THE Fulbright Program has been in Malaysia since 1963 and it’s great to see that international educational exchanges continue to thrive. Being an Eisenhower fellow, I know there is no substitute to actually visiting and absorbing realities on the ground.
The titles of the presentations at this regional enrichment conference – encompassing education and culture, public health, democracy and social development, agriculture, environment and sustainable development, and music and the arts – exhibits the programme’s academic diversity. I note that most of the papers centre on a specific country in Asean though. This reflects one challenge of thinking of Asean as an entity: regardless of the field of study, it is often still necessary to drill down to country level. This dynamic between nationhood and ‘region-hood’ is common to all Asean countries.
In every Asean country, there are those who call for more insularity from the outside world, stronger borders, suspicion of immigrants and economic and social policies to ‘protect’ people from foreign influence. This is often blamed on ‘globalisation’ or ‘neo-colonialism’, but sometimes there are ‘enemies within’, usually defined by racial or religious lines. Such rhetoric appropriated by the state can lead to potentially disastrous consequences, as seen in Myanmar today.
But in every Asean country, you also find those who call for greater connectivity and movement of goods and people, a removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers across the board, and enrichment through professional, intellectual and cultural exchange with the outside world. Asean itself is seen as an obvious platform to achieve this.
The contest between the two camps can be divisive. Throughout the world, we have seen a resurgence of aggressive nationalism linked with populism. And it may become increasingly true in Asean as well.
So far, Asean’s evolution from its Cold War-era beginnings to an organisation promoting economic cooperation and providing a platform to discuss transboundary issues such as haze pollution and human trafficking has been an incremental one, and led always by political and diplomatic elites. It is difficult to say to what extent this path has been responsible for the state of the region today: political science does not afford the luxury of controlled experiments.
On one hand, you have those who credit Asean for serving as the principal agent for peace – and thus prosperity – in this part of the world inhabited by so many ethnic and religious groups that might be the catalyst for conflict elsewhere.
On the other hand, you have those who say Asean has not evolved appropriately and quickly enough: it is still too elitist and too inefficient at responding to natural or manmade disasters. Especially in light of the persecution of the Rohingya and the resultant refugee crisis, the principle of non-interference is increasingly questioned (particularly when the crisis itself has already crossed borders). Furthermore, the pillars of the Asean community, especially the economic, are benefitting those already well-placed across borders, rather than SMEs which drive the middle-class economy.
Whichever is more accurate, the challenge moving forward is how to create an Asean that delivers what its 600 million people want – and figuring out what that it is. For there are no elected Asean institutions, and the legitimacy of its leaders is very mixed given the myriad forms of government that range from military-dominated regimes to parliamentary and presidential democracies. The number of people they represent is hugely different, too: from Brunei’s 400,000 to Indonesia’s 260 million.
That is why it is vital to create new platforms and mechanisms to allow the voices of young people, together with civil society across the region, to be heard. Anecdotally there are differing expectations of what Asean’s role should be: coloured by different historical experiences in each country, and only greater exchange can forge a meaningful consensus.
Mutually beneficial partnerships between the US and Asean countries through the Fulbright Program and other initiatives including the Eisenhower Fellowships and the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) have made significant contributions to the region. These are necessary steps to defend us against the wave of populism, of the rise of fringe politics, the continuous centralisation of power and the erosion of check and balance institutions. But they also help check an overenthusiasm that may lead to the creation of new institutions without sufficient democratic legitimacy.
The next generation must be given the democratic space and tools to transparently debate and define what they expect from Asean. Without that prerequisite, political elites will continue dominating the agenda in an age where geopolitical and domestic political forces are shifting their incentives further away from those whom they are supposed to serve.
This is abridged from the writer’s keynote address at the Fulbright Regional Enrichment Conference.
Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.