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Can Southeast Asia Afford to Prioritize the SDGs?


For The Edge, Malaysia. 1 May 2017.

Although one may forgive those who laugh off the Sustainable Development Goals developed by the United Nations in 2015 as a vain exercise to create Heaven on Earth, it is nevertheless vital for the credibility of goals that seek to change the direction of world development, that they be comprehensive, and that they be as inclusive of all aspects of human existence and endeavor as possible. (See http://www.undp.org/).

That condition is not a measure of the vanity of the goals as much as it is a measure of the seriousness of the interlinked problems humanity’s home planet faces today.

It is also in the nature of the concept of “sustainability” that no important dynamics are left out of the picture. For sustainability to be sincere and serious, it needs to be understood in so broad and long-term a manner that “a sustainable policy” contributes to sustainable development at the all-encompassing global level, and does not contradict it.

Why we are talking about SDGs at all is largely in reaction to the specific sense of global crisis that we have been feeling more and more after the ending of the Cold War freed our gaze away from impending war to stare at—and to realise—how unchecked human development in the last two centuries have brought upon us a situation of imminent doom.

In answering the question, “What to do about it?, the governments of the world came up with the SDGs. That is a good start, but sadly, that is also the easy part.

The hard part takes us into a discussion about Agency and Motivation. Who is to turn things around? The SDGs provide the glib answer in its 17th goal, which is “Partnerships”. Of course, the problems are so huge and the goals so high that we do need participation from as many parties as possible, and not only the UNDP or national governments. While forming partnerships to turn things around, it is of course vital that the forces that brought us to this point are at least lessened. For this to happen, people need to be convinced that the situation is dire, and they need to be provided with alternative directions and choices.

Motivation at the individual level and at the civil society level, I think, depends much on publicity and education to strengthen. The key still lies in transforming structural dynamics and institutional logic in ways that make it self-serving for the actors involved to embrace the SDGs in their planning. Creating a discerning and conscious consumer culture is one such way of course, as is the monetizing of environmental damage.

At this point, it is important to consider the stability of national political systems, especially new ones, as are all those found in the ASEAN region. This is my third step. The government of a new nation takes on the task of building a state, building a nation, and building a national economy, all at the same time. Central to all these is the challenge of stability.

And in a region such as Southeast Asia, whose regionalism grew in tandem with the retreat of global powers, national interests dictated over regional interests. Where regional cooperation is clearly good for the country concerned, or where it at least does not contradict the national good, then ASEAN develops.

One can therefore discern possible patterns of regionalist development by identifying the overlaps of national and regional interests.

Internally, the development gap, necessarily accompanied by the national and regional income gaps, encourages cooperation to a certain degree, and the rich economies do spread their wealth and services to some extent to poorer neighbours. However, the labour mobility stimulated by the intra-regional development gap tends to leave the poorer nations at an increasing disadvantage.

Most political systems in the region have experienced deep changes since national independence, and the fear of political and social instability is high. This makes national-level consideration of SDGs and such like ambitions a luxury that can be given lip service when they do not counteract national concerns about social and political stability.

Social mobility, or the belief in it, is an important factor affecting political stability, but when this involves mass crossings of borders, social stability is affected.

Where the international private sector is concerned, market consciousness about environmental and labour issues can make a difference to how MNCs construct their production process. However, in poorer economies, consumers are more concerned about prices than about how the product got into their shop.

To summarize,

1. The SDGs are a list of concerns that should not be controversial each in itself. Taken together, they express the deep problems accumulated over a couple of centuries which the world faces;

2. The key lies in convincing major institutions and actors that the SDGs do not contradict their long-term interests, and may in fact enhance them.

3. For states, SDGs need to be verbalized in national interest terms; for private sector players, these need to be expressed in terms of long-term economic benefits and company sustainability; for NGO activists, they need to be framed in as non-confrontational terms as possible; and for consumers, raising consciousness about ethical consumption has proven to be a doable project in many cases.

4. For the ASEAN region, governments are clearly the most important players. What plagues the region is that most of these governments are concerned more with regime sustainability than rounded national development. Bridging that gap is the imperative for the near future.

5. In the end, what an initiative like the SDGs aims at is the inculcation in as many people as possible of the habit to think in global terms, and to realise the global context and consequences of their actions and to consider the finiteness of the Earth.

* This article is based on a speech given at ASEAN Ministers Workshop 2017 on 25 April 2017, at Sunway University, organised by the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on the Sustainable Development Goals.


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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