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Why Being 'Hugely Imperfect' Is the Secret to ASEAN's Success

by Eric Fish
12 October 2017

Former Singapore Ambassador to the United Nations Kishore Mahbubani says that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been remarkably successful at keeping peace in a once famously unstable region — because, rather than in spite of, its reputation for being toothless and inefficient.

“The reason ASEAN succeeds is because it is hugely imperfect,” he said at Asia Society in New York Wednesday. “Its imperfection is its strength and that's a paradox you have to understand.”

Mahbubani, who recently co-authored the book The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace, noted that when the organization was founded 50 years ago, the five original member states — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand — had “massive” distrust of one another. “Everybody believed it was going to fail, including those who signed the ASEAN declaration,” he said. “Southeast Asia was a hotbed of conflict.”

But he argues that it has been successful because the very slow process of “consultation and consensus” forces members to keep talking and understand one another’s concerns. It may appear as if the organization is running in circles at any given moment, but its results are measured in decades. Mahbubani said that between the first ASEAN meeting he attended in 1971 and the mid-1990s, when he became Singapore’s Foreign Ministry permanent secretary, the suspicion and distrust had “gone away.”

“Through thousands of meetings, you build human networks,” he added.

In the above video, Mahbubani argues that ASEAN’s approach to Myanmar played a pivotal role in the country’s transition from military to civilian rule, while “the West’s” approach to Syria ended in chaos. Watch the full program in the video below.