It is a rather solemn day for ASEAN to commemorate its 53 years of existence.
A year ago, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo inaugurated a newly expanded ASEAN Secretariat building that he expected would usher in an era of more engagement among member states – a place where ASEAN nationals would learn about the institution that seeks to bring this community of nations together to realize a dream of shared prosperity.
But here we are today, faced with a pandemic that shows no signs of abating, with borders between neighboring countries unwillingly closed off and every man (and country) left to fend for themselves.
Singapore’s tally of COVID-19 infections was overtaken by Indonesia for a while, before being overtaken by the Philippines. The United Nations secretary-general said last week that more work needed to be done if Southeast Asia wanted to stay on the path toward economic recovery, even if regional cooperation had thus far been “robust”.
Then an emailed invitation arrived a few nights ago, announcing that this year’s ASEAN Day would be celebrated online, in line with physical distancing measures recommended by the state. It was a solemn reminder of the reality of the world today.
Even so, every year we have to remind ourselves that ASEAN has come a long way as a regional organization, even though some continue to doubt its effectiveness.
Today, we commemorate ASEAN Day in memory of the historic establishment of the regional organization in 1967. In recent years, the anniversary has been accompanied by big celebrations and fanfare, as the bloc pats itself on the back for pushing past half a century.
The group managed to come out of a Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union, only to find itself in the midst of a “new cold war” for dominance between the US and China, centered on possible open conflict in the South China Sea.
Even then, ASEAN has still managed to respond with optimism.
Decades-old instruments have found new uses, as is evident in Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi’s recent mention of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, as well as renewed commitment to the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality of 1971.
The subtle push and pull from leaders, diplomats and international civil servants behind the scenes is a lasting testament to the resilience of a community of like-minded neighbors.
As protectionism and toxic nationalism are on the rise due to the pandemic, ASEAN continues to champion unity to confront an unprecedented challenge, guided by the theme of being “Cohesive and Responsive”. This approach should be revisited and updated to fit the current context.
ASEAN needs to remain relevant to the younger generations, by involving them in charting a future that nurtures a better sense of belonging – even if it is a future rife with pandemics. It must also involve civil society in shaping policy direction and alignment of values, however uncomfortable they may be to those in power.
Our one wish for ASEAN this year is that it may embrace even more change, so that we may be able to embrace one another.