On ASEAN, Civil Society Organisations and Power to the People

Speech by YAB Dato Menteri Besar Azmin Ali at the ASEAN People’s Forum (APF) 2015 on 24 April 2015 at Wisma MCA, Kuala Lumpur.


Congratulations on the 10th anniversary of the ASEAN Civil Society Conference and ASEAN People’s Forum since the first regional gathering of civil society in Malaysia.

Indeed, it is regrettable that the recommendations submitted to ASEAN member states since 2005 have not been translated into reality.

To all CSOs, let me say: stay the course even though the road ahead remains long, winding and bumpy. We must have the conviction of hope. It keeps us going in the worst of times even though there is no guarantee of success. Or, as Vaclav Havel puts it:

“Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Or as the Chinese philosopher Laozi (c 604 BC – c 531 BC) said: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

So, if you hadn’t started on this journey there might well have been no road ahead. I am convinced that your efforts and commitment to establish a people-centric ASEAN remain a cause worthy of continuous pursuit.

Indeed, any attempt at creating a peaceful and prosperous community cannot be realised when the people are not at the forefront of deliberations.

That is why I decided that the theme of my address today is “On ASEAN, Civil Society Organisations and Power to the People”.

Between “power to” and “power over”

When John Lennon wrote the song “Power to the People” in 1971 he had meant it just as a catchy tune for people to sing. But we know how significant a mere preposition can be sometimes.

In fact, between the preposition ‘to’ and the preposition ‘over’ lies a wide gap between “freedom” and “oppression”. Between “power to the people” and “power over the people” we are looking at CSOs like you all, on the one hand, and “the powers that be” on the other.

Talking about “powers that be”, we cannot escape from talking about the laws that they foist upon the people, such as the newly amended Sedition Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, that were very recently passed under very unceremonious circumstances.

John Lennon talks about:

“Power to the people…

Say you want a revolution…

Well you get on your feet

And out on the street!”

I gotta ask you comrades and brothers

How do you treat your own woman back home

She got to be herself

So she can free herself

Singing power to the people”

The key phrase here is “power to the people” while the reality is that we have more than enough laws that give the Executive “power over the people”.

The only thing that we are sure about these new laws is that the powers are wide ranging, far wider than before. They have also imposed a mandatory minimum three-year jail sentence upon conviction, taking away the discretionary powers of the courts in this regard.

This is indeed an “insult” to the judiciary and a double insult to all fair minded, peace loving people who cherish justice and freedom.

Just days preceding the passage of these laws, we witnessed a spate of arrests of leaders of the opposition and prominent leaders of CSOs. We reiterate that the arrest and prosecution of lawmakers and leaders of civil society organisations constitutes a serious threat to democracy and rule of law.

I take note of paragraph 4.2.3 of the CSO Statement on “Reclaiming The Asean Community For The People”. It calls for repealing laws restricting “freedom of expression”, “freedom of religion or belief” and urging “releasing those imprisoned or detained under such laws”.

These developments therefore violate the letter and spirit of the aspirations of the people.

Policy of non-interference

Let me now touch on the much touted ASEAN principle of non-interference.

The bogeyman of a common historical legacy drawn from the era of Western colonisation is often conveniently raised as the rationale for this hands-off approach.

The upshot is a culture of non-interference in member-nations’ affairs. The mantra is that in matters of domestic affairs of a sovereign state, members must remain neutral.

And on this altar of neutrality we watch with folded arms the slaughter of innocent women and children.

On this platform of non-interference, we turn a blind eye to the massacre of ethnic minorities or abandon them as state-less peoples.

And on this principle of respecting the sovereignty of member states, we engage in a conspiracy of silence on the myriad forms of human rights violations committed against the weak, the marginalised and the dispossessed peoples in ASEAN.

It is a long list of human rights violations but suffice it to name a few: the systematic expulsion of the Rohingya from Myanmar, the persecution of Laotian and Hmong dissidents, the dispossession of the Bangsamoro and Patani; and the list goes on.

For the record, we have not forgotten about Sombath Somphone and his disappearance. He remains Laos’ most respected civil society leader and community development worker whose work won him the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2005.

Indeed the word “disappearance” does not capture the real import of his case. The truth is he was criminally abducted by the powers that be even as the rest of the world joined in the chorus demanding investigation and accountability, the Lao government continues to maintain its innocence. So, is this the meaning of neutrality?

As Desmond Tutu said:

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

I believe the time is long past for us to break free from the facile projection of cohesiveness and move towards becoming a real agglomeration of states cemented by a commitment to universal values.

The periodical staging of cultural events is no doubt a good manifestation of inter-cultural appreciation but concerts, exhibitions, sporting events and other like festivities, without more, will not be able to move us closer in integration.

There are some quarters who consider that the current process of consultation concerning an ASEAN human rights mechanism is some kind of feather in the cap for ASEAN leaders.

Some go as far as saying that ASEAN is taking the lead in “asserting itself as the voice of a South-East Asian perspective on human rights” and this is “a counterweight to Western interpretations of allegedly universal human rights”.

There are still leaders who “believe in earnest” that democracy can destabilise and hinder economic development. In almost half of the member states, governments are not even elected by due democratic process and in almost all, constitutional rights continue to be violated.

Indeed because of all these concurrent and mutual acts of human rights violation, we can understand why no one member state is prepared to cast the first stone.

Asian Values and ASEAN Human Rights

In the late 80’s to the 90’s, the Asian values paradigm of state power over human rights reigned supreme. In order to attain economic progress, such rights as well as other fundamental liberties must be put on the back burner until the progress has been achieved.

This model prevailed and was celebrated along with the ‘East Asian Miracle’ mirage until most of the claims were debunked by the Asian financial melt-down of 1997.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen contended that the Asian values model that pits the need for recognition of diversity as opposed to universal human rights was essentially predicated on the authoritarian role of the state, based on flawed economic and cultural assumptions.

The Asian values discourse takes cover behind the anticolonial rhetoric and works not only as state propaganda but also as a mechanism of imposing power over the people in their clamour for freedom and democracy.

No doubt poverty is a major obstacle to human rights and its eradication must remain a top priority. But should this at the same time justify the powers that be to devise policies of job creation at the expense of worker protection?

And all across ASEAN, women, indigenous and other marginalised peoples continue to be discriminated in varying degrees and their contributions to society remain largely neglected apart from the occasional lip service being given.

South China Sea disputes

On the South China Sea disputes, this is one area where ASEAN is particularly falling short of expectations.

In taking a less than pro-active approach, there is substance in the view that ASEAN has allowed China to get the upper hand. This begs the question: Is it true that within ASEAN, the existence of proxy states has effectively emplaced China on the driving seat as far as the South China Sea disputes are concerned?

There is the view that ASEAN’s present meek approach will further draw the region under the shade or shadow, if you will, of the soon-to-be world’s largest economy.

These are issues worth pursuing in another forum.

Regional integration

As a regional entity, ASEAN has sometimes been compared to the European Union but we know this is an unrealistic claim, notwithstanding AFTA (the Asian Free Trade Agreement) and several other key efforts at integration.

Indeed, in terms of quantity, ASEAN has grown by leaps and bounds as the present strength of 10 members will testify. But as for integration, it remains highly unlikely that a participatory regional identity will be realised as the AEC 2015 draws close.

Nor will the ASEAN Political-Security Community Blueprint come to fruition by this year. However, the intent and purpose appears to be noble enough: a community that is rules-based with shared values and norms, and so on.

There is indeed improved internal security and a human rights mechanism are the usual bragging points but once we get past this veneer, the central question remains unanswered: Does ASEAN have a definitive political agenda?

Justice in all forms

Even that level of integration has come at the expense of the community. The issue of development justice which to my mind is a subset falling under the overarching concept of social justice opens up a Pandora’s Box of undesirable consequences.

The saying that development comes at a price may be true to a certain degree but if development justice is to prevail, then there are certain limits that cannot and should not be bargained away.

Top on the list would be land and water and these two essential resources are inextricably linked.

If I may just contextualize the issue at a micro level within the state of Selangor, our government has placed great emphasis on development for the people as a major driver of growth. In our negotiations on land and water with the Federal government, we have been accused of driving a hard bargain.

I suppose that is true but looking at the bigger picture I believe we would rather err on the side of caution than to compromise the essential resources of the people.

It is on this same concern for developmental justice that since taking office, we have taken the bull by the horns in the case of the Kinrara-Damansara Expressway or KIDEX project.

Factoring in direct concerns of the people, three conditions precedent were set for the project involving the traffic, social and environmental impacts. When these were not met by the deadline, we cancelled it.

Let us be clear about our position. We are not against progress and we know that highways and expressways are part and parcel of development. Our responsibility is to achieve a realistic balance.

Additionally, there was the matter of transparency of the concession agreement and this has a direct bearing on our policy of integrity and accountability.

On the subject of justice and fairness, I would like to pause a moment and comment on the issue of the recent incident involving a mob forcing a church to take down its cross.

I immediately condemned the act as unconstitutional and a violation of the fundamental rights of Christians to practice their religion unmolested. Civil society organisations including those with predominantly Muslim membership also joined in swiftly to denounce the incident.

I just want to say this again: The Pakatan-led government of the state of Selangor subscribes firmly to the principle of justice and moderation in all matters, what more in respect of communal, religious and ethnic relations.

Now, if we extend this to ASEAN at the macro level, the correlation becomes clear. Fundamental liberties, rights of minorities, development and social justice – these are concerns that cut across geographical boundaries and cultural or linguistic barriers. I am sure members of the audience today are better informed than I am on these issues, and more importantly are even more actively engaged in the pursuit of their specific goals.


Development, expansion and growth are essential aspects of the dynamics of civilizational progress. However, when corporate greed mixes with so-called sovereign state power, profiteering, rent-seeking and the politics of dispossession will exact a heavy toll on the people.

That is why the call by CSOs for a people-centred ASEAN is not just a sound bite but a reality check for the powers that be and those who hold the reins of economic might. In this regard, a development model for ASEAN must have built-in safeguards for social, environmental and economic protection.

Thank you.