“Raise our flag high, sky high
Embrace the pride in our heart
ASEAN we are bonded as one
Look-in out to the world.
For peace, our goal from the very start
And prosperity to last.
We dare to dream we care to share.
Together for ASEAN
we dare to dream,
we care to share for it’s the way of ASEAN.”
~ Lyrics for “The ASEAN Way”
Monday, 8 August, 2011, marks the 44th birthday of ASEAN.
At 8.30 that morning, the ASEAN flag was proudly raised at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta.
For many staff members, this is not the first time they sung the anthem. But all them who were present that morning, certainly felt a swelling pride, as the flag went up in the bright morning sun. Nothing could replace the sense of bonding, as we sang or hum aIong, to the ASEAN Secretariat choir. All the preparations, meetings, discussions, frentic running around – not to mention uncompensated over-time – had culminated in this special day. And only we knew what went into it.
Later that morning, those of us who were watching the ASEAN Lecture at a corner of the Secretariat, were in for another pleasant surprise. We broke out in spontaneous applause, as Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, thanked the Secretary-General and his staff – as well as “the host of nameless and dedicated individuals” – who had contributed to what ASEAN has become today.
“I know sometimes it feels like a thankless job, but believe me, your hard work is noticed and well appreciated.”
A straight forward statement, but it sure touched many of us. We had travelled from all over Southeast Asia and beyond, from all over Indonesia – which an Indonesian friend had described as “a country which stretches from London to Moscow” – to come together at number 70A, Jalan Sisingamangaraja, to do our little part for ASEAN.
As we slogged away to make sure that things run smoothly on Monday, we were constantly reminded that this is a special year. For the first time, ASEAN Member States or AMS, and some of their overseas missions, would also join the Secretariat in raising the ASEAN flag.
For people outside ASEAN, it may seem like no big deal. After all, ASEAN is 44-years-old. By human standards, ASEAN is middle-age. And if we had not raised the flag previously, it’s about time we do so.
It is indeed a small gesture. But it carries big meanings.
Despite ASEAN’s diversity, we have moved resolutely towards integration. The common goal of an ASEAN Community is less than four years away. Malaysia will have the honour of chairing ASEAN, on that historic moment. So, as we raised the flag this year, we are reminding ourselves of that mission.
ASEAN must have the substance to back the talk of a Community. Politically, global big powers like the United States, Russia, China, India, Japan, and the rest, are now permanent partners at the ASEAN Regional Forum, as well as the East Asia Summit. These powers do not need another talk shop. They are here for serious business. And there are more than enough serious business surrounding our region, to make everyone a stake holder.
From over-lapping claims in the South China Sea, to the desire to keep Southeast Asia free from Nuclear Weapons, to the need to keep free trade alive, each and every one of these issues, have a direct impact on our livelihood – even for non-claimants. Economic reality also makes it necessary for everyone to be on the same page – especially among AMS.
A day after the ASEAN Day celebrations, Economic Ministers gathered in Manado for the ASEAN Economic Ministers meetings. As discussions went underway, financial markets around the globe are tossing and churning in the super typhoon of uncertainties. Some market analysts are contradicting themselves, as they try to make sense of the turmoil. As markets crashed, they blame it on the troubles in the US and Europe. When Asian markets rebounded, they talk about strong fundamentals of Asian economies – only to see the indices spiraling just hours later.
The current turmoil is a timely reminder that we need to stay focused and committed. Just three and a half years ago, we were confronted by what was supposed to be the worse financial crisis since the Great Depression. But survival instincts, collective commitment, versatility, and China’s stable growth, had allowed us to stare down the threat of depression. In fact, the Asian side of the Asia-Pacific bounced back to post record growth for 2010.
Could we ride out the current storm in the same way? It’s really up to us. The big powers have agreed that ASEAN centrality is strategically sound. We have the driver’s seat. Can the 10 members agree on the same destination, at an agreeable pace? Or even the twin-track approach, where better-prepared members take the first train out for asome initiatives. Sacrifices and compromises would be necessary. Collectively, ASEAN has been a useful umbrella for all the AMS, allowing everyone to grow in a climate of peace and stability.
As we face the next lap, amidst a potentially more serious turmoil, we must face the fact that ASEAN must grow. We must contribute to the umbrella that sheltered everyone.
The driver’s seat will require more pro-active planning, and nimble reflexes. The current turmoil has shown how quickly troubles erupt. ASEAN sectoral bodies must be quick to spot, and tackle these issues firmly. To make that happen, the ASEAN Secretariat must be allowed to grow, and to react just as quickly.
The Secretariat has morphed since its inception in 1976, moving from political appointments, to professional staffing. With the new challenges, and the new tasks which ASEAN expects it to perform, it is time for another change. The information age requires professionals who can think on their feet, and who can hit the road running. Autonomy and empowerment is crucial, and micro-managing the Secretariat works to the contrary. Waiting for complete consensus frustrates the frontline staff. It also affects the Secretariat’s ability to support the sectoral bodies.
ASEAN ministers have repeatedly talked about strengthening the Secretariat. Let’s walk the talk.
Commentary by Danny Lee, Director for Community Affairs Development, ASEAN Secretariat