Removing Asean’s bureaucratic cobweb

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International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed (right) explaining Asean’s vision for an integrated economic community at the Jalan Duta Government Complex in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday. Bernama pic

WHEN Asean came into being on Aug 8, 1967, it was largely driven by considerations of peace and security among neighbours in a troubled region. We Malaysians had just emerged, with scars to show, from Indonesia’s “Konfrontasi”.

There were admittedly serious concerns about countries in Southeast Asia being drawn inexorably into the Communist orbit, but Malaysia refused to be stampeded into embracing the “Domino Theory”.

Although the Malayan Communist Party-inspired insurgency was far from over, we were confident that we were in effective control of our country’s security and with the right mix of poverty eradication and industrial development policies, we could manage our own affairs without unwelcome United States intervention.

Malaysians were with their elected government. Embracing the US would have been the kiss of death for us, an emerging nation in search of a role and an identity. We had to develop our own home- grown model for regional cooperation.

We created Asean, then made up of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines, in the confident expectation that it offered the best hope for our vision of a conflict-free region.

However, Asean’s founding fathers, in envisioning their grand design, had not given sufficient thought to the role that their civil servants would be playing in policy formulation and implementation. The passage towards some semblance of unity of purpose was excruciatingly slow. Asean official inertia had to be experienced to be believed.

The private sector in Asean wanted to move at a much faster rate and felt that the civil servants were not only dragging their feet but were being totally obstructive.

The Asean Chambers of Commerce and Industry (CCI) were quick to see the business potential presented by a regional market of more than 250 million people, and took to the new opportunities like duck to water, only to find that the bureaucrats had forgotten to fill up the pond.

Several industry-based working groups were formed and important trade links were made with the US and European Union chambers of commerce and industry.

I remember a trip to Washington DC in the ‘70s by the Asean CCI and being received in the White House where a meeting with US officials and senior business leaders was arranged in the Franklin Room.

US vice-president Walter Mondale was to host the meeting but he had to be called away on urgent state business.

We were going all out to promote Asean to the American business community, but soon realised that we were so far ahead of the Asean governments that we were put in an embarrassing position. We cajoled, huffing and puffing, but to no avail. We were stuck in a bureaucratic maze.

We were running out of patience and the inevitable clash was not long coming. On Dec 12, 1979, some 12 years after the formation of Asean, 250 top Asean business leaders from all the national chambers met in Singapore.

This was the opportunity I needed as chairman of the Asean CCI Working Group on Industrial Complementation to read the riot act.

Let The Straits Times of Singapore of Dec 13 echo my disappointment. Under the headline, “Asean civil servants rapped — ‘Too rigid an attitude towards cooperation”, it reported:

“Malaysian business leader, Tunku Abdul Aziz, yesterday lashed out at civil servants of Asean for their rigid, uncompromising and hopelessly impractical attitude towards closer regional cooperation.

Tunku Abdul Aziz said: “I have detected of late evidence of disenchantment and disquiet within the private sector with the way in which the question of economic and industrial cooperation is being handled by the economic ministers through their Committee on Industry, Minerals and Energy (Coime).

“A measure of the general euphoria prevailing throughout the Asean private sector is that until a few months ago, most of us were satisfied that Coime understood its role and was prepared to exercise its power and authority in a way that would satisfy private sector aspirations.

“What we did not know, of course, was that this body of hardened bureaucrats, sitting collectively in splendid isolation and insulated from the reality of a real world, was no more ready to deal with its appointed task than the Ayatollah is ready to grant the Shah of Iran the freedom of the city of Teheran.”

Questioning the effectiveness of the guidelines laid down by Asean civil servants on industrial complementation of regional projects, Tunku Aziz said:

“In spite of the usual pious declarations of selfless devotion to economic cooperation, these guidelines must be seen for what they are. They are rigid and uncompromising and are so obviously intended to protect the national position at all costs.

“These guidelines are a blight on the concept of regional cooperation. It is not surprising that we are beginning to wonder whether our governments are intellectually ready to cope with the rather special demands of a concept that requires a high degree of political will.

“Let us hope the governments of Asean will recognise the importance of private sector participation and involvement at all levels of policy formulation so that what emerges is a concerted effort distilled from the best available talents from both the government and the private sector.”

The Business Times Malaysia in its editorial, “Asean — useful plain speaking”, said that: “It needed to be said, sooner rather than later. But no one did until Wednesday when Tunku Abdul Aziz, in his capacity as chairman of the Asean CCI’s Working Group on Industrial Complementation, hit out at the official Committee on Industry, Minerals and Energy in which rests the responsibility for reviewing ideas for reviewing ideas in these fields.”

The Asian Wall Street Journal waded in to support my “blast”, reporting my attack on the official guidelines that “are intended to regulate and control rather than promote and encourage private sector participation in and contribution to economic cooperation. These guidelines are a blight on the concept of regional cooperation”.

The tenor of my speech took Asean ministers and their bureaucrats by complete surprise, but it had the desired effect. Governments understood our position better and helped to remove much of the cobweb that had befuddled their collective mind.

Today, Asean is jogging along nicely and thriving. Successive regional leaders, particularly Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, can take pride in nurturing Asean to become a regional force for good.

Asean has been well-served by many distinguished secretaries-general, but in my considered opinion, the best ever was undoubtedly Dr Surin Pitsuwan of Thailand, the quiet and thoughtful man of diplomacy, the United Nations secretary-general we never had because he was in the wrong party and the government of Thailand did not support his candidature for that high office — a great loss to the world.

The Asean bureaucrats of my time very nearly scuttled the vision and hopes of millions of Southeast Asians for their rightful place in the larger global scheme of things. Mercifully, in spite of them, Asean has arrived.

Source: New Straits Times Online