Trashing the ASEAN Brand

Trashing the ASEAN Brand
Trashing the ASEAN Brand

Having a reputation for integrity and decency matters as much in international relations as in professional and personal life. States that are so regarded consistently punch above their weight – witness the Scandinavians.

By contrast, those that never earn – or fritter away – such a reputation can seriously endanger their own interests, jeopardizing trade, tourism, foreign investment, political support in international forums and negotiations, and the security of their own nationals abroad, Gareth Evans, former foreign minister of Australia (1988-1996) and president of the International Crisis Group was quoted by Project Syndicate as saying.

Three of Southeast Asia’s most important states – Malaysia, Thailand, and now Indonesia – have brought trouble on themselves in this respect in recent months. All three are raising serious doubts, in different ways, about their commitment to the rule of law, the integrity of their judicial systems, and the quality of mercy in the administration of justice.

In Malaysia, the country’s highest court last month rejected opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s appeal against a five-year prison sentence and a ban against running for public office for a further five years – a shocking and indefensible decision. Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government was transparently vindictive in pursuing allegations of sodomy (a crime rarely prosecuted in Malaysia) against Anwar. The evidence against him was obviously inconclusive; and the court’s acceptance of it was manifestly craven.

If the fiction is maintained that the court was merely doing its judicial duty as it saw it, decency could still prevail: Anwar could be granted executive clemency. But there is no sign that Najib’s government will advise such action. Anwar’s real crime was that his opposition coalition of conservative Muslim, secular, and Chinese parties was seriously challenging the six-decade supremacy of Najib’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO), losing the 2013 election only because of a transparent gerrymander.

In Thailand, the biggest crime of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his supporters was to keep winning national elections with populist campaigns that threatened the interests of the country’s long-established Bangkok-based elite. Serious wrongdoing, involving bribery and institutional corruption, no doubt occurred along the way; but the scale of such offenses could hardly justify last year’s military coup and the subsequent repression.

Some of those in the army-installed National Reform Council and Constitutional Drafting Committee have a real interest in ensuring that Thailand’s next constitution – the 20th since 1932 – will be genuinely democratic. Many do want to end, once and for all, the corrupt, vote-buying culture that has long afflicted Thai politics on both sides.  Indonesia’s case is different from the other two, and less extreme. The grassroots-driven victory of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo last year triumphantly consolidated the country’s democratic transition, and raised high expectations for human-rights and anti-corruption campaigners. But, domestically, confidence in Jokowi’s capacity and will to tackle corruption has eroded with his nomination – only very belatedly withdrawn – of a suspiciously wealthy but politically well-connected candidate for National Police Chief.

There are some larger regional consequences in all of this. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has tenaciously fought for its place as the geopolitical hinge between East and South Asia, and an important player in Asia-Pacific economic and security diplomacy. In doing so, it has had to repeatedly finesse issues like Cambodia’s authoritarian leadership, Myanmar’s struggle with democratic transition, Vietnam’s stubbornly anachronistic one-party state, and even impeccably incorruptible Singapore’s regular misuse of defamation laws to neutralize political opponents.

The question that ASEAN leaders must now ask themselves is just how much trashing of the Southeast Asian brand, by how many of its members simultaneously, the region can afford while still fully realizing its aspirations for economic growth and political influence.