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Articles, Commentaries, Journal article, The Edge

ASEAN – A Post Colonial Sisterhood

By Ooi Kee Beng

For THE EDGE, Kuala Lumpur. 28 April 2012.


With Myanmar opening up faster than anyone ever expected the question how ASEAN is to develop as a community in the near future gets ever more interesting.

“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link” is of course a saying that holds especially true for an organisation with 10 disparate members and which is given to unanimous decision making that.

Ever since Myanmar joined in 19997, it had been considered ASEAN’s stepchild – going its own way, recalcitrant and disliked by neighbours near and far.

But ASEAN stay relatively loyal to its family member, mainly because it had no choice. But that patience seems to have paid off, and Myanmar has become the prodigal son returned to the fold.

How much humble pie it will eat is anyone’s guess, but the recent election of Aung San Suu Kyi and her party into parliament bodes well for the country and ASEAN.

It also brings us to the critical issue of how ASEAN’s viability and well-being are dependent on the state capacity of its members.

That is also another of saying that ASEAN’s progress as a community is dependent on the decolonizing cum nation-building process in each country syncing with each other.

ASEAN as a community has capacity to act only if its member-states are politically stable and economically developing. This basically means that each of them must reach a point where it feels confident enough to cooperate and compete regionally, not to mention globally.

To the extent they don’t feel that confidence, their governments take measures to isolate, if not the country’s whole political economy, then at least selected and strategic parts of it.

A case like Myanmar clearly had not felt it could handle foreign challenges when its own sense of unity and community was in question. All across ASEAN, we see that its members adopted different combinations of openness and protectiveness to facilitate its development and defend itself.

These combinations do change, as we have seen in the case of the Indochinese countries.

Whether or not these comprehensive measures were or are beneficial, well-advised or outmoded, the issue is still about a fear of outside forces overwhelming weak internal forces. This fear belongs within the scenario of colonialism and its successor, globalisation. This fear is certainly not an invalid one.

However, defensiveness — like any state of besiegement — cannot be successful if the overall strategy for national development is not turned into an offensive one somewhere along the way.

Myanmar’s isolation saw her becoming too dependent on one big ally — China, and that in the long run was not a good strategy if the point is to protect internal conditions. Creating a Myanmarese identity among disparate indigenous groups has not succeeded well.

At the other end of the scale, we have Singapore, whose strategy for growth had been about harnessing global forces and moving with them. To do that, it had to curb political dissent to a degree quite uncommon for an economy that is so open.

In Malaysia, what is internal and what is external was — and is — a big issue. From the start, UMNO’s demand for constitutional recognition Malay Special Position as well as the issue of citizenship for immigrants from outside the region, showed that the line between internal and external was hard to define.

The result was in practice a two-tiered system of rights that continues to be the point of conflict for political contention and economic development.

But in a regional context, such a need to differentiate what belongs within and what belongs without is badly outmoded.

We have thus to see each ASEAN member-state as post-colonial entities still caught in a thankless battle of creating modern nation-states that can function regionally and globally. It is time that ASEAN as an organisation styles itself — not only as a forum where sovereign states meet each other as peers — but as a platform where this common historical and cultural dilemma is seriously discussed, so that mutual aid can be dispensed as if among fellow victims of the nation-state ideology.

Seen as a region, national lines of cultural defence should not need to be as deeply dug as in the immediate post-colonial period.




About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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