ASEAN Needs Timor-Leste

Singapore has expressed doubts over whether Timor-Leste is ready to join ASEAN. Will it look elsewhere?

Should Timor-Leste be admitted as the eleventh member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)?

Member countries Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia, Philippines, and Burma have already expressed approval of Timor-Leste’s decade-long bid to join the regional grouping. Even Indonesia, which occupied the state for a quarter of a century, has agreed to support the membership request of its former colony.

But Singapore, one of the original members of ASEAN, opposes its entry, saying Timor-Leste is ‘not yet ready to absorb the many challenges and complexities of ASEAN membership.’ It’s a polite way of saying that it can’t join ASEAN yet because it’s a poor and fragile state that could affect the stability and security of the regional group.

Yet is this view accurate and fair? Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta thinks not, and has argued openly why his country is more than ready and deserving to join ASEAN.

He points, for example, to the UNDP Human Development Report 2011, which placed Timor-Leste in the medium human development category. In fact, it ranked higher than Cambodia, Laos and Burma in the overall measure of human development. Ramos-Horta added that his country has no foreign debt, and indeed has the highest surplus in the world, in percentage terms, of over 280 percent of GDP.

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Ramos-Horta claimed too that unlike its neighbours in the region, Timor-Leste doesn’t have ethnic or religious conflicts, organized crime and armed insurgency. It also has a multi-party democracy, with nine parties in the national parliament in stark contrast with the situation in many ASEAN countries, where there’s no genuine opposition.

Ramos-Horta also cites the report of the London-based Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which rated Timor-Leste as the best performer in Asia in terms of accountability and transparency in the management of petroleum resources.

The Timor-Leste president admits that his country is poor, but he notes that it was still able to hand out cash support to victims of natural disasters in Indonesia, Burma, China, the Madeira Islands (Portugal), Haiti, Brazil and Australia that totalled close to $5 million over the past three years. (This fact may well have been raised by Ramos-Horta as reassurance that his country won’t be begging for aid from its neighbours if it becomes an ASEAN member).

Since gaining independence in 2002, Timor-Leste has made enormous progress, despite its non-inclusion in ASEAN.

Today, it wants to join ASEAN and asks for a five to 10-year transition period to catch up to more advanced ASEAN members. But if we are to believe the statements made by Ramos-Horta, it seems it’s the ASEAN countries that in many ways need to catch up with the human development performance of Timor-Leste.

In fact, maybe it would be wise for Timor-Leste to rethink its ASEAN application and ask itself if membership of the group would be really beneficial to its own long-term interests. Does it really want to join a group that is becoming increasingly irrelevant and ineffective in resolving the many disputes involving its members? 

ASEAN should be the one aggressively pursuing membership and integration for Timor-Leste, because if the tiny state realizes it doesn’t need ASEAN to survive, it could always turn to its more powerful friends like China, New Zealand, and Australia.

Rejecting or further delaying the membership bid of Timor-Leste would be a dangerous mistake for ASEAN to make.