presented his findings. He expressed his appreciation for the efforts of the Secretary-General, and for his dedication to ASEAN. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah had, on many occasions, called for the Secretary-General to look into ways to strengthen the Secretariat.

The Sultan urged his fellow leaders to “reflect on how the initiative to strengthen the Secretariat began”, and called on them to streamline coordination among all the ASEAN Organs, starting with the ASEAN Secretariat.

Dr Surin explained that “the Secretariat is at the heart of all the other ASEAN Organs, and it is the only one which represents an exclusively ASEAN character, and the collective interests of ASEAN.”

The Secretary-General stressed that for the group to sustain its centrality, it has to be strong internally. Building the Community is not just about ratifying agreements, but implementing them as well. Institutional reforms are needed at national and regional levels.

ASEAN also needs to have the capacity to interact constructively with its Dialogue Partners and the 65 Ambassadors to ASEAN–who are ready to contribute to building a cohesive ASEAN Community.

The Secretary-General also reported on the progress of the work of the three Community Councils covering political-security, economic, and socio-cultural affairs, as well as the ASEAN Foundation.

In his response, Vice President Dr. Budiono of Indonesia said ASEAN should build the capacity of its regional institutions and recommended a thorough review of the ASEAN organs at all levels. He added that if ASEAN is to remain relevant, it must reach out to its 600 million-plus people.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that it was important for the member governments to work together to strengthen ASEAN.