Why ASEAN Continues To 'Make Haste Slowly'

Saleumxay Kommasith, Michael Yeoh, Daniel Russel, Rui Maria de Araújo, Albert Chua, and Kevin Rudd discuss the future of ASEAN. (1 hr. 28 min.)

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has frequently faced criticism for its consensus-driven decision-making approach — one that critics say hinders progress and encourages avoiding, rather than confronting, contentious issues like human rights and conflict in the South China Sea.

“As an American, I'm all about getting things done,” said Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel on Friday. “I don't think you'll find mugs in the ASEAN headquarters gift shop that say ‘get things done.’ That's not really the ASEAN way.”

Russel was speaking at Asia Society in New York with several high-level officials from countries including Indonesia, Laos, Singapore, and Timor-Leste about the future of the 10-country organization on the eve of its 50th anniversary in 2017. Russel said that although he and many other government leaders around the world are often frustrated by the glacial pace of progress within ASEAN, he credits the organization for improving ties between the member countries and the United States and promoting American interests. He also noted that it has helped to maintain peace amid an “extremely combustible mix” of religious and ethnic struggles, historical grudges, territorial disputes, uneven levels of development, and lasting colonial borders that made little consideration of indigenous populations.

“Why isn't Southeast Asia more like the Balkans or more like the Middle East?” he said. “Clearly ASEAN and the five pretty amazing decades are a huge part of the answer.”

Albert Chua, second permanent secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore, joked that the motto on the mugs at ASEAN headquarters should be “Make haste slowly,” since there’s a strong emphasis on maintaining the comfort of all 10 member states.

“ASEAN is not the EU (European Union) — a duck is not a chicken,” he said. “Although the temptation is always there [to hasten the pace of decision-making], what would happen if you introduced a voting system in ASEAN to make key decisions? I don't think it would be good for the unity of the organization. There are inherent limitations [in the consensus model], but I think it's also what makes the organization flexible and resilient.”

In the above video, see the complete panel with Russel, Chua, Timor-Leste Prime Minister Rui Maria de Araújo, and Asia Society Policy Institute President Kevin Rudd, with opening remarks from Minister of Foreign Affairs for Laos Saleumxay Kommasith and CEO of the Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute Michael Yeoh. In the below video, watch remarks from Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla

Vice President of Indonesia Jusuf Kalla gives remarks on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), followed by a discussion with Asia Society Policy Institute President Kevin Rudd. (55 min., 07 sec.)

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.