ASEAN Interview Series Part 1: On the Future of ASEAN (with Prof. Danny Quah)

The ASEAN Society is proud to deliver to you its inaugural ASEAN blog interview series. Over the course of the next few weeks and perhaps, even in the longer future, we seek to bring to you bi-weekly question-and-answer sessions with leading figures in that week’s field of study. Their responses promise to be incisive, thought-provoking and more importantly, empowering to the readers.

It is only fitting that we begin our first instalment of the series with the head of the LSE’s very own Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, Professor Danny Quah. Professor Quah is also currently Professor of Economics and International Development at the LSE. For a full breakdown of his wide credential, look no further than to his wikipedia page or his blog

This weeks’ issue will focus on the future trajectory of the ASEAN as a bloc- can it survive the multi-pronged threats that it faces or will it fade into irrelevance in a changing global order? Can ASEAN seek to survive by mirroring the EU?

Without further ado, we present to you the interview:

A plethora of challenges lay ahead for ASEAN, be it the roadblocks to the ASEAN Economic Community or the divisive South China Sea dispute. In your opinion which issue poses the most potent threat to the survival of ASEAN?

The most critical threat to ASEAN stems from its mission definition. It is an organization of now close to a dozen independent, sovereign nation states. Is ASEAN about politics, culture, security? Is it a pawn of great power politics?

To caricature extremes, is that ASEAN mission to create an ASEAN identity, or to improve the well-being of the ASEAN peoples? What is the audit on the state of the ASEAN population? We hear about hundreds of millions ASEAN households on the verge of middle-income consumption status, and that that’s why they matter for the world economy.

But ASEAN today still has 10% of its population of 600mn living in extreme poverty, with scores of millions more politically disenfranchised, either scandalously in their own nations or life-threateningly in neighbouring ones where they have gone to work.  Corruption is rife, and alienated elites live life completely different from that of their ASEAN fellow men and women.  ASEAN is a work in progress with a long way to go before middle-income status. It has to fix its house before all those middle-class ASEAN households can sustainably and significantly become part of the world’s production and consumption chains.

The group of ASEAN nations must not lose their focus on poverty reduction, on elevating their people to become dignified agents of their own destiny. They need to do that through hard-nosed economic and political thinking. Everything – trade groupings, economic communities, coalitions, cooperation, territoriality – should be organised around making ASEAN’s people live lives better than that stark poverty and woeful under-development affords.

Do you think that ASEAN’s utilisation of the EU as a basis of emulation is feasible?

To the extent that the EU carries lessons for ASEAN, it is obviously not in the fine details of monetary control, financial arrangements, or fiscal organization. Instead, it is how a group of disparate and different nations can build consensus through clarity on common interests, and how that group can align actions for the benefit of all. Economics teaches us that any valuable proposition comes with tradeoffs: You receive benefits by bearing costs: The arrangement adds value when the benefits outweigh the costs. Getting something good from being a group means surrendering something. ASEAN members need to take a long, hard look at what being a member of this Community means.  Individual governments in ASEAN nations need to be clear to their people what they are willing to sacrifice to be part of ASEAN: Will they have put together welfare arrangements to ameliorate the worst impacts of freer trade under an AEC? Provide training programmes for their workers displaced from occupations because the same thing can be done more cheaply elsewhere? Hand over a bit of sovereignty?

It’s a standing joke among Western politicians that of course each of them knows exactly what needs to be done to improve the state of their nation. The trick is, How do they get re-elected after they’ve done it? ASEAN can do better.

Our next edition in two weeks’ time will feature academics and their perspectives on the  refugee crisis in Myanmar. Till then, see you!

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