What is an ASEAN?

While studying abroad in Hong Kong last year, I overheard a conversation between a young American woman and a young Singaporean man. During their conversation I heard perhaps one of my favourite questions to be asked – ‘What is an ASEAN?’.

From this, I figured I would write a series of short articles around Southeast Asian politics. These will include organisations, individuals and events that have shaped Southeast Asia, including people and organisations such as Lee Kuan Yew and Abu Sayyaff.

So, lets answer this question.

Founded in 1967, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a regional intergovernmental organisation that helps promote the strengthening of ties between its ten member states – Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia. The aims of this organisation have changed throughout time, especially when its original membership consisted of just five nations – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. This was a response to the growing fear of communism spreading from neighbouring countries such as Vietnam and China. Above all, the organisation aims to promote regional peace and economic growth. Instead of being a deterrent towards communism, these aims become the forefront for the organisation’s existence in the 1970’s through its members’ dramatic economic development – especially Malaysia and Singapore.

Since then, the subsequent members gradually joined ASEAN – such as Brunei in 1984 – and have contributed to the organisation. Since the end of the Cold War in the early 90’s, ASEAN has been allowed to exercise its powers in the region and its nations’ independence greatly, especially in how they interact with each other.

For this, ASEAN has a core philosophy called the ‘ASEAN Way’. This is a methodological approach to dealing with issues and decision making within the group. Its idea is that policy should be based on the principle of consensus and comprise amongst Southeast Asian nations, since they share common goals and culture. However, many critics claim that what this process means is that the organisation only adopts policies that appeal to the lowest common denominator.

From this, there are extensions onto ASEAN from its neighbouring nations. These come in the form of ASEAN plus Three and ASEAN plus Six – the former consisting of the original ten members plus China (PRC), South Korea, and Japan; while the latter includes Australia, India, and New Zealand also.

Regarding internal politics, ASEAN is very diverse in the variety of governance that can be applied towards its ten nation states. From Islamic republics in Indonesia to a socialist republic in Vietnam, its diverse membership shows the complex nature of the region.

The significance of the region rests in its geography – with major shipping access to the Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and the South China Sea. It is because of this that the region – especially Singapore – has become a hub for trade and business within the Asia-Pacific. I do endeavour to write a full article explaining in more detail the major issues being faced within ASEAN, both internally and externally, in the future. Until then, I hope this might help answer the question of ‘What is an ASEAN?’.