The Jakarta Post
Does ASEAN Matter: A View from Within by Marty Natalegawa (Marty Natalegawa/File)
The newly released book Does ASEAN Matter: A View from Within aims to show the inner workings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) from the perspective of someone who is closely acquainted with the organization.
Written by diplomat and former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa, the 258-page book discusses the history and impact of ASEAN across five chapters, exploring issues such as how trust was forged between states, punctuated by accounts of the diplomatic tensions that arose during Marty’s tenure as foreign minister from 2009 to 2014.
Marty, who also served as Indonesia’s permanent representative to the United Nations from 2007 to 2009, said that the question in the book’s title came from a single standpoint only – his own perspective as a former foreign minister – and was not an expression of be-all and end-all wisdom.
“When we reviewed the question, we came to the conclusion that when we talk about ASEAN in the past 50 years, there are three ways that ASEAN has mattered,” he says.
First, he said ASEAN had changed how Southeast Asian countries maintained relationships with one another.
“Before the conception of ASEAN in 1967, relations between nations in Southeast Asia were fraught with tension and open conflict, and marked by a deficit of trust. In 50 years, we have seen a change in dynamics, from a trust deficit to strategic trust where open conflict can almost be set aside,” Marty said, adding that he used the qualifier “almost” so that there was no sense of complacency.
The second transformation identified by Marty was the increased role of Southeast Asian countries in world affairs, noting that the countries were pawns of major powers during the Cold War.
“[The countries] were victims of the rivalry between East and West, which further magnified competition in the region. Through ASEAN, they have gained power as part of the central entity in the region and play a determinant role in the Asia Pacific regional architecture.”
Third, ASEAN has changed from a state-centric entity into a people-centric entity, becoming more attuned to the needs of its people.
“This is much more apparent in the economy, as the nations’ economies before ASEAN were marked by underdevelopment, high levels of poverty, and so on. We have seen a change, with Southeast Asian countries becoming some of the most dynamic economies in the world.”
In the writing of Does ASEAN Matter: A View from Within, Marty said the book began with his personal notes regarding his experiences as foreign minister.
“Originally, there was no intention of putting all of these views and notes into a book,” he said.
“But maybe it is one of the book’s strengths, because it is written with a sense of honesty, candidness and openness while acknowledging where it is lacking because it was very much initially intended as my own note file,” he added, noting that the book also served as a way to preserve his memories of his time in the post.
Many revisions were made during the writing of the book, he said, especially on the subject of achievements.
“All the supposed achievements go into my ‘delete’ file, because I felt that I’m not the person that should write about what we achieved. Let history be the judge.”
As well as discussing the content of the book at its launch, Marty, who spent more than three decades at the Foreign Ministry, also fielded several questions from the audience, who mostly asked about his perspective on current issues.
Marty’s experience in diplomacy showed clearly when faced with tough questions, notably responding to an enquiry about Taiwan’s role in ASEAN in the same manner he used as foreign minister.
“I would simply say it is a brilliant question and I will deflect subsequently,” Marty stated to a burst of laughter.
However, Marty did in fact answer the question, citing that he was now free from his official duties that previously prevented him from answering questions that could affect diplomatic relations.
“[...] I will say clearly that Taiwan, as an economic and social entity, has an important role to play in our region.”
With geopolitics heating up in recent times, it’s worth remembering a line from the book’s opening chapter: “Indeed, for the future, as it is sometimes said, the only certainty is uncertainty itself. Change is permanent.”