Strengthen civil society in Asean

Tunku Abidin

Tunku Abidin Muhriz, The Malay Mail Online

The prime minister’s comments supporting economic liberalisation in Asean at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ National Colloquium on Malaysia’s Chairmanship of Asean 2015 have been well-reported, but here’s a summary of my subsequent session:

It augurs well that this colloquium begins with a session on the role of civil society in realising the Asean community. In my experience, Wisma Putra seems much more willing to engage with civil society than most other ministries.

I believe that any community needs civil society in order to be fully realised. There has long been activism in our country — exemplified by the late Irene Fernandez for example, who articulated independent positions outside the boundaries of government long before there was enough democratic space for a culture of independent think tanks to emerge. We at Ideas were lucky to be established just as this phenomenon took place.

Of course there are reactionary forces that despise the growth of civil society: represented by those who wish to restore the Internal Security Act, censor the Internet and revoke opponents’ citizenship. Some would argue that these reversals have already happened under different guises, but at the same time there are courageous people within the system who keep on pressing for the expansion of democratic space.

The relationship between civil society and the state in Malaysia today is multifaceted: some politicians avoid us like the plague, others enthusiastically support us.

Behind the scenes we regularly meet special officers and bureaucrats to test new policy ideas, apart from open engagements with the wider public, especially students in our educational institutions. All this helps make civil society a normative part of our country’s public life.

The contribution to our democracy is beyond doubt: new policies are routinely debated, covered by traditional media and discussed on social media. Voters demand ever more justifications to anything that emerges from political parties, and civil society in partnership with the media provides the infrastructure to hold the political class to account.

I outline our domestic scenario because similar dynamics apply throughout Asean, where there are democratic deficits both in its central institutions and constituent countries. From its inception the Asean project — whether being concerned with security or trade — has been largely shaped by diplomatic and political elites, instead of being the result of an organic, bottom-up historical process. This situation is helped by the primacy of domestic agenda in the eyes of most voters — though not everyone in Asean even has a vote. This diversity in forms of government results in diversity in civil society: Ideas could not exist in some Asean countries.

Rather than being an easily-defined collective, “Asean civil society” is better described as “civil society in Asean”: a combination of government-approved bodies pretending to be civil society organisations and genuinely independent organisations that flourish because they operate in democratic societies. Even so, civil society has no singular point of reference in Asean: the secretariat is under-resourced, and the post of secretary-general has even less democratic legitimacy than some member states’ heads of government. With the Asean way still in operation, the primary of personal relationships over a rules-based approach greatly diminishes the influence of civil society. In fact, the title of this conference pays homage to this situation: it asks what we can do when it is our turn to shine.

So should we endow Asean’s institutions with direct democratic legitimacy to bypass corrupt governments? Some would delight at that: but the implications on sovereignty are too grave, and the European experience tells us it is fraught with danger. Instead, Malaysia should play a leadership role in substantially expanding opportunities for civil society involvement so that whoever is Chair in the future will always have to deal with independent voices that can help hold officials to account.

We are doing our bit to strengthen regional civil society efforts: Ideas is leading an initiative to bring together think tanks in a Southeast Asia Network for Development in pursuit of human rights and freedoms and freer trade. But civil society will have much to say outside the Community’s Economic pillar too, like on human trafficking and trans-boundary haze. If Asean’s political elites really do care about the region’s people, they should not be scared of much deeper multi-track diplomacy.

When Malaysia was last chairman, the first Asean Civil Society Conference was organised: another credit to our then prime minister. Unfortunately, subsequent editions in other countries have included debacles ranging from arduous government-imposed accreditation requirements or lights being turned off at venues. Just as Malaysia began something to give civil society a voice in Asean in 2005, in 2015 let us go further and enable civil society to participate in the regional policymaking process permanently.