(This article appeared in Asian Media Report, January 1999)

For several reasons, ASEAN as ASEAN has never received much press attention in most of the 31 years of its existence. But, in the good old days of rapid economic growth rates of 7-8 per cent a year and effective action on such high-profile issues as Cambodia and the ASEAN Regional Forum, whatever media coverage was devoted to ASEAN was generally positive. The image of ASEAN projected in the media was that of a collection of economic “tigers” with apparently unlimited prospect for growth, moderate and pragmatic states that were a force for stability in Southeast Asia. No More.

The ASEAN image has been quite different in the past year or so, different since the onset of the media-labelled “Asian” financial crisis, since the haze from land and forest fires inflicted grave damage on parts of Southeast Asia, and since tensions between ASEAN members surfaced in public. Since then, many in the media have written ASEAN off as “ineffective,: as “losing its relevance,” as “indisaray.” The ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) has been described as doomed or, at best, stalled.

First, the financial crisis. Media commentators have blamed ASEAN for not doing anything about the financial crisis. This sounds to me like blaming the Organization of American States for not doing something about the Mexican financial crisis of 1994. In any case, none of these commentators has offered any idea of what ASEAN should have done about the crisis.

A global crisis: ASEAN is searching for solutions

The truth is, as everyone now admits, the crisis is more than a regional one and needs to be dealt with on a global scale. Individual states, too, have to do something about the problem according to their respective circumstances.

At the regional level, the ASEAN members, collectively and individually, have been active in the search for solutions, with four of them belonging to the Group of 22 that has been convened for this purpose. ASEAN finance ministers and officials have been consulting intensively to co-ordinate their moves since the onset of the crisis. ASEAN members have worked together in the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) and in the Asia-Europe Meeting in addressing the problem.

ASEAN was at the centre of the group of Asia-Pacific countries that put together the Manila Framework of November 1997, which is the basis of some of the regional approaches now being undertaken. One of these measures is the surveillance process that has been set up by the finance ministers to serve as an early warning system for alerting them to impending problems and thus helping to prevent the recurrence of the crisis in the region. This supplements the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reporting system. One of the most forceful of ASEAN’s responses to the crisis has been to repeat loudly and clearly its commitment to regional economic integration and, in general, to open trade and investment regimes. Which brings me to media predictions of the death of AFTA. Almost from the outset, many in the media have prophesied that the financial crisis would inevitably lead to protectionism and economic isolationism. This prediction – facile speculation, really – flies in the face of logic and the facts. But fiew have bothered to check the logic or the facts.

Death of AFTA premature

First, the logic. What ASEAN needs for its economic recovery are increased inflows of long-term investment. Why would the ASEAN countries retreat from AFTA, which was founded precisely to free up trade within ASEAN, integrate its market and thus draw in investments?

The facts are these. At their Summit in December 1997, ASEAN’s leaders strongly re-affirmed their commitment to keep AFTA on scheduled; indeed, they called for its acceleration. In October last year, in compliance with the leaders’ mandate, ASEAN’s economic ministers agreed to move many more products to the list subject to AFTA treatment. They decided to reduce tariffs to 0-5 per cent by 2000 and to zero by 2003 on an expanded list of goods. Beyond trade in goods, ASEAN countries have been negotiating the liberalisation of trade in services – including air and maritime transport, business and financial services, construction, telecommunications and tourism with an initial package of commitments already concluded and another to be finalised soon. This does not sound like backsliding to me. But very few checked the facts, which were readily available.

The haze: press nowhere to be seen when solutions in place

Now, the haze problem. In 1996 and 1997, land and forest fires in one Southeast Asian Country inflicted unusually severe damage on its own economy and those of neighbouring countries, affecting the livehoods and health of the people of the areas involved. This was cited in the media as an example of ASEAN’s lack of effectiveness.

Again, here are the facts. The disasters pushed ASEAN ministers and senior officials into a flurry of meetings. Much sharp talk was exchanged at these meetings. (So much for the much-criticiside ASEAN reticence). They also led to the adoption of the Regional Haze Acton Plan, which in turn has borne concrete fruit. Offers of assistance from developed countries and United Nations and other international institutions have been consolidated and co-ordinated. The ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre in Singapore, which provides satelitte photographs of the fires, the haze and the “hot spots” is being strengthened. Sub-regional fire fighting arrangements have been set up – one for the Sumatra-Riau area and the other for Borneo. A training and research centre on land and forest fires is being established at the University of Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan.

A special unit dedicated to the problem has been organised at the ASEAN Secretariat with support from the Asian Development Bank. I believe that this has been no mean achievements. And yet, whereas media coverages was extensive when the problems erupted, the media were nowhere to be seen when solutions were put in place.

Tensions and irritants

What about the bilateral tensions and irritants? These tensions and irritants have to be viewed against the backdrop of history – in several ways. First, we must remember that some of these tensions and irritants are left over from history. Secondly, we have to balance their occurrence against the fact that the countries of Southeast Asia, which, at the time of ASEAN’s founding in 1967, nursed deep-seated hostility to and suspicion of one another, have formed solid relations among themselves. This has been made possible to a large extent by their common membership in the ASEAN family. Thirdly, ASEAN countries have been through worse differences before; yet, ASEAN has become steadily stronger. Finally, beneath the headline-grabbing political disputes, the mundane, practical, useful work of regional co-operation goes on – from building AFTA to creating the ASEAN Investment Area, from transport and energy to telecommunications, from agriculture to finance, from the environment to health and education.

Problems actually pushing ASEAN closer

The region’s current problems are pushing the countries of Southeast Asia ever closer together in ASEAN. The leaders of these countries know that in this age of globalisation there is no alternative to integrated markets and working together in a highly competitive world.

In the light of all this, I have this advice for observers of the ASEAN scene. First, get to know the history of Southeast Asia. Secondly, avoid herd thinking. Finally, do not jump to conclusions on the basis of pre-conceived notions but of facts. As China’s leaders used to say not long ago in another context, “seek truth from acts.”

Fact on ASEAN are a phone call, a fax or an e-mail away – in my case, (6221) 724-3340 (phone), (6221) 724-3348 (fax) and severino@asean.or.id“>severino@asean.or.id (e-mail). They can also be reached, by the click of a mouse, at http://www.asean.org