The Founding of ASEAN
On 8 August 1967, five leaders – the Foreign Ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – sat down together in the main hall of the Department of Foreign Affairs building in Bangkok, Thailand and signed a document. By virtue of that document, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was born. The five Foreign Ministers who signed it – Adam Malik of Indonesia, Narciso R. Ramos of the Philippines, Tun Abdul Razak of Malaysia, S. Rajaratnam of Singapore, and Thanat Khoman of Thailand – would subsequently be hailed as the Founding Fathers of probably the most successful inter-governmental organization in the developing world today. And the document that they signed would be known as the ASEAN Declaration.
It was a short, simply-worded document containing just five articles. It declared the establishment of an Association for Regional Cooperation among the Countries of Southeast Asia to be known as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and spelled out the aims and purposes of that Association. These aims and purposes were about cooperation in the economic, social, cultural, technical, educational and other fields, and in the promotion of regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter. It stipulated that the Association would be open for participation by all States in the Southeast Asian region subscribing to its aims, principles and purposes. It proclaimed ASEAN as representing “the collective will of the nations of Southeast Asia to bind themselves together in friendship and cooperation and, through joint efforts and sacrifices, secure for their peoples and for posterity the blessings of peace, freedom and prosperity.”
It was while Thailand was brokering reconciliation among Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia over certain disputes that it dawned on the four countries that the moment for regional cooperation had come or the future of the region would remain uncertain. Recalls one of the two surviving protagonists of that historic process, Thanat Khoman of Thailand: “At the banquet marking the reconciliation between the three disputants, I broached the idea of forming another organization for regional cooperation with Adam Malik. Malik agreed without hesitation but asked for time to talk with his government and also to normalize relations with Malaysia now that the confrontation was over. Meanwhile, the Thai Foreign Office prepared a draft charter of the new institution. Within a few months, everything was ready. I therefore invited the two former members of the Association for Southeast Asia (ASA), Malaysia and the Philippines, and Indonesia, a key member, to a meeting in Bangkok. In addition, Singapore sent S. Rajaratnam, then Foreign Minister, to see me about joining the new set-up. Although the new organization was planned to comprise only the ASA members plus Indonesia, Singapore’s request was favorably considered.”
And so in early August 1967, the five Foreign Ministers spent four days in the relative isolation of a beach resort in Bang Saen, a coastal town less than a hundred kilometers southeast of Bangkok. There they negotiated over that document in a decidedly informal manner which they would later delight in describing as “sports-shirt diplomacy.” Yet it was by no means an easy process: each man brought into the deliberations a historical and political perspective that had no resemblance to that of any of the others. But with goodwill and good humor, as often as they huddled at the negotiating table, they finessed their way through their differences as they lined up their shots on the golf course and traded wisecracks on one another’s game, a style of deliberation which would eventually become the ASEAN ministerial tradition.
Now, with the rigors of negotiations and the informalities of Bang Saen behind them, with their signatures neatly attached to the ASEAN Declaration, also known as the Bangkok Declaration, it was time for some formalities. The first to speak was the Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Narciso Ramos, a one-time journalist and long-time legislator who had given up a chance to be Speaker of the Philippine Congress to serve as one of his country’s first diplomats. He was then 66 years old and his only son, the future President Fidel V. Ramos, was serving with the Philippine Civic Action Group in embattled Vietnam. He recalled the tediousness of the negotiations that preceded the signing of the Declaration that “truly taxed the goodwill, the imagination, the patience and understanding of the five participating Ministers.” That ASEAN was established at all in spite of these difficulties, he said, meant that its foundations had been solidly laid. And he impressed it on the audience of diplomats, officials and media people who had witnessed the signing ceremony that a great sense of urgency had prompted the Ministers to go through all that trouble. He spoke darkly of the forces that were arrayed against the survival of the countries of Southeast Asia in those uncertain and critical times.
“The fragmented economies of Southeast Asia,” he said, “(with) each country pursuing its own limited objectives and dissipating its meager resources in the overlapping or even conflicting endeavors of sister states carry the seeds of weakness in their incapacity for growth and their self-perpetuating dependence on the advanced, industrial nations. ASEAN, therefore, could marshal the still untapped potentials of this rich region through more substantial united action.”
When it was his turn to speak, Adam Malik, Presidium Minister for Political Affairs and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Indonesia, recalled that about a year before, in Bangkok, at the conclusion of the peace talks between Indonesia and Malaysia, he had explored the idea of an organization such as ASEAN with his Malaysian and Thai counterparts. One of the “angry young men” in his country’s struggle for independence two decades earlier, Adam Malik was then 50 years old and one of a Presidium of five led by then General Soeharto that was steering Indonesia from the verge of economic and political chaos. He was the Presidium’s point man in Indonesia’s efforts to mend fences with its neighbors in the wake of an unfortunate policy of confrontation. During the past year, he said, the Ministers had all worked together toward the realization of the ASEAN idea, “making haste slowly, in order to build a new association for regional cooperation.”
Adam Malik went on to describe Indonesia’s vision of a Southeast Asia developing into “a region which can stand on its own feet, strong enough to defend itself against any negative influence from outside the region.” Such a vision, he stressed, was not wishful thinking, if the countries of the region effectively cooperated with each other, considering their combined natural resources and manpower. He referred to differences of outlook among the member countries, but those differences, he said, would be overcome through a maximum of goodwill and understanding, faith and realism. Hard work, patience and perseverance, he added, would also be necessary.
The countries of Southeast Asia should also be willing to take responsibility for whatever happens to them, according to Tun Abdul Razak, the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, who spoke next. In his speech, he conjured a vision of an ASEAN that would include all the countries of Southeast Asia. Tun Abdul Razak was then concurrently his country’s Minister of Defence and Minister of National Development. It was a time when national survival was the overriding thrust of Malaysia’s relations with other nations and so as Minister of Defence, he was in charge of his country’s foreign affairs. He stressed that the countries of the region should recognize that unless they assumed their common responsibility to shape their own destiny and to prevent external intervention and interference, Southeast Asia would remain fraught with danger and tension. And unless they took decisive and collective action to prevent the eruption of intra-regional conflicts, the nations of Southeast Asia would remain susceptible to manipulation, one against another.
“We the nations and peoples of Southeast Asia,” Tun Abdul Razak said, “must get together and form by ourselves a new perspective and a new framework for our region. It is important that individually and jointly we should create a deep awareness that we cannot survive for long as independent but isolated peoples unless we also think and act together and unless we prove by deeds that we belong to a family of Southeast Asian nations bound together by ties of friendship and goodwill and imbued with our own ideals and aspirations and determined to shape our own destiny”. He added that, “with the establishment of ASEAN, we have taken a firm and a bold step on that road”.
For his part, S. Rajaratnam, a former Minister of Culture of multi-cultural Singapore who, at that time, served as its first Foreign Minister, noted that two decades of nationalist fervor had not fulfilled the expectations of the people of Southeast Asia for better living standards. If ASEAN would succeed, he said, then its members would have to marry national thinking with regional thinking.
“We must now think at two levels,” Rajaratnam said. “We must think not only of our national interests but posit them against regional interests: that is a new way of thinking about our problems. And these are two different things and sometimes they can conflict. Secondly, we must also accept the fact, if we are really serious about it, that regional existence means painful adjustments to those practices and thinking in our respective countries. We must make these painful and difficult adjustments. If we are not going to do that, then regionalism remains a utopia.”
S. Rajaratnam expressed the fear, however, that ASEAN would be misunderstood. “We are not against anything”, he said, “not against anybody”. And here he used a term that would have an ominous ring even today: balkanization. In Southeast Asia, as in Europe and any part of the world, he said, outside powers had a vested interest in the balkanization of the region. “We want to ensure,” he said, “a stable Southeast Asia, not a balkanized Southeast Asia. And those countries who are interested, genuinely interested, in the stability of Southeast Asia, the prosperity of Southeast Asia, and better economic and social conditions, will welcome small countries getting together to pool their collective resources and their collective wisdom to contribute to the peace of the world.”
The goal of ASEAN, then, is to create, not to destroy. This, the Foreign Minister of Thailand, Thanat Khoman, stressed when it was his turn to speak. At a time when the Vietnam conflict was raging and American forces seemed forever entrenched in Indochina, he had foreseen their eventual withdrawal from the area and had accordingly applied himself to adjusting Thailand’s foreign policy to a reality that would only become apparent more than half a decade later. He must have had that in mind when, on that occasion, he said that the countries of Southeast Asia had no choice but to adjust to the exigencies of the time, to move toward closer cooperation and even integration. Elaborating on ASEAN objectives, he spoke of “building a new society that will be responsive to the needs of our time and efficiently equipped to bring about, for the enjoyment and the material as well as spiritual advancement of our peoples, conditions of stability and progress. Particularly what millions of men and women in our part of the world want is to erase the old and obsolete concept of domination and subjection of the past and replace it with the new spirit of give and take, of equality and partnership. More than anything else, they want to be master of their own house and to enjoy the inherent right to decide their own destiny …”
While the nations of Southeast Asia prevent attempts to deprive them of their freedom and sovereignty, he said, they must first free themselves from the material impediments of ignorance, disease and hunger. Each of these nations cannot accomplish that alone, but by joining together and cooperating with those who have the same aspirations, these objectives become easier to attain. Then Thanat Khoman concluded: “What we have decided today is only a small beginning of what we hope will be a long and continuous sequence of accomplishments of which we ourselves, those who will join us later and the generations to come, can be proud. Let it be for Southeast Asia, a potentially rich region, rich in history, in spiritual as well as material resources and indeed for the whole ancient continent of Asia, the light of happiness and well-being that will shine over the uncounted millions of our struggling peoples.”
The Foreign Minister of Thailand closed the inaugural session of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations by presenting each of his colleagues with a memento. Inscribed on the memento presented to the Foreign Minister of Indonesia, was the citation, “In recognition of services rendered by His Excellency Adam Malik to the ASEAN organization, the name of which was suggested by him.”
And that was how ASEAN was conceived, given a name, and born. It had been barely 14 months since Thanat Khoman brought up the ASEAN idea in his conversations with his Malaysian and Indonesian colleagues. In about three more weeks, Indonesia would fully restore diplomatic relations with Malaysia, and soon after that with Singapore. That was by no means the end to intra-ASEAN disputes, for soon the Philippines and Malaysia would have a falling out on the issue of sovereignty over Sabah. Many disputes between ASEAN countries persist to this day. But all Member Countries are deeply committed to resolving their differences through peaceful means and in the spirit of mutual accommodation. Every dispute would have its proper season but it would not be allowed to get in the way of the task at hand. And at that time, the essential task was to lay the framework of regional dialogue and cooperation.
The two-page Bangkok Declaration not only contains the rationale for the establishment of ASEAN and its specific objectives. It represents the organization’s modus operandi of building on small steps, voluntary, and informal arrangements towards more binding and institutionalized agreements. All the founding member states and the newer members have stood fast to the spirit of the Bangkok Declaration. Over the years, ASEAN has progressively entered into several formal and legally-binding instruments, such as the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia and the 1995 Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone.
Against the backdrop of conflict in the then Indochina, the Founding Fathers had the foresight of building a community of and for all Southeast Asian states. Thus the Bangkok Declaration promulgated that “the Association is open for participation to all States in the Southeast Asian region subscribing to the aforementioned aims, principles and purposes.” ASEAN’s inclusive outlook has paved the way for community-building not only in Southeast Asia, but also in the broader Asia Pacific region where several other inter-governmental organizations now co-exist.
The original ASEAN logo presented five brown sheaves of rice stalks, one for each founding member. Beneath the sheaves is the legend “ASEAN” in blue. These are set on a field of yellow encircled by a blue border. Brown stands for strength and stability, yellow for prosperity and blue for the spirit of cordiality in which ASEAN affairs are conducted. When ASEAN celebrated its 30th Anniversary in 1997, the sheaves on the logo had increased to ten – representing all ten countries of Southeast Asia and reflecting the colors of the flags of all of them. In a very real sense, ASEAN and Southeast Asia would then be one and the same, just as the Founding Fathers had envisioned.
This article is based on the first chapter of ASEAN at 30, a publication of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in commemoration of its 30th Anniversary on 8 August 1997, written by Jamil Maidan Flores and Jun Abad.
Further readings in ASEAN History: