Imagining the ASEAN Community: Balanced Development for All

Wigberto E. Tanada, Lead Convenor

These days the media are filled with stories on the forthcoming ASEAN Leaders’ Summit and the dream of Asean officials to build ASEAN into a community of caring and sharing societies. This is a grand and noble vision which no peace-loving ASEAN citizen can quarrel with.

The vision of one ASEAN community is further bolstered by the economic discourse produced by the ASEAN secretariat. A large population of around 550 million people producing an annual regional GDP amounting to $1 trillion. A fast-growing region surrounded by dragon economies – Japan, Korea, China and India, not to mention the two countries down under, Australia and New Zealand. In fact, there is the proposal of Japan for ASEAN to be transformed as the core of a bigger East Asia Free Trade Area (EAFTA) composed of the ten ASEAN countries and these dragon economies. The East Asia Free Trade Area will have a collective GDP that will easily dwarf that of North America and the European Union. The ASEAN project, the neo-liberalist economists claim, is or will be a success story on economic liberalization, globalization and regional integration.

Is it? Will it be so? Before we are dazzled, mesmerized and confused by all the economic discourse on a strong and a rising ASEAN community, let us consider some realities on the ground.

The ASEAN was founded in l967, and is turning 40 next year. And yet, they are discussing their TOR or terms of engagement only now, or four decades after. ASEAN, through a group of eminent persons and a team of foreign policy experts, is rushing an ASEAN Charter for approval by the ASEAN Leaders next year.

It will also be recalled that in the 70s and 80s, Asean’s preoccupation was to prevent the spread of communism in Southeast Asia in light of the Viet Nam war. And yet, today, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Laos and even Myanmar are all part of ASEAN, joining the founding five countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – plus Brunei in building a community of caring and sharing societies.


The main point that is be made here however is that economic liberalization per se does not necessarily lead to regional integration. In the l980s, the ASEAN initiated a number of regional integration projects such as preferential tariffs for certain ASEAN products and complementation projects in support of ASEAN industries. In the l990s, ASEAN became even more ambitious with the establishment of an ASEAN Free Trade Area project implemented through a Common Effective Preferential Tariff regime, which has reduced tariffs for ASEAN goods at 0-5 per cent.

And yet, despite the AFTA-CEPT and the various integration projects, the growth of intra-ASEAN trade or trading among ASEAN members is much less than the growth of extra-ASEAN trade or trade by the individual ASEAN countries with those outside the ASEAN. Also, the AFTA-CEPT projects account for less than five per cent of the intra-ASEAN trade, meaning member countries did not and still do not avail of the so-called preferential tariffs under the AFTA-CEPT.

Why? There are several reasons.

One reason is that most countries in the ASEAN have unilaterally liberalized their economic regimes, meaning they have adopted liberalization on their own. In the case of Indonesia and the Philippines, liberalization was part of the IMF-World Bank conditionality package. In the case of Vietnam, this is part of their commitments to the bilateral trade agreement with the United States and as price of membership in the WTO. In the case of Singapore, liberalization has always been considered an integral component of their open trading economy. In short, AFTA-CEPT and other ASEAN-led liberalization programs have played a marginal role in the liberalization of the individual ASEAN economies.

Another reason for the poor growth of intra-ASEAN trade is the reality that most ASEAN countries are competing with one another. A number are producing similar agricultural products such as rice and oilseeds, exporting similar industrial products such as sewn garments and textiles, and sending migrant workers overseas to ease the unemployment situation at home. Interestingly, over 40 per cent of intra-ASEAN trade is accounted for by one country with the lowest population base next to Brunei, Singapore.


The third and probably more important reason is the uneven development between and among the ASEAN countries. You have rich countries like trade-rich Singapore, oil-rich Brunei and natural-resource-rich Malaysia. On the other hand, you have the CLM countries – Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar – whose per capita GDP is less than half a thousand dollars. In between, you have a mixed bag – the heavily-indebted Indonesia and Philippines, the coup-prone Thailand and the fast-growing Vietnam.

However, there is also so much unevenness within the individual ASEAN countries, with some benefiting from economic integration and globalization while a large majority are not. Our NGO friends and progressive social scientists in Indonesia, Indochina, Philippines and Thailand have extensive documentation on how liberalization and globalization benefited only a few that included mainly the economic partners of transnational corporations and some skilled professionals like IT programmers. At the same time, these processes of globalization and liberalization marginalized many, and those many not benefited were — the excluded small farmers, communal fisherfolk, small and micro enterprises with no global linkages, domestic industries producing for the home market, indigenous peoples who do not comprehend the meaning of tradeables and exportables, workers displaced by privatization and corporate restructuring, and many others who have no sustainable jobs or business niches under globalization and economic liberalization. Even in the rich ASEAN countries, you have a growing segment of old redundant workers who can not find meaningful and secure jobs in a liberalized and globalized economy.

This unevenness in economic development is also reflected in other areas of social life. Without going into specifics, there are studies showing that some countries have huge deficits in governance – specifically respect for democracy, observance of human rights and compliance with global core labor standards – and yet, the ASEAN countries would rather deal with difficult and embarrassing issues such as human rights violations through the so-called ‘ASEAN way’, meaning to just keep silent or to look the other way around. There are also cross-country concerns which are not addressed decisively in the ASEAN, for example, the annual problem of haze, the exhaustion of common marine resources, the illegal trafficking of people and so on.


Clearly, the regional integration formula developed by the ASEAN secretariat and the ASEAN leaders is limited and weak, focused as it is mainly on a narrow economic liberalization formula. As it is, most of the integration is being done by the transnational corporations, which are able to take advantage of liberalized borders and which are able to treat the region as one production base and a single distribution market. This is what the Japanese car and electronics manufacturers are doing. This is also what some home-grown transnationals such as CP of Thailand and San Miguel of the Philippines are doing.

On the other hand, the narrow and limited integration is one explanation why majority of the peoples in the ASEAN do not understand the ASEAN and can not relate their lives to the ASEAN integration project. Do the ordinary Filipinos know how their Laotian brothers and sisters live? Do the Thais understand the culture of Indonesians? Do workers in Malaysia and Singapore consider migrant workers from poorer ASEAN countries brothers and sisters? Do farmers, small traders and home-based producers in the various ASEAN countries actively interact with one another and forge meaningful and profitable economic networks? Can mass poverty, mass unemployment and backwardness in some areas be solved through a narrow ASEAN liberalization formula?

Unfortunately, these are the questions that the existing ASEAN institutions are unable to answer. In the first place, the processes of information sharing and consultation on regional integration with all the stakeholders – so vital in any unification process as demonstrated by the experience of the European Union – are glaringly lacking, if not absent despite the grand declarations that ASEAN is building a community of caring and sharing societies. This is why civil societies, in Kuala Lumpur last year, had to fight for their voice to be heard.

Fortunately, there are positive developments. Today, the fight for a voice in the ASEAN process is getting stronger. Civil societies, trade unions and small producers in the region are now speaking up and getting organized. Regional networks of farmers, home-based workers, trade unions and civil societies are also being formed. This is what it should be, for real integration can only happen if there is integration at the grassroots level, if people in the ten ASEAN countries begin to understand that they are ASEAN citizens and that they have a right to be heard. Real development means growth is not jobless for more but that better jobs and more jobs are created for all, that integration is not voiceless for all the stakeholders are informed and consulted, that development across the region is not ruthless and rootless for peace, equity and harmony among the people are preserved, and that the ASEAN project is not future-less because the environment is preserved and sustained. Such a vision should be the basis for building an ASEAN community of caring and sharing societies.

Of course, the success of such integration vision will depend on how strong we are in uniting with one another and building an ASEAN-wide movement around this vision. This is what this forum is all about.

Speech delivered to the Subregional Workshop on Fair Trade and Social Marketing , held on November 23, 2006 at Lake Island Resort, Binangonan, Rizal organized by Homenet Southeast Asia, UNIFEM-ESE Asia, Oxfam Hong Kong, and Fair Trade Alliance (FairTrade).


  1. Hi,

    It is very good, and I like it. I never read a balance opinion on the ASEAN Community topic since I started supporting the initiative. And it really is a change, especially for me, to get back to what is more achievable – the ASEAN Community – instead of the “East Asia Community”, which is bigger, broader, and harder.

    ASEAN Community is here, within our grasp, and I strongly agree and share the view that the ASEAN Political Body should hear the people, it’s citizens. I also strongly agree that the people must realized that they are the “ASEAN Citizens”, they have rights, and should act and be informed as they are in their own respective countries and laws.

    With the lack of information about what really is the ASEAN Charter is all about, so correct me if I’m wrong, there also should be information campaign, explanations on different angles, and healthy dialogue exchanges between the Citizens regarding the ASEAN Charter, which, to my understanding (thanks to the media), will pave way to the ASEAN Law (to change ASEAN from voting-style to Law-based). And this is very serious in my opinion.

    Finally, there really should be movements in the grassroots. And I am happy to share that these past few months, there are more ASEAN Citizens taking the first moves to start the integration at the grassroots level. It is an interesting development and am happy that I’m not the only one who thinks about it.

    There are bloggers talking about the different cultures in a positive way (thank God). Forums where the country-bounderies within ASEAN is non-existent (especially thanks to the 30-day Open-border policy [I just hope the Zero Tariff on Air Flights gets implemented sooner]). And on my part, for the company I work with, I presented and defended successfully why we should use the still proposal “ASEAN Common Time (ACT)” (especially that, our customer is the ASEAN region).

    Thank you very much, it brought back up my spirits seeing that there are people who share the same views, and citizens already taking the steps at the grassroots level. Now all we can hope is that the ASEAN Political body will take notice of the efforts of the Citizens they serve.

    God Bless.


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