Malaysia’s missed opportunity as Asean chair – Khoo Ying Hooi

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Source: The Malaysian Insider

It has been exceptionally hectic for most of the last month as each Malaysian stakeholder related to Asean affairs was geared up to host dialogues and forums to prepare for the 27th Asean Summit and related summits scheduled from 18 to 22 November.

With that, Malaysia comes to an end as Asean chair 2015. Laos will then take over its responsibilities as Asean chair.

There were high expectations when Malaysia took over as the Asean chair from Myanmar in 2015. Malaysia’s two-year term on the UN Security Council echod well with the Asean chair, expanding its international profile and placing Asean on a footing alongside other regional organizations.

2015 is a challenging time for Malaysia’s chairmanship. Expectations can be quite overwhelming as it struggles with domestic, regional and international politics. As Asean is moving towards the realization of the Asean Community, many had expected Malaysia to pursue a more proactive approach.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s vision of One Asean for All reflects the core issue of the organization, that is how to overcome differences to ensure the success of community building.

But Malaysia’s Asean chairmanship has not been an easy ride. It is overshadowed by the high-profile financial scandal at home.

Domestic politics aside, most of the regional issues remain unsolved. For instance, the fight against Isis extremists, the plight of the Rohingya and the severity of haze. One positive progress is that a Regional Digital Counter-Messaging Communications Centre will be set up to take the fight against the Isis threat.

Furthermore, the escalation of tensions in the South China Sea dispute put Malaysia in a difficult position balancing its national and regional interests. As one of the claimants in the South China Sea dispute, China’s expanding assertiveness complicated Malaysia’s task to bring forward discussion on the drafting of the code of conduct.

Another long-standing issue that remains thorny is the relationship between Asean leaders and civil society representatives. As of today, the Asean leaders still prefer the method of handpicking their own civil society representatives rather than independent ones.

That said, there remains a wide disparity between Asean elites and ordinary Asean citizens. This is further exemplified by the fact that awareness of Asean is still low. This low awareness is one key aspect that is slowing down the overall achievement of the Asean community building.

Malaysia’s official slogan “Our People, Our Community, Our Vision” is ambitious, yet timely. It is a pity that Malaysia, as the Asean chair, has not been able to tackle this core problem efficiently, despite the numerous calls by prime minister Najib that there must be involvement of all sectors in the society in Asean activities and processes.

Overall, Malaysia as the 2015 Asean chair has taken a low profile and safer step through diplomatic approach in securing the interests of the region along with its own national interests. Traditionally, Malaysia is known as to prefer quiet diplomacy in maintaining its bilateral and multilateral relations.

As one of the Asean founding members, Malaysia enters 2015 with a leadership legitimacy crisis. Ideally, given the international status in the UN Security Council, Malaysia has a lot of potential to offer.

Similarly, Malaysia, as the chair of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), has a crucial role to play, particularly with the long-standing Rohingya crisis.

The question of Asean preferring the evolutionary approach and not revolutionary, is always brought up in Asean-related forums. The Asean Way requires non-interference in the domestic affairs of member states. At the same time, Asean’s consensus-based approach requires unanimity in decision.

It is a missed opportunity for Malaysia. Now, it is no longer a concern on the 2015 deadline for Asean Community. What is more essential is Malaysia’s role in implementing the post-2015 roadmap for the community building.

Laos is taking over the chairmanship of Asean after the 27th Asean Summit and other related summits. It will not be an easy year for Laos equally as it would be just entering the Asean Community.

The slogan of Asean 2016 is “Turning Vision into Reality for a Dynamic Asean Community”. That said, in the longer-term, the real test is whether Asean can move forward to become truly people-centered. – November 16, 2015.