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Jakarta Post

ASEAN’s future in the hands of Brunei

  • Simone Galimberti


Kathmandu   /   Sat, January 16, 2021   /   08:10 am
ASEAN’s future in the hands of Brunei Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (center) is seen departing after speaking at an event in Bandar Seri Begawan on April 3, 2019. (AFP/-)

With the start of the new year, Brunei assumes the chairmanship of ASEAN but till now you can’t find much information about its official program.

As of the time of writing, the official website of Brunei’s foreign affairs ministry or the website of the prime minister’s office led by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah does not contain any information about it. You can check the certainly not flourishing media landscape in the country and you will find nothing.

As a European, I would be tempted to compare Brunei’s chairmanship of ASEAN with the presidency of the Council of the European Union by Portugal that, with the new year, took it over from Germany but I know it would not be a fair comparison.

So let’s stick to what it is possible and desirable within Southeast Asia and within the constraints and limitations that ASEAN as a bloc must live with.

Yet this does not mean overlooking the serious fixings the bloc needs: from a major simplification of its working procedures to rethinking of its overall governance, including a debate on a stronger secretariat functioning as true guarantor of regional integration.

This should not be just wishful thinking but rather should be imperative if the bloc and its members are really serious about implementing the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Plan and its Implementation Plan.

Sultan Bolkiah is an authoritative and well regarded figure, (at least within the region), and he has been involved in regional affairs for a long time. He could be the right person to initiate a bold exercise in rethinking the process of regional integration within the regional grouping.

One aim could be to strategically reimagine the future of the three communities at the foundations of ASEAN, the pillars at the core of its cooperation, covering, respectively, the political and security dimension, the economic and the sociocultural ones.

It is true that an exercise has been undertaken to evaluate the achievements so far toward implementing the ASEAN 2025 Vision in each of these areas but these discussions should be taken at the highest levels and Sultan Bolkiah is the right person to involve and engage its peers in such strategic endeavor.

As ASEAN 2021 chair, Sultan Bolkiah could call an informal meeting of the head of states and governments, for policies focused discussions, a sort of retreat to be held in Brunei before the main annual summit.

Again, I cannot help but think about how informal gatherings among EU leaders count and make the difference in forging common positions. I am talking about meetings with all leaders within the EU that won’t result in any official deliberations or just informal working meetings among leaders of only certain member nations. In both cases, the leaders try to create coalitions and new alignments within the EU, often trying to mediate among different positions.

Did such talks ever happen within ASEAN? Why couldn’t Sultan Bolkiah organize such an informal gathering and at the same time have bilateral meetings with his peers of the region, aiming at rebooting the organization?

A chairmanship is also an opportunity to increase the interest of citizens in ASEAN dynamics.

Instead, most of initiatives undertaken so far are usually far detached from the day-to-day realities of the people.

We certainly need experts, bureaucrats dealing in complex issues but the entire process of integration misses its purpose if the citizens of the region are not involved.

At the moment we are still not quite clear about what Brunei’s chairmanship will look like. For sure, Brunei should prioritize the implementation of the recovery framework, possibly try to increase people’s interest in it, after all they are to be the ultimate beneficiaries.

As the plan touches on theirs’ lives, why not find ways to involve them in rethinking, for example, health, livelihoods, digital innovation and social security within the region? 

The reality is that several ASEAN members, including Brunei, are not democracies and for now we need to live with that. Eventually it is going to matter for the long-term prospects of the regional bloc that, so far, thanks to a minimum denominator, has managed to reconcile different values and political cultures within it.

It is true that is going to be a big task for Sultan Bolkiah to involve and engage his own and the region’ citizens in this 2021 chairmanship but why not thinking, at least once, boldly and with farsightedness?

Moreover, the bloc has a new strategic partnership with the EU and this should be leveraged to the highest levels not only financially but also in terms of learning about involving and engaging people. At the same time focusing on a true people to people ASEAN would be the least contentious and easiest policy area to start rethinking ASEAN’s ambitious.

Sultan Bolkiah could delegate to his son, the Crown Prince, the task of finding innovative ways to excite the people, especially the youth, in creating new meanings for the regional integration process.

Let’s not forget that Dato Lim Jock Hoi, the current ASEAN secretary-general is from Brunei and he certainly can play a big role in this chairmanship, officially and unofficially.

Brunei is a small and proud nation and its youth population, despite many structural barriers and blocks, are thriving, doing the best they can to bring their country to the highest levels. Enabling the youth is the best way to lay strong foundations for what should become an ambitious political project, a real community of people.

Will Brunei rise to this defining challenge of this new decade, not only within ASEAN but also on its own soil?


The writer is cofounder of ENGAGE and a writer on social inclusion, youth development, regional integration and the SDGs in the context of Asia Pacific.


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.