What the West Can Learn from the ASEAN Way

By Edgardo Angara

The rise of ASEAN shows how consensus-building, more than the rule of the majority, can help nations overcome religious and racial divisions to achieve shared goals. The West, too, can learn from the ASEAN way of musyawarah (consultation) and muafakat (consensus), which has sustained and strengthened the community in the last 50 years.


The rise of the ASEAN community is a curious study of how cooperation and consensus, more than the rule of the majority, can help nations overcome deep divisions in religion, law and race in the pursuit of common goals.

To some Western observers, the ASEAN propensity to build consensus in the midst of discord is a source of puzzlement and frustration as the members have refused to press and criticise each other on major issues confronting the 10-nation bloc, from human rights to maritime disputes.

Indeed, such a noninterventionist policy is enshrined within the ASEAN Charter itself, which commits members to “respecting the fundamental importance of amity and cooperation, and the principles of sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, non-interference, consensus and unity in diversity”.1

It is, however, precisely this focus on unanimity in its decision-making process, rooted in the ASEAN way of musyawarah (consultation) and muafakat (consensus),2 which has given the ASEAN community the stability and resilience to grow and thrive in the last 50 years.

Today, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is an unqualified success.

It is one of the most dynamic regional blocs standing toe-to-toe with the European Union, and is even considered by some as the most successful supranational grouping in the world. Composed of 10 countries, ASEAN is home to the world’s third-largest labour force with an economy that is poised to become the world’s fifth-largest by 2020, and, by some projections, the fourth-largest by 2050.

In 2016 the combined GDP of ASEAN countries was collectively worth $2.5 trillion, almost double the $1.3 trillion measured in 2010. In that same period, according to the World Economic Forum, GDP per capita across the region grew by 76 percent.3

Within Asia, only China and Japan have bigger economies.

The bloc’s population of 650 million citizens accounts for a staggering 10 percent of the world population, making it the biggest geopolitical bloc by the number of people, according to the WEF.

As an investment destination, ASEAN is topnotch. It is the fourth-largest exporting region in the world, accounting for up to 7 percent of global exports. Furthermore, more than half of the consumer base in ASEAN is young – under 30 years old. The Philippines is entering its “demographic sweet spot” with more working people than dependent children and retirees. This will reap substantial rewards, including higher per capita income, higher savings rate, and a broader tax base.

ASEAN is home to peoples of various racial origins, including the Han Chinese, the Indo-Aryan and Dravidian peoples of South Asia and the Malay-Austronesian race. Three of the world’s major religions – Christianity, Islam and Hinduism – are practiced in the region, and, at times, right next to each other.

Another sector that has boomed is tourism. All together, the 10 ASEAN states drew more visitors in 2013 than France, the world’s top destination. Three years ago, the World Cruise Industry Review projected that Asia may attract 7 million visitors by 2020, representing a fifth of the global cruise industry.

ASEAN will get a sizable portion of this market, considering its 25,000 island-destinations on offer. By contrast, the Bahamas has only 7,000.

What makes ASEAN’s success even more impressive is that it has done it amid deep divides in religion, race and legal tradition in Southeast Asia.

ASEAN is home to peoples of various racial origins, including the Han Chinese, the Indo-Aryan and Dravidian peoples of South Asia and the Malay-Austronesian race. Three of the world’s major religions – Christianity, Islam and Hinduism – are practiced in the region, and, at times, right next to each other. For instance, the world’s largest Muslim country, Indonesia, maintains brotherly ties with Asia’s largest Christian country, the Philippines.

Such religious and racial divisions tend to degenerate into outbursts of conflict in most parts of the world, but in ASEAN, people mostly live in peaceful coexistence with each other, with some notable and unfortunate exceptions, as in Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis and the long-running Muslim insurgency in the southern Philippines.

There, too, is significant diversity in terms of legal traditions.

Where most former British colonies, like Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam follow common law (largely unwritten, precedent-based) systems, Thailand and Vietnam adhere to a continental or codal (“Napoleonic”) legal system. The Philippines follows a mixture of the two.

Such diversity “puts Southeast Asia at a distinct disadvantage in terms of fostering regional cooperation,” according to Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, and coauthor of “The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace”.4

“When ASEAN was founded in 1967, most experts expected it to die within years.” he said in a commentary published in August.

The Singaporean academic noted that Southeast Asia at the time was a poor and deeply troubled region described by the British historian C.A. Fisher as the “Balkans of Asia”.

“The Vietnam War was underway, and the Sino-Vietnamese War was yet to be fought. Many viewed the five non-Communist states that founded ASEAN – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand – as dominoes, set to be tipped over by a neighbour’s fall to communism or descent into civil strife,” Kishore said.

In 1967, when the five founding members signed the Bangkok Declaration, the primary objective was to ward off the threat of foreign interference that loomed heavily over the region during the Cold War. This signalled the transformation of the region “from battlefield into a marketplace”, as explored by Balazs Szalontai in “The end of the Cold War and the Third World: new perspectives on regional conflict.”5

Soon, according to Kishore, even ASEAN’s “communist enemies” Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam joined the bloc.

“So, too, did Myanmar, ending decades of isolation,” he said. “Asean’s policy of engaging Myanmar drew criticism from the West, but it helped lay the groundwork for a peaceful transition from military rule,” Kishore said, pointing out the contrast with the West’s policy of isolation toward Syria.

As the region grows, however, threats and challenges persist.

One is the Islamic State and the scourge of religious extremism. In March 2015, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, speaking at the 14th Asia Security Summit, described ISIS’s declaration to establish an ASEAN wilayat (province) under its caliphate as a “grandiose, pie-in-the-sky dream”.6

The plan to form an antiterrorism pact between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia is thus highly urgent.

He nonetheless predicted that it was not far-fetched for the terrorist organisation to aim to establish a base in the region, “somewhere far from the centres of power of state governments, where the governments’ writ does not run”. His words proved prophetic. The plan materialised in Marawi City in southern Philippines, where fighting continues between government forces and militant sympathisers of the terrorist group.

ASEAN has long been threatened by radical extremism. Many young Southeast Asian Muslims went to Pakistan in the 1980s to help Afghani jihadists defend against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. They were radicalised by such groups as al-Qaeda. When they returned to their home countries in the 1990s, they founded their own groups, such as Jema’ah Islamiyah, which was responsible for the 2002 bombing in Bali and the 2000 “Rizal Day” bombings around Metro Manila.

The plan to form an antiterrorism pact between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia is thus highly urgent.

Besides terrorism, maritime disputes aggravated by China’s island-building activities and militarisation of the South China Sea rank among the most disturbing and disruptive challenges to ASEAN’s future development.

Though not all members are party to the disputes, ASEAN’s insistence and emphasis on consensus-building makes it difficult for the bloc to take any decisive position beyond calling for a toothless Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

Pundits have argued that such a decision-making process is a weakness of ASEAN, leading to ineptness in responding to humanitarian crises and security issues besetting the region. Other commentators, however, believe this approach is preferable to the Western model.

Edith Terry, an Adjunct Professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, wrote that such a “lowest-common-denominator approach” was in fact why ASEAN “holds up well amid disappointment with the Bretton Woods institutions”.7

She said: “ASEAN will never face a Brexit. Its fundamental promise to its members is that it does not challenge their sovereignty. Its Jakarta-based secretariat is the opposite of the bureaucratic Babylons of the European Union, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization or the UN and its many offshoots. It has a staff of 300, compared to 100 times that in EU headquarters in Brussels.”

Unlike the World Bank, IMF or the UN, according to Terry, ASEAN does not have an equity structure that gives richer members more say but, instead, calibrates its dues to the paying capacity of its poorest members.

The flip side of such an argument is that the requirement for unanimity among the 10 ASEAN states opens the window for interference by big external powers, such as China and the United States, whose attempts to peddle influence within the grouping are no secret.

In January, Kilian Spandler, a political scientist and board member of the Germany-based think-tank Young Initiative on Foreign Affairs and International Relations, wrote an analysis with the intriguing title: “What Can ASEAN Teach the EU?”8

Unlike the World Bank, IMF or the UN, ASEAN does not have an equity structure that gives richer members more say.

Whereas before, the European Union had shown little interest in learning from the ASEAN experiment, Spandler said this changed recently as a consequence of domestic challenges in Europe arising from “populist and xenophobic reactions toward the increased immigration by displaced persons from outside the continent”.

“Just like that, EU policymakers have become very interested in how countries like Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines managed to keep conflict between people of Malay, Sinic, and Indian ethnicity, Christian and Muslim belief, or indigenous and immigrant origin at bay,” Spandler said.

Thus, he said, ASEAN has begun to develop its own “normative power” – a term used to describe the EU’s ability to influence others’ ideas and create a beneficial international environment by projecting its values abroad. “ASEAN appears to have found a unique selling point beyond its trade potential, and this has brought the organisation closer to the goal of a level playing field with its European partners,” Spandler said.

In the next 50 years, ASEAN may achieve a level of economic and political integration that is similar to that of the EU. Its economic and social fundamentals are strong and stable, and, barring major obstacles, the bloc appears to be on its way to becoming a major power.

The European model, however, clearly is not the suitable one to follow. Instead, ASEAN will do well to continue on the path of longevity and relevance that has sustained it for the past 50 years – the ASEAN way.


Featured Image: Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations gather for a plenary session of the biyearly summit in Manila, Philippines on April 2017. © ASEAN50/Released

About the Author

Edgardo J. Angara spent most of his professional career in public service and law. He was Senate President (1993-1995) and Senator for four six-year terms, serving as a legislator for 23 years. He was a Founding President of the ASEAN Law Association (ALA); President of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) (1979-1980); and the Philippine Bar Association (1975-1976).



1. The Asean Charter. http://www.asean.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/11.-October-2015-The-ASEAN-Charter-18th-Reprint-Amended-updated-on-05_-April-2016-IJP.pdf
2. “ASEAN’s Third Way?” by Daniel Wu, The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2011/11/aseans-third-way/
3. “ASEAN is 50, and it’s come a long way. Here’s why you should care,” by Alex Gray, World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/01/asean-is-50-and-it-s-come-a-long-way-here-s-why-you-should-care/
4. World View, by Kishore Mahbubani, Philippine Daily Inquirer http://opinion.inquirer.net/106070/asean-at-50
5. “From battlefield into marketplace: The end of the Cold War in Indochina, 1985-1989,” by Balazs Szalontai, “The end of the Cold War and the Third World: new perspectives on regional conflict.” http://www.academia.edu/25628812/From_Battlefield_into_Marketplace_The_End_of_the_Cold_War_in_Indochina_1985-9
6. Keynote Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Shangri-La Dialogue. http://www.pmo.gov.sg/newsroom/transcript-keynote-speech-prime-minister-lee-hsien-loong-shangri-la-dialogue-29-may-2015
7. “Asean at 50 is a model that has aged surprisingly well,” by Edith Terry, South China Morning Post. http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2105746/asean-50-model-has-aged-surprisingly-well
8. “What Can ASEAN Teach the EU?” by Kilian Spandler, The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2017/01/what-can-asean-teach-the-eu/

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.