This week Dr. Surin Pitsuwan conducted the last major briefing before the end of his term as ASEAN Secretary General next month. Dr. Surin repeated calls to strengthen the ASEAN Secretariat and his office, referring to a report that he presented to the ASEAN leadership last year called “ASEAN’s Challenge: Some Reflections and Recommendations on Strengthening the ASEAN Secretariat.” The subtitle is somewhat of a misnomer, as Dr. Surin’s proposal encompassed all of the ASEAN institutions, not just the ASEAN Secretariat.
Dr. Surin’s report reportedly proposes a comprehensive review of the roles of the ASEAN institutions, including the Secretary General, Deputy Secretaries General, Secretariat, Committee of Permanent Representatives, National Secretariats and Sectoral Ministerial Bodies, establishing a hierarchy of responsibilities for the entities, rules of procedure, as well as mechanisms for resolving disputes among the ASEAN institutions. The report suggests that roles and relationships are currently blurred, resulting in confusion as to which entity is responsible for which aspect of ASEAN’s governance. Although I understand that Dr. Surin’s report did not specifically mention the relationship between the ASEAN Chair and the other ASEAN institutions, that relationship also would appear to need rules of procedure and governance to avoid a repeat of the July 2012 impasse at the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting.
The report also appears to call for additional capacity for the Permanent Representatives to deal with economic and socio-cultural matters. This reflects a sentiment among many ASEAN observers that the Permanent Representatives have a focus on political-security matters, limiting their ability to take on other work and preventing a shift in responsibilities from the many intra-ASEAN meetings to the Permanent Representatives. For example, the Permanent Representatives could take on the role of SEOM in the EDSM and other procedures. Others have noted that the Permanent Representatives have concentrated on administrative and budgetary matters at the ASEAN Secretariat, perhaps an instance of work filling the void left by an absence of responsibility. However, I believe that if the Permanent Representatives are assigned economic matters, the ASEAN member states will respond by assigning more economically trained officials to their Jakarta missions. In other words, the ASEAN member states would respond to the needs of the situation. Also, giving the Permanent Representatives more work would help reduce their current focus on less critical internal administrative and budgetary matters. In any event, although there are Terms of Reference for the Committee of Permanent Representatives, they are rather loosely drafted and could use some clarification.
Dr. Surin’s report also reportedly calls for greater use of Article 20.2 of the ASEAN Charter, which allows the ASEAN Summit to decide how a decision can be made in the absence of consensus. By extension, this would allow the ASEAN Summit to use majority or supermajority voting to decide matters. Hence Dr. Surin’s report apparently proposes that voting should be used for routine and operational issues.
With regard to the ASEAN Secretariat, Dr. Surin’s report suggests that the legal division should be strengthened. For the entire ASEAN Secretariat, salaries and career development should be competitive (e.g., higher compensation), and the ASEAN Secretariat should have formalized regulations to govern staff and finances, Dr. Surin’s report apparently proposes. According to reports, Dr. Surin also proposed a “Chief-of-Staff” for the Office of the Secretary General, and that all Deputy Secretaries General should be hired on open recruitment and not based on the rotation system as currently happens for two of them. He also reportedly asked for better information technology, project management, a stronger system for managing donor funds and the possibility of the ASEAN Secretariat establishing commercial entities for training and consultancy services on ASEAN (which might appear controversial but some ASEAN member states such as Singapore have had such government-sponsored consultancy operations).
Although Dr. Surin’s report may appear to involve small stakes, institutional reform is the natural result of ASEAN’s efforts to formalize its operations, as started by the passage of the ASEAN Charter. Even daily operations, as noted previously in this blog, have been affected by the lack of legal and institutional clarity in the ASEAN institutions. Hence Dr. Surin’s report raises issues which, if not addressed properly, will continue to hamstring the ASEAN institutions. ASEAN leaders should thus seriously consider what Dr. Surin has raised in his report.
Beyond what Dr. Surin has proposed, there are other administrative reforms that could improve the operations of the ASEAN institutions, particularly for AEC matters.
- The ASEAN Deputy Secretary General for the AEC, or perhaps one or more of the ASEAN Secretariat division directors who are responsible for the AEC, should have a background in the private sector. Personal understanding of the issues arising from the private sector’s interactions with the AEC, particularly among the SME community, would help the ASEAN institutions better administer the AEC.
- A secured virtual network of officials from ASEAN institutions and ASEAN member states could be established on the Internet, allowing for electronic interchange of data and documentation. With that, the current practice of using unofficial (and unrecognized) Gmail and Yahoo! e-mail for intra-ASEAN communications would end.
- Also, the ASEAN member states could temporarily second up and coming officials to serve in the ASEAN Secretariat. The EU currently operates a similar program. Not only would this improve the talent pool for the ASEAN Secretariat, it could impart greater understanding of ASEAN within the ASEAN member states.
- Recordkeeping in the ASEAN Secretariat should be completely given over to an electronic system, with a larger, full time staff. For years the ASEAN Secretariat relied solely on a very small group of individuals who administered paper records. When the paper and personnel passed on, so did the institutional memory. This cannot be allowed to continue. The institutional memory is necessary not only to understand and interpret ASEAN agreements, but to avoid repeating past mistakes or even unnecessarily re-doing past decisions (I am aware of an ASEAN initiative for the automotive industry that actually repeated a virtually similar ASEAN initiative undertaken in the Nineties; this was discovered only after an accidental discovery of the original paperwork in the ASEAN archives).
- For that matter, the ASEAN Secretariat needs to maintain a database of its former officials so that they can be recalled to service when necessary. The European Commission does this, yet the ASEAN Secretariat is hard pressed to contact former staff who have only recently departed.
- The current practice of limiting the service of ASEAN Secretariat staff (except for clerical staff recruited from Indonesia) should also end. If ASEAN Secretariat staff wish to make a career with the ASEAN institutions, this should be encouraged, as the human resources are irreplaceable.
Most of the ideas in Dr. Surin’s report and elsewhere are frankly basic and would have been adopted by any ASEAN member state on its own or even fairly large sized corporations. The fact that they have not yet been adopted by the ASEAN institutions themselves is due largely to lack of funding and political will by the ASEAN member states to support them. However, the increasingly complex nature of running a 21st Century regional economic bloc dealing with issues of border and post-border market access needs 21st Century ASEAN institutions.
Finally, thank you, Dr. Surin, for your service to ASEAN. And good luck to your successor Le Luong Minh, and to the entire ASEAN Secretariat staff who labor in support of a noble and difficult cause.