Representatives of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at the ASEAN 55 Celebration in Jakarta on August 8, 2022. Photo: ASEAN

It is not unusual for pundits to say the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is doomed to fail, or the end of ASEAN is coming. In fact, it has been said since its creation.

After all, with nations that are so colorful as those in ASEAN, everyone can question how the organization will stick together. But the organization has survived for 55 years. More than that, ASEAN has expanded from five to 10 members, and is making steps toward 11.

There are three rationales, conscious or unconscious. behind the naysayers’ arguments.

First is the misperception that new members add burdens for ASEAN. Second is the misperception that the older members are always united and aligned. And third is a sense of hopelessness over ASEAN’s slow action on divisive international and regional issues.

On the first rationale, Cambodia is a good case study for discussion.

Back in the 1980s, “Cambodian problems” were a major security challenge for the region. Peace and stability were threatened as countries in the region were fearful of the domino effects of communist expansionism.

Indonesia and Thailand had been active in supporting peace negotiations among Cambodia’s different parties. Well ahead of the Paris Peace Agreements of 1991, the proactive contribution from ASEAN to Cambodia’s peace-making process is historically recorded. Large-scale war was fading gradually from Cambodia as well as the region. And as peace solidified, Cambodia applied for ASEAN membership, and acceded to the grouping in 1999.

The fact here is that even when Cambodia was not a member of ASEAN, the organization was proactive in helping Cambodia to achieve peace, and in securing the whole region from large-scale war and the humanitarian plights that are the consequences of war.

This proved that the founding fathers of ASEAN were open-hearted, altruistic and farsighted. They were not selfish at all. The great ASEAN statesmen of those times chose to mediate Cambodian problems even if Cambodia was not a member of ASEAN, because they knew that it was in the interest of ASEAN to do so.

Now, ASEAN is benefiting from a safer and more developed Cambodia. After all, Cambodia sits in the heart of Southeast Asia, and ASEAN would not want to have a poor and war-torn country within its borders.

After entering ASEAN, even though Cambodia was poor, it is wrong to think that Cambodia was an additional burden for ASEAN. Cambodia did not drag anyone down. It did not mean that since we were underdeveloped as a nation, we were taking everyone else’s resources to develop our country. We were in fact trying to develop ourselves to meet the duties and obligations, and standard of development, of the older members.

This endeavor has served Cambodia well, as its economy is increasingly integrated into the region, and more opportunities for development have been tapped.

ASEAN has been gracious in giving new members the space to adapt, but this does not mean that new members were de-accelerating growth of the old members.

What is significant is that with 10 members, ASEAN’s economy has grown from strength to strength, and foreign investment keeps flowing into the region. Investments to old members have kept increasing too, not decreasing. Therefore, it is wrong to think that new members are slowing the growth of older members or stealing pieces of the economic pie from them.

In fact, we all grow together, and the size of the pie keeps increasing.

The second and third rationales are interlinked.

It is naive to believe that the five founding members – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – are always united and aligned on every position. The founding fathers did foresee differences, and that is the reason they made consensus decision-making ASEAN’s key protocol. They wanted to ensure that the cohesiveness of ASEAN was sustained despite differences. And they were right.

The most critical example is the short life-span of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. SEATO was a military alliance in the ASEAN region but it did not bode well with the principles and objectives of ASEAN.

Creating SEATO meant ASEAN was taking sides, leaning toward the Western bloc. Such a move against the original wisdom of neutrality by the founding fathers was short-lived.

ASEAN was not designed to be homogeneous, and it is naive to believe that currently all five of the founding members are in complete unity on every regional and international issue.

ASEAN principles and working methods were designed to accommodate differences and cherish “unity in diversity.” The founding fathers were inclined to enhance consultation, cooperation, harmony and integration, and not confrontation, alienation, exceptionalism and disintegration.

ASEAN principles are to accommodate differences not just among member states but also with external partners.

At the height of the Cold War, ASEAN was created not to serve or propagate any specific ideology or to build alliances or blocs. ASEAN was created to save its members from the heat of superpower rivalries. Instead of taking sides with a specific superpower, ASEAN has excelled in providing institutional platforms for rival superpowers to meet and talk, and in certain moments, to ease tensions among themselves.

This approach of consultation and consensus-building takes time, and that explains the frustrations of those who are skeptical of ASEAN. But the assessment of institutional development should not be made just by looking at the agenda of the day, or based on popularity of current topics.

If we look back 55 years, there were multiple dangerous crises that ASEAN went through, and if it had changed its principles and working methods each time, today’s generation would not be able to debate the values and viability of ASEAN.

The founding fathers were open-minded, altruistic, visionary and farsighted. They were not moved by temporary disruptions and the geopolitical evolution of the day.

After 55 years, their noble wisdoms live on, defying doomsayers and naysayers. As the grandchildren of the ASEAN founding fathers, our generation can only admire their visionary leadership, grandeur and big hearts.

It is the duty of the next generation to continue the founding fathers’ noble wisdoms, keeping their founding principles alive, keeping the region safe and making our people prosperous, leaving no one behind.

ASEAN’s next generations should be true to the ASEAN spirit, which has set the example of regional multilateralism.

Long live ASEAN!

Sim Vireak is a strategic adviser to the Asian Vision Institute based in Phnom Penh. He has written articles on a variety of topics pertaining to Cambodia's political economy, development and foreign affairs. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of his affiliation.