Author: Shankaran Nambiar
One of Malaysia’s leading banks, the CIMB Group, released a statement last February in which its chief executive, Dato’ Sri Nazir Razak, stated that ‘we have to see ASEAN as a region and produce ASEAN champions’.
These are important yet difficult things to do. Strengthening the ASEAN Secretariat means securing a stronger mandate for the secretary-general; it implies empowering the secretariat with more muscle and more authority, and not merely a bigger budget. This can only happen if member states agree not to defend their national interests at the expense of regional interests. It is concerns such as these that may have prompted Nazir to say that the ASEAN Secretariat needs ‘someone who can really shake things up’. This seems simple and obvious enough, but the enormity of the problem is quite another thing. The issues that have to be handled stretch across national boundaries and impinge upon national sensitivities. They also raise questions about national sovereignty.
Strengthening the ASEAN Secretariat requires that it adopt an institutional structure along the lines of the European Union, but a development of this magnitude needs the will of all ASEAN member countries. In this sense, it is misguided for Nazir to think that a single individual, no matter how dynamic he or she may be as secretary-general, can make such big things happen and take ASEAN to greater heights despite current trends in the opposite direction.
It is also unsure whether the post of secretary-general can be made attractive enough for corporate leaders, another of Nazir’s recommendations. ASEAN’s salary scales have not changed in the last decade and so they are not well positioned to entice corporate leaders, at least not from Malaysia. It is hard to imagine that the CEO of one of the region’s many corporations would take a massive salary cut to head the ASEAN Secretariat, august as that post may be. But anything is possible if the secretariat is strengthened, and that may be the first step toward achieving a more integrated ASEAN.
Shankaran Nambiar is Professor of Development Economics at Manipal International University, Malaysia.
This article is reproduced from the East Asia Forum.