In the waning years of the Cold War, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was widely regarded as the world’s most successful third-world regional bloc and a role model for greater cooperation. However, the last two decades have been tough on ASEAN. Its reputation and credibility have taken repeated beatings from the Asian Economic Crisis (1997-1998) to China’s encroachment of the South China Sea (2016).

Apart from close geographic proximity and minor dietary similarities, there aren’t any real common identifiers that can be used to lump ASEAN states together. As a geopolitical block, ASEAN member countries make for strange bedfellows. Diverse politically, economically, culturally, religiously, and linguistically, those who dream and toil for a unified ASEAN don’t really have much to work with.

Non-interference only when it suits the powers that be

There is a general understanding that the policy of non-interference has been and continue to be dogmatic shackles binding the appendages of ASEAN, preventing it from addressing important issues like the Rohingya conflict in Myanmar, contraband smuggling across the Kalimantan-Sarawak border, and the military insurgencies in the south of Thailand and the Philippines. However, the notion that the doctrine of non-interference is an absolute core ASEAN principle (even colloquially coined as “The ASEAN Way”) falls apart upon closer and more rigorous scrutiny.

Rodolfo Severino, former ASEAN secretary-general, denies that the “ASEAN way” of non-interference is applied absolutely or dogmatically, based on an ill-conceived ideology. Even though the principle of non-interference appears to be adequately codified in most of ASEAN’s documents – such as the 1967 Bangkok Declaration and 1971 “Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality Declaration” in Kuala Lumpur, adherence to the principle itself is hardly borne out of a supreme dedication to the founding statutes of ASEAN. No, the principle most definitely came into extensive practice through pragmatic necessity in serving perceived national interests or those of various ruling regimes.

Empirical evidence suggests an alternative narrative, one that paints ASEAN states interfering in each other’s internal affairs from the onset of ASEAN’s inception. For instance, there were major violations carried out at the apex of the Cold War where Thailand supported various insurgencies within the neighbouring country of Burma.

Another prominent example would be the deliberate delay of Cambodia’s admission into ASEAN. Events during the 1997 coup d’état in Phnom Penh whereby co-premier Hun Sen ousted the other co-premier Norodom Ranariddh, ASEAN elected to delay Cambodia’s admission to the association. In addition, ASEAN also formed a troika to help mediate and dissipate political tensions in Cambodia.

Moreover, ASEAN established terms and conditions for Cambodia’s membership. First and foremost, ASEAN required that a coalition government be formed in Cambodia. After the establishment of a coalition government in July 1998, ASEAN gave a new condition which required the establishment of a Senate in Cambodia. These conditions mandated all political parties in Cambodia to participate in the 1998 general election. The membership terms also subsequently led to the amendment of Cambodia’s constitution. By imposing membership conditions on Cambodia but not Myanmar on political and stability issues, ASEAN showed that non-interference is not an absolute.

Build institutions that matter

Part of the reasons on why the principle of non-interference is so subjective (one moment gospel truth, the other a mild inconvenience) is the non-existence of crucial international ASEAN institutions. ASEAN was formed without structured institutionalisation and the previously defined “ASEAN Way” which emphasises loose and ad-hoc mechanisms.

Decades of relevant international experience seem to indicate that effective institutions are paramount to the success of regional integration efforts. Over time, regional institutions must evolve to effectively define and enforce laws, advocate for regional best practices, and track the progress of deliverables and commitments. The process of building a cohesive socioeconomic community that systematically integrates disparate economies is complex. The process involves member states swallowing bitter pills in the form of difficult policy directions or perceived short-term disadvantages. Therefore, strong institutions must be established to facilitate and, if necessary, enforce appropriate institutional procedures in each member state to bind them to the common ASEAN process.

Despite its flaws, the European Union (EU) is an accurate example of a heavy institution-building process, defined by a customs union and a large and powerful secretariat, among other distinctive features. This came about through a strenuous political process backed by not so insignificant financial and technical resources. Alternatively, the ASEAN institution building process could aim for a more nimble, light institutional process that is politically acceptable to ASEAN states at the present moment. Through this nimble institutional process, existing institutions or institutional cooperation can be enhanced and developed to facilitate more effective integration.

The referendum that broke the European Union’s back

Apart from positive examples, ASEAN can also draw from the EU some cautionary tales. Chief among these lessons would be the Brexit saga. The unprecedented and unexpected illustrates that the deliverables and advantages of regional cooperation are not always self-evident. There is already dreadfully low awareness among a significant chunk of ASEAN inhabitants regarding the very existence of ASEAN itself, never mind its benefits.

Additionally, it would be wrong to assume that ASEAN regional cooperation would progress in a linear positive upward direction – especially after the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015. ASEAN states must always be vigilant and ready to face unexpected disruption and reversal of cooperation.

Member states must tread carefully and cannot continue the assumption that ASEAN is constantly indispensable and central to every other member government.

ASEAN forward

In conclusion, ASEAN must finally start to realise its need to become more internally consistent, structured, and vigilant. As a bloc, ASEAN holds the future of economic growth in Asia as well as major geopolitical plays. It has already been 50 years since the foundation stone of ASEAN was laid, hopefully, we don’t need to wait another half century for ASEAN to start becoming what it was always meant to be, a key arbiter of socio-political and economic power in the world; a better (and Asian) EU.


Bernard Goh Teck Yang is currently an opinion columnist for the Borneo Post, the largest and most reputable English daily on the island of Borneo. He is also an editor for CEKU, the editorial and publishing arm of the United Kingdom and Eire Council of Malaysian Students (UKEC). Additionally, he is serving as an Assistant Vice President for the Malaysian Student’s Global Alliance’s (MSGA) flagship program. February 2017 onwards, he will be pursuing a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Tasmania, Australia. Bernard can be reached through email at and more information about him can be found on

*This article was first published by Borneo Post on 19th February 2017 at:

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.