Authored by: Viv Lines

In August ASEAN will celebrate its 50th anniversary. For anyone looking to understand how ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, evolved from five countries to 10, embracing more than 620 million people, then there is no better place to start than the recently published, “The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace,” by Prof. Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, and Jeffery Sng, writer and former diplomat.

I finished reading this book in the same week that saw the European Union celebrate its 60th anniversary and the UK formally invoke Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon to leave the EU. Against this backdrop of uncertainty it was refreshing to get through such an optimistic read about the miracle that is ASEAN.

The authors give a thorough account of the history of ASEAN from its founding out of the late 1960s Cold War by the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand who feared the spread of communism in SE Asia. The account continues through the fall of Saigon, the invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam, the years of struggle between China and Vietnam, and the financial crisis of the ‘90s.
Following this there has been a prolonged period of stability and institutional development in the region, with greater interconnectivity by the now 10 member countries (the founding nations had been joined by Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam), leading to the creation of the ASEAN Community in 2015, with greater harmonization of laws, freer movement of people, and stronger integration.

But this is not just a feel-good book of economic progress. Geopolitics is a word that appears on many pages, and as the authors remind us, “geopolitics can be a nasty game.” They dedicate a chapter to the changing relationship between ASEAN and the world, particularly the region’s relations with America, China, India, Japan and the EU. Yet it is the geopolitics within the region, combined with a unity of purpose and level of trust of the founding leaders, which has created stability in ASEAN and enabled ASEAN to punch above its weight internationally. This is not always visible externally and ASEAN has often been viewed by others as a ‘talk shop,’ but as the authors note, “despite its many imperfections, it keeps moving forward.”

This is something I have observed first hand. I’ve lived in ASEAN for more than 20 years and in the past four years have undertaken as part of a team from Hill+Knowlton Strategies, various communication advisory assignments with the ASEAN Secretariat and the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly. What comes through in meetings at any level is the intensity of commitment and pride toward ASEAN and its continued growth and success.

While that commitment is clearly present at an institutional level, the challenge comes in making the 620 million people of ASEAN have the same sense of ownership. This point is made clear by the authors in a well thought through chapter that captures ASEAN’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as its opportunities and threats.

The challenge is in finding solutions that make sense in a region that is so economically, culturally, and religiously diverse. While the authors state that, “one of the key goals of this book is to persuade the ASEAN man in the street that he should feel a greater sense of ownership of the living and breathing political miracle that ASEAN has become,” there are many other ways that can help reach the people of ASEAN more directly, particularly the under-25s who are the future leaders of ASEAN and who stand to gain the most from the ASEAN Community and a strong relationship between ASEAN and the rest of the world.

I have found the ASEAN Secretariat acutely aware of these issues and willing to draw on a full range of communication solutions from the very traditional to modern digital and social media. However, their resources are constrained, as Mahbubani and Sng note, by the concept of equal funding by Member States, rather than funding by means as is the case with other international institutions. This holds back the Secretariat’s ability to reach out more extensively to the peoples of ASEAN and demonstrate how ASEAN is a community of opportunities for them.

Fundamentally, the peoples of ASEAN deserve to understand:

  • How is ASEAN making things better for me?
  • How will my family’s future be better because of ASEAN?
  • How can I support ASEAN and help this community to grow?

Governments globally are having to be much more people-centric in their communication, which is not easy as a recent WPP Leaders’ Report on the future of government communication found. For ASEAN this is compounded by the need for 10 nations to work together with an underlying precept that there is consensus. This might appear impossible, but, as Mahbubani and Sng note, “Asean has consistently disappointed its sceptics.”

One area that has changed a lot in the past four years is the extent of social media usage across ASEAN and the dependence on smartphone technology. With the exception of Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar internet penetration is well above the global average in ASEAN, while Facebook usage is very strong in all countries in ASEAN.

The ASEAN Foundation, whose remit includes the promotion of greater awareness of ASEAN, and greater interaction among the peoples of ASEAN, is particularly adept at the use of online and social media to connect with youth.
But the ASEAN Foundation is only one of a multiplicity of ASEAN-related bodies that have an online presence, but that unfortunately look and feel very different and often do not directly link to one another. The impact is one of communication silos rather than a community working together.

While it may not be feasible at this stage for ASEAN to have a central communication department that helps ensure ASEAN communicates with One Voice, with an annual communication plan across platforms, there are steps that are relatively easy that ASEAN bodies could consider:

  • Minimize jargon: focus on communications that put the peoples of ASEAN first and help them understand why ASEAN is important for them.
  • Unify the different websites: ensure there are more standardized components on the front page of each site as well as links to other ASEAN websites.
  • Share news: make stronger use of retweets, Facebook likes, hashtags, SEO, etc.
  • Use much more video: engage with the people of ASEAN for video content to help drive conversations and interest online.
  • Improve sharing of communication resources between the different ASEAN institutions.

These are all steps in an evolution that will help ASEAN with its next stage of development. In terms of setting out the context for ASEAN’s first 50 years Mahbubani and Sng do an excellent job. For lasting success, however, the coming years need to focus on the peoples of ASEAN from their perspective and increase their commitment to and understanding of a truly unique institution that has weathered the journey of time well.