How the ASEAN 'Miracle' Is a Model for the Middle East

A man rides his bicycle in front of the ASEAN logo near the venue for the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Manila on August 4, 2017. (Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images)

When Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Indonesia formed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967, prospects for peace and prosperity in the region appeared dim. Corruption and poverty were endemic virtually everywhere. Ethnic and religious tension abounded. And the Vietnam War — eight years before the collapse of Saigon — had destroyed the three countries to emerge from French Indochina.

Five decades later, Southeast Asia is one of the world's most dynamic and successful regions — a turnaround that, at least party, can be attributed to ASEAN itself. In their new book The ASEAN Miracle, Kishore Mahbubani and Jeffrey Sng argue that Southeast Asia's advancements in the past half-century can serve as a model for other regions and are deserving of wider recognition.

In the following excerpt, Mahbubani and Sng explain why ASEAN's success is a powerful antidote to the closed-borders, nationalist politics practiced by U.S. President Donald Trump and others.

Try imagining a world where the Middle East is at peace. The thought seems almost inconceivable. Imagine a world where Israel and Palestine, two nations splintered from one piece of territory, live harmoniously. Impossible? This is what Malaysia and Singapore accomplished. After an acrimonious divorce in 1965, they live together in peace. Imagine a world where Egypt, the most populous Islamic country in the Middle East, emerges as a stable and prosperous democracy. Impossible? Then ask yourself how it is that Indonesia, the most populous Islamic country in Southeast Asia (with a population more than four times that of Egypt) has emerged as a beacon of democracy. Egypt and Indonesia have many other parallels. Both suffered from corruption. Both experienced decades of military rule under strong military rulers — Suharto(1967–98) and [Hosni] Mubarak(1981–2011). Yet, Egypt remains a troubled country still under military rule while Indonesia has emerged as the leading democracy in the Islamic world. What explains the difference? The one-word answer is ASEAN.

The obvious retort to this is that the Middle East has long been a region of war while Southeast Asia has been a region of peace. Certainly, the Middle East has experienced many wars: the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War, the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. Yet, more bombs have been dropped in Southeast Asia than in any other region of the world since World War II. Southeast Asia has experienced larger and longer wars than the Middle East. The Vietnam War, which spilled over into Laos and Cambodia, lasted from the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 until the fall of Saigon in April 1975, when American diplomats and soldiers beat an ignominious retreat. This was followed by the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in December 1978, which in turn triggered a decade-long struggle between China and Vietnam. In simple numerical terms, the number of military casualties in Southeast Asia since World War II, from 1946 to 2008 (estimates range from 1.87 million to 7.35 million), has exceeded the military casualties in the Middle East during the same period (estimates range from 530,000 to 2.43 million). When then President Barack Obama visited Laos in September 2016, he reminded us that America had “dropped more than two million tons of bombs here in Laos — more than we dropped on Germany and Japan combined during all of World War II. It made Laos, per person, the most heavily bombed country in history. As one Laotian said, the "bombs fell like rain." Villages and entire valleys were obliterated. The ancient Plain of Jars was devastated. Countless civilians were killed.” This is precisely why it cannot be denied that ASEAN is a miracle. It has brought durable peace to a region that experienced great conflicts. As the conclusion of this book will stress, a Nobel Peace Prize for ASEAN is long overdue.

It is no secret that the West is deeply pessimistic about the prospects for the Islamic world. Deep pessimism and fear of the Islamic world seem almost hard-wired into the body politic of the Western world. Donald Trump exploited this to the hilt when he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”. Even though Trump was roundly condemned for this, he still won the presidential election. He had tapped into a deep lode of anxiety about Islam in the American psyche.

Those looking for hope in the Islamic world, and for a narrative that can counter such dark views, should look no farther than Southeast Asia. About 25,000 young people from all over the world, including the West, have joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Yet, should we focus on these 25,000 Muslims or on the 8,000-times-larger number of 205 million Muslims who live peacefully in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Islamic country? As the most successful democracy in the Islamic world, Indonesia reinforces Southeast Asia’s status as a haven of peace, in contrast to the troubled countries at the heart of the Arab world, including Libya and Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, which will remain in conflict for some time.

There are more Muslims in Southeast Asia, as a percentage, than any other region outside the Middle East. If the large Muslim population of Southeast Asia — almost as numerous as the entire population of the Arab world — can live in peace with their non-Muslim neighbors and also continue to progress economically, they provide hope that the world is not destined for a clash of civilizations. The influx of almost a million Syrian refugees into Europe in 2015 has made Europe acutely aware that its fate is closely linked to the Islamic world. Europe seems particularly troubled by the emergence of radical Islamism within its borders. The Paris attacks of November 13, 2015, were carried out mostly by young Muslims who were born and brought up in Europe, not in the Middle East.

Few of today’s European intellectuals see a way for Europe to work out a peaceful coexistence with Muslims within and just outside its borders. The impulse today in Europe is to build walls and put up border controls. Trump demonstrates that even within the relatively open society of America, there is this impulse to build walls and bar Muslims. The American and European intelligentsia need to make an intellectual pilgrimage to Southeast Asia. They need to immerse themselves in a region of hope and experience a world where different civilizations live in peace and progress together.

Europe has been the most successful continent for the past four centuries, especially in economic and social development. Similarly, the United States has emerged as the most successful society in human history. No other society can match America’s track record of economic productivity and cultural creativity (or its exceptional military power). Yet despite being the world’s most successful society, the American middle class is falling prey to a European-style pessimism. Suicide rates among white middle-class males have grown significantly. Fareed Zakaria has written about this: “The main causes of death are as striking as the fact itself: suicide, alcoholism, and overdoses of prescription and illegal drugs. ‘People seem to be killing themselves, slowly or quickly,’ [Angus] Deaton told me. These circumstances are usually caused by stress, depression, and despair …” Rising suicide rates represent the most extreme expression of growing pessimism.

The ongoing politics of pessimism in America and Europe is dangerous. There is no doubt that this pessimism is killing the prospect of sensible centrist leaders. The destruction of Jeb Bush in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries and the even more stunning defeat of Hillary Clinton in November 2016 demonstrated this clearly. So does pessimism mean that we cannot produce positive transformational leaders? Here, the story of ASEAN can bring some hope to our troubled times. The five brave men who came together to sign the founding ASEAN declaration on August 8, 1967, were a Buddhist Thai, a Christian Filipino, two Muslims, and a lapsed Hindu. They could not have come from more diverse cultural universes. If one had to put together a cast of characters to launch the second-most successful regional organization in the world, one would not have started with this cast of five characters from five countries.

Now imagine a world where Donald Trump (a Christian), Xi Jinping (a Confucian Communist), Vladimir Putin (an Orthodox Christian), Ayatollah Khamenei (a Muslim) and Narendra Modi (a Hindu) came together to sign a declaration for peaceful collaboration. Given the many political divisions among these five leaders, it seems clearly inconceivable. Yet the political divisions among the five founding fathers of ASEAN were equally great, if not greater.

If we remember the organization’s 1967 starting point, ASEAN’s achievements are nothing less than spectacular. If ASEAN can keep up its current momentum, there is no limit. The higher it soars, the brighter it will become as a beacon for humanity. 

Excerpted from The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace by Kishore Mahbubani and Jason Sng. Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.