Southeast Asia, home to more than 600 million people, is one of the most economically and politically diverse regions in the world. It includes some of the richest, fastest-growing economies, as well as some of the planet’s poorest people.

Almost every form of government is represented – monarchy, constitutional monarchy, republic, one-party autocracy, military government, socialist state and multi-party democracy – and many countries in the region are currently undergoing significant political and economic transitions.

The region has already achieved an impressive degree of international political and economic significance. KPMG reports that the combined ASEAN GDP currently stands at “US$2.3 trillion leaving three out of the four BRIC countries, namely Brazil, Russia and India, behind in size.” By 2050, ASEAN is predicted to become the fourth largest economy in the world.

There is also a great range in economic development in ASEAN where the annual GDP per capita spans from USD835.00 to USD51,162.00 - a difference of 61 times! As for culture, I think that it is sufficient to mention that we have culture with history dating back thousands of years and contrasting with the most modern of cities built which have mushroomed over the last few decades.

Whilst many may believe that homogeneity is the secret to success, I believe that ASEAN’s past journey and future potential will emerge from harnessing the diversity of its people. Not just tolerating one another or our differences but celebrating and enjoying each other – our differences and also our commonalities and ultimately our humanity.

Comprehensive and Balanced Progress

Over a decade ago, ASEAN articulated a set of goals – the ASEAN Vision 2020 – for even deeper, more comprehensive regional integration. Apart from the vision of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) which has to come into force in 2015, ASEAN also aims to build cooperation in the social, cultural, security, technical and educational fields to realize regional peace, stability and prosperity. We all want a better future for ourselves and for our children.

Today, all the ten member states – despite having different degrees of political and democratic openness – have reached a stage of maturity for more engagement with members of the civil society. It is recognized that there is still room for improvement to give more democratic space for such participation in nation building, but we must also appreciate that openness comes with added responsibility among the stakeholders including civil society organizations (CSOs) and the required institutional capacity. This must be established to deal with the complexities of the issues and a more dynamic environment.

Thus, the ASEAN region is poised to enter a new era of regional cooperation that is more inclusive, people-oriented and more importantly, implementing the principles of human rights that are expounded in the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration signed by the Heads of State on 18 November, 2012.

The commitment of ASEAN in the promotion and protection of human rights is reaffirmed in the establishment of the role of the ASEAN Inter-Government Commission on Human Rights or AICHR as the overarching regional institution responsible for the task.

Also, all ASEAN Member States, as members of the United Nations, have pledged themselves to achieve the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Charter of the United Nations and other multi-lateral instruments.

However, it is important to recognize that while the basic fundamental rights are accepted, the realization of each type of human right must be made in the context of the nature and characteristic of each society. We do not have a uniform society and some values of a society which may be acceptable to its people may not be accepted to another society. For example, the space for the freedom of speech will be worked out differently by each society. and their respective boundaries and obligations may be different.

While we recognize the advent of globalization and the new pervasiveness of the social media which has given every person the means to distribute views and opinions widely, such rights must be made responsibly. Governments all over the world have condemned the values, beliefs and doctrine of violence promoted by ISIS. The challenge for government is, how does it, in upholding the freedom of expression, curb the propagation of hate and violence?

I believe that it is important that space be given for discourse in a given society even when it means criticizing the government in power or the views held by the majority of any community.

Promoting Moderation and not Extremism

The future of harmony and peace in ASEAN can only be achieved through moderation. By moderation, I mean that which is in direct contrast with extremism. Extremism is synonymous with fanaticism, radicalism, zealotry, fundamentalism, dogmatism, bigotry, and militancy. The essence of these extreme views and ideology is that, “I know it all, I know what is right, and you are different and you don’t know anything”. These kinds of beliefs vilify and denigrate the humanity of others and draws deep lines of separation between “who we are” and “those other people”.

Those who are considered “part of us” are treated with preferential status whilst “those other people” are considered lesser persons, with lesser rights and even to the point where their lives can be taken from them arbitrarily.

The discussion of moderation is not a discussion in philosophy or in the esoteric, but rather of our success or failure to create a culture of moderation which has already resulted in religious and racial conflicts flaring up. These conflicts have a high cost. It can be measured in lives lost, in the untold suffering of personal injuries and trauma, and of displaced persons both within and across national borders.

With ASEAN having a rough composition of Muslims and Buddhists representing 80% of its population’s faith, moderation is a social imperative and a matter in which failure to achieve that right balance can be catastrophic.

So moderation in faith and belief is not a compromise of faith, but the application of faith in the celebration of diversity and justice in accordance to the rule of law; policies which are based on compassion and equality for all.

To put it another way, whilst the right to equality is a human right, whilst the right to be free from slavery is a human right, while the right to freedom of religion and belief is a human right, there is no right not to have one’s feelings offended. If you live long enough, you will have your feelings hurt and your views challenged. No one can complain of this and say that their human rights are being challenged. Unfortunately, many extremists complain of this.

Moderation in its true sense provides the platform for all believers to be firmly convicted of the tenants of their faith, live full lives and at the same time live at peace and harmony with others who may believe differently. Those who promote their faiths differently from this fundamental principle of moderation are actually extremists, whether they be Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, animist or even atheists.

I have observed that these extremists live not only cocooned within their own perspective, but – more dangerously – they form and nurture it out of their own fears and insecurities. The truth here is that they lack genuine confidence of their own beliefs and identity. They seem to think that they and their beliefs are always under threat. They are filled with paranoia and the only way to alleviate their insecurity is to seek control of others. This is unhealthy, shortsighted and insular.

Ultimately, to these extremists – human rights which champions all people, strong and weak, rich and poor, rural and urban, those who believe in an Almighty God and those who do not – they reject these rights because they reject everyone else except their narrow viewpoint. Worse still, they work very hard to force people using all kinds of coercion to make others conform to their views and ideologies.

Balancing between security and civil liberty

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said, "We will not enjoy security without development, we will not enjoy development without security, and we will not enjoy either without respect for human rights." This is the true nature of the balance between security and civil liberty.

This paradigm considers security, development and human rights as unities and values all three with non-exclusive importance. In other words, it is not a zero sum game where we have one without the other or that there are trade-offs between these three goals.

If we have unbridled development, where will be the sustainability and the enjoyment if we do not have basic human rights like the enjoyment of fresh and clear air and water? If we were to have a police state where security is prioritized at the expense of freedoms of expression and where the dominant culture suppresses the minority, where would the benefit be for all peoples of that nation?

In a similar way, if we were to have an extreme notion of human rights where development is stunted and security is exchanged for anarchy, then that would make a mockery of human rights!

Human rights is not a zero-sum game but the ultimate realization of the worth and value of people. Human security is a human right and so is the right to development. Yet with the administration of government, the realization of human rights in the context of national and regional diversity at times pose a real conundrum for governments.

Whilst it is recognized that civil and political rights together with the freedom of expression are important for the development of true civic-mindedness, governments may restrict such freedoms when these rights pose a real risk to public order and harmony. However, the restrictions that government impose must be reasonable, proportional and time bound. They cannot be arbitrary! They cannot be indefinite!

We, in ASEAN must understand, that one of the unspoken truths in the fundamental principles of not only the AHRD but also the UDHR is the recognition of the dignity, liberty, equality and brotherhood. These basic principles of dignity, liberty, equality and brotherhood inherently include the responsibility to respect the right of others. So, whilst we seek the respect of human rights for ourselves, we must also recognize the rights inherent in others – both those of the majority and dominant or the minority and non-dominant. This is the key human or individual balance that needs to be kept in mind.

I believe that this responsibility is often missing in the consideration of many who promote human rights. This responsibility needs to be communicated to all groups in order to avoid the fear that human rights is the proponent of lawlessness, of anarchy and of unbridled emotions and passions.

Yet this responsibility to respect the human rights of others, whilst a moral duty of every individual, is one that cannot be used by the state as an excuse to suppress freedoms. It is not a shield to hide behind to maintain its power.

The duty of the state to promote and protect human rights is fundamental. States cannot absolve themselves of their duty to respect human rights by saying that the rights of the majority need to be respected when this is only a thin veil to promote racism, subjugation, apartheid, slavery, genocide, or even extractive forms of industry. We must be ever vigilant against this form of argument where history is littered with failed states who have adopted them. Yes, they work for a while to prop up ailing governments and bankrupt philosophies. But at the end, they have all failed.

Migration and Economic Development

One of the main thrusts of ASEAN is to bring about sustainable economic growth in the region. However, while one would aspire to a more collective growth path, due to differences in comparative economic advantages among the Member States, some will grow faster than others. This disparity among the members will create different levels of employment opportunities, and as ASEAN moves towards more integration, it will be a great challenge to deal with the mobility of labor.

The member state that achieves higher and more robust economic growth is likely to be a magnet for migrant workers coming from the poorer States. Such mobility has to be managed and controlled in a collaborative approach among the governments to avoid abuses coming from human trafficking and other forms of exploitation.

Any single nation has its own domestic limitations to absorb migrant workers without running the risk of creating social disorder. Therefore, in the economic strategy of ASEAN there must be an intentional policy to have a “prosper-thy-neighbor” imperative so as to spread economic growth in terms of employment opportunities to other lesser developed States. For example, encouragement could made to relocate labor-intensive industries to the less-developed source country of migration.

Good Governance and Integrity

Finally, there is ample evidence to show that many injustices are created when there is poor governance and a lack of integrity in government. Corruption opposes the bureaucratic values of equity, efficiency, transparency, and honesty. Thus it weakens the ethical fabric of the civil service and prevents the emergence of well-performing government capable of developing and implementing public policies that promote social welfare.

Especially, when political institutions becomes extractive, then many basic rights to a decent living will be denied to the people especially the poor. Many abuses in human rights may be rooted in corruption and a lack of ethical leadership. It is important for ASEAN to support the formation of an ASEAN community that values integrity as one of its main pillars for the way businesses are conducted, the resources being managed and the administration being carried out. The fruit of prosperity must be distributed equitably among the citizens so that there does not exist a wide disparity in income.


I have read and thank the ACSC/APF organizing committee for sharing with me your civil society statement. I note the overwhelming complexity of the issues raised in that 7 page document. These issues cannot and will not be achieved by ASEAN governments working alone. We will have to work together with you!

In this vein, it is note-worthy to quote the words of the Honourable Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dato' Sri Mohd Najib bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak which were delivered at the ASEAN Heads of State and Civil Society inter-face in Jakarta, Indonesia in 2012, where he said, “The era of ‘government-knows-best’ is over”, and “civil society is the implementing partner of government” is most apt.

ASEAN’s success will be one that is forged in our diversity. We will have to work together.

Thank you.

Wisma MCA, Jalan Ampang, Kuala Lumpur