ASEAN Secretary General and Foreign Ministers (except Myanmar) pose for a group photo during the 32nd ASEAN Coordinating Council meeting in Jakarta on February 3, 2023. Foreign ministers (LtoR): Malaysia’s Zambry Abdul Kadir, Brunei’s Erywan Pehin Yusof, Singapore’s Vivian Balakrishnan, Thailand’s Don Pramudwinai, Vietnam’s Bui Thanh Son, Indonesia’s Rento Marsudi, Laos’ Saleumxay Kommasith, Philippines’ Enrique Austria Manalo, Cambodia’s Prak Sokhonn, East Timor’s Adaljiza Magno, ASEAN Secretary General Kao Kim Hourn (Photo by BAY ISMOYO / AFP)

by Simone Galimberti

My initial intention for this piece was to “use” the upcoming Europe Day which is celebrated every year on the 9th of May, to discuss ASEAN.

In particular, I wanted to focus on common regional identities and the overall perception of South-East Asian citizens towards their regional bloc.

Europe Day, while not exactly yet part of the common imagination of the people living in the old continent, it is something that is held in high regard.

The same cannot be said for ASEAN Day which falls on the 8th of August each year.

While the European celebrations, if we want to call them this way, are centred on the so-called Shuman Declaration that in 1950 paved the way to the progress of regional integration, ASEAN’s are focused on the establishment itself of the community of South East Asian nations.

Preparing for the write-up led me to review of the authoritative State of Southeast Asia: 2023 Survey Report published by The ASEAN Studies Centre (ASC) at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, an autonomous, semipublic institution under the purview of the Ministry of Education in Singapore.

While I was surprised that most of the interviewees seemed to have some concerns about China, once again, and this was not a shock, I found out that a vast majority of citizens of the region express worries “about ASEAN being slow and ineffective, thus not being able to cope with political and economic developments”.

According to the survey, 60.7% of the respondents believe that “ASEAN is becoming increasingly disunited” and 49.0% fear that “ASEAN is unable to recover from the pandemic”.

Certainly, there is a broad concern about the region becoming a theatre of a major conflict between the two superpowers, China and the USA.

All these information and insights do make a lot of sense, considering the current status of geopolitics and the uninspiring 2023 chairmanship of ASEAN by Indonesia.

On this latter point, there were a lot of expectations, including by myself, that President Jokowi would pull a trick and manage to revitalize the community.

Perhaps Mr Jokowi is too preoccupied on coalitions building for the next presidential election in Indonesia next year and if this were to be the case, what a missed opportunity.

As I said many times, while it is unfair to make a comparison between the European Union (EU) and ASEAN, this exercise can give a perspective and push people to make an effort in long-term fore-sighting.

Yet the most relevant survey about the status of the region did not mince a word about how much the citizens of ASEAN feel “South East Asian”.

This was shocking.

Do they feel having something in common? Do they feel that this community of nations, ASEAN, could, potentially, one day, transform itself into a real community of people?

The EU model, remarkably, not less complex than ASEAN’s one should not necessarily be a model but for sure it can become an aspiration.

This was supposed to be the core of this piece. Then I received a mail from a person that I never met but with whom I have been corresponding through e-mails.

It does not matter to reveal her or his identity or share more details.

She could be a prominent citizen or could also be a “commoner”, someone who makes her ends meet like everyone else and she could even struggle to do so.

What matters is that this person is knowledgeable and very passionate about the future of Singapore.

I have been corresponding with this person because I wanted to understand more about Lion City, especially from a local perspective.

Over the exchange of e-mails, we have been primarily discussing about death penalty but my curiosity has been much larger.

The latest sharing was prompted by an article of mine for the Jakarta Post in which I was wondering if the latest debate in the Singapore’s parliament, following the President Address, could herald a new “transition” towards a better form of democracy.

The reply I received was driven by a strong sense of defensiveness or at least I interpreted the words in it in such a way.

Perhaps rightly so.

My original op-ed included a provocation about when Singapore would join the International Covenant on Civilian and Political Rights or ICCPR, a universal, let’s say, benchmark.

In short, while I was not exactly accused of interference into an internal matter of a sovereign state, I felt that my interlocutor was getting close to that.

There was an overall feeling of grievances and a profound annoyance towards someone like me, a westerner, risking to write and act in a new colonialist fashion.

In my response back, I tried to convey the overall message that writing about a nation does not necessarily imply any accusation or biased judgement or misrepresentation.

I was just, after all, expressing, rightly or wrong, my opinion.

I am not sure if my views are right or wrong, I guess it really depends on who is the reader.

But what I now for sure is that any civilization advances only through open discussion and debate, even if people think the opposite about an issue.

Authoritarian regimes are proving extremely efficient, how true but sooner or later they will hit a speed bump because of freedoms their people are deprived of.

In my response, I also shared that the West, Europe and the USA, for example, still have so many things that they get so wrong, including in matter of human rights.

Certainly, we are not perfect, far from it and it is undoubtedly true that we are often hypocritical and embrace double standards.

I do accept that the way I think it is vastly different from the person I have been exchanging my views with and actually I was not entirely surprised to read that kind of reaction.

Still, I learned some points from a person that surely is in a unique position to express her opinions about her country.

From all this, among my takeaways is that promoting human rights and democracy is always a complex and risky business.

You can be easily get accused of undue interference in the affairs of a different nation. I am getting that and I am aware that, for a Western diplomat, is increasingly much easier to talk about the most complex trade clause than sharing her concerns about human rights with peers coming from nations that have a totally different understanding about them.

This is the case of Singapore where, no matter how much you might dislike it, tons of people are very opinionated and extremely well knowledgeable.

In addition, they know very well how to push back and counter argue with you.

It can be a coincidence that my e-mail conversation happened today, the 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day.

In his costumery statement for the occasion, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, expressed strong words.

“Freedom of expression is not just a fundamental human right, it is the lifeblood that nourishes healthy and vibrant societies” he shared.

When we imagine the future of a nation or the future of a regional community, it is essential to think in very pragmatic terms.

What will the citizens benefit out of this free association of nations? How will their lives improve through a stronger multilateral approach to development and people’s wellbeing?

Answering such questions is an imperative to set aside the citizens’ concerned expressed ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s survey.

But we should not forget also the intangible aspects of such a cooperation: culture, common traditions, some similarities in the languages, religious traditions, food habits for
example.

I would add to this list, also another important factor that can bring people closer or away from each other: values.

The values you commonly shared in Brussels or Paris can, at least in appearance, differ immensely from those experienced by the citizens of Singapore or Bangkok or Bandar Seri Begawan.

Yet people have inspirations and youths, around the world, not only in Europe but also in Asia, are showing to believe (also) in immaterial and intangible “assets”, among which, I would highlight values.

Values are, after all, an undeniable aspect of universal common goods and only certain values can enable and sustain a free press, based on the expression of opinions and facts, is the bedrock of any democracy.

As I said earlier, Europe certainly has a lot to improve like explained by not-for-profit Liberties through its flagship Liberties Media Freedom Report 2023.

The same conclusion was also reached by another important publication, Fragile Progress, The Struggle for Press Freedom in the European Union published by the Committee to Protect Journalists or CPJ.

Hearing by someone that freedom of the press in Europe is under attack and not protected as it should be makes me sad but not upset or annoyed with that person.

We know that democracy requires a consistent commitment and it is always a work in progress, in Singapore, in Thailand or in Italy or Germany.

The challenge ahead is to link freedom of the press, human rights and democracy with the ASEAN’s members’ incessant quest for prosperity.

Criticism, especially of constructive nature, makes nations better. And stronger.

Let’s not devalue the enrichment that comes from the free expression of facts and opinions especially when in a day like today, the Joint Declaration on Media Freedom and Democracy was launched.

Discussing, debating and dissenting civilly are the cornerstones of any ambitious nation that wants always to do better.

The declaration could not be more explicit:

“Freedom of expression, which encompasses the right to information, is a fundamental right as well as an enabler of other human rights and a guardian of democratic values.

Media freedom is an integral part of the right to freedom of expression. It enables the public to seek and receive information and ideas, make well-informed choices in all areas of life, from political, economic, and social, to cultural ones, participate in public affairs and positively contribute to the well-being of society. Free, pluralistic, and independent media are essential pillars of democracy. The protection of media freedom is essential for the proper functioning of democratic society and institutions.”.

I believe that, at the of the day, the person in Singapore I have been exchanging my views with, also share this vision.

It will still take time but also Singapore will progress on this front.

It will struggle as all democracies do so, but it will find its own way, a way uniquely “Singaporean” but aligned to universally shared standards and practices.

The new generation will demand such a shift.

And by the way, Happy World Press Freedom and Happy Europe Day!!!

Simone Galimberti writes on democracy, social inclusion, youth development, regional integration, SDGs and human rights in the context of Asia Pacific.

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