In November 2015, the ten ASEAN nations adopted the Kuala Lumpur Declaration, which called for the establishment of the ASEAN Community by 2025. In this landmark document, the ten member states outlined the four goals of regional integration in post-2015 period: a politically cohesive, economically integrated, socially responsible and people-oriented, people-centered ASEAN Community.
The adoption of these goals in itself is a groundbreaking development, which demonstrated the regional bloc’s recognition of the urgent need for a common identity that applies to all sections of society within the Southeast Asian region. On the other side of the coin, however, is the acknowledgement of the limitations of ASEAN’s integration process that is mainly driven by the ten national governments.
Recognizing the need for the involvements of all stakeholders to make the ASEAN dream a reality, the regional bloc has roped in civil societies, city governments, and the young generation into their formal platforms of engagements. The ASEAN People’s Forum, ASEAN Young Leaders Forum (AYLF) and the Third ASEAN Mayors Forum (held in Taguig recently) are three examples that exemplify ASEAN’s efforts to engage with these three segments of society in the region. One notable missing link, however, is the common platform for all provincial and state governments in the region to make their presence felt within the overall ASEAN integration process.
To begin with, the importance of the provincial and state governments in ASEAN’s integration process is not new in the region. As early as 2005, the then ASEAN Secretary-General, Ong Keng Yong had highlighted the role of provincial governments in building an ASEAN Community that could link the local communities to the visionary agenda set by national leaders. Ong was quick to identify the pivotal roles of provincial governments in being the educators of local residents, “middlemen” between the grassroots bodies and national governments, policy implementation parties, policy feedback givers, and capacity-builders for local communities and officials. Such recognition from the former ASEAN Secretary-General, nonetheless, did not culminate in a single forum for provincial and state governments or leaders unlike those at the mayoral level.
Hence, an ASEAN platform for the provincial and state governments is long overdue. This is especially the case considering their capacities in accelerating the regional integration process. First, a platform for these sub-national governments is a one-stop center for collective action in terms of pushing for sub-regional integration. In reality, the current sub-regional cooperation initiatives such as The Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS), Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle (IMT-GT) and Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA), are all implemented autonomously by the provincial and state governments which possessed longstanding economic and cultural ties across their borders. The national governments, on the other hand, have taken the back seat and allow these sub-national governments to take the leading role in their search for funding and project execution in these three sub-regional areas of economic cooperation.
Like the ASEAN Mayors Forum, the regional bloc should have the foresight to allow their provincial and state leaders to establish a similar platform so long as it is geared toward accelerating the sub-regional integration process in the region. Not only can provincial and state leaders share their experiences (including best practices) and network with each other; they can even engage in important collective actions such as providing feedback to the national governments and ASEAN Secretariat as well as lobbying for external funding for economic development projects. More importantly, a platform also makes it possible for these sub-national governments to take a collective stand on existing policy impediments – such as conflict of interest or coordination issues — that they need different ASEAN’s national governments to address, in the course of their sub-regional economic cooperation.
The other role of the provincial and state governments is as the connectors to the local communities, including civil societies/grassroots organizations and the young generation. Often, these sub-national governments administer numerous towns and villages and some even have huge powers not just over local economic development, but also education and environmental protection matters. Just as the region’s city governments help to promote ASEAN awareness in the urban centers, their provincial and state counterparts can certainly do the same through organizing public activities and events in mainstream schools as well as traditional Islamic schools, be they madrasahs or sekolah pondok.
On the other hand, they can monitor any ASEAN programs or projects that are implemented in their areas of jurisdiction while at the same time, relaying the feedback (especially environmental grouses) of the grassroots organizations to the national governments. More importantly, the provincial and state governments are the ones who know best which capacities are required and truly beneficial to the local communities; and thus, they are the indisputable implementer of these capacity-building programs. As such, a platform for provincial/state level of cooperation will allow these sub-national governments to coordinate with each other in localizing the ASEAN awareness regionally while also, sharing the best practices in program monitoring, feedback-giving and choosing the right capacity-building programs for their niche interests. The expected result will be the acceleration of the regional integration process in the locality.
Be it sub-regional or regional fronts, the provincial and state governments are crucial players that should be given their rightful place in the ASEAN integration process. A decade of experience has taught us that an ASEAN endeavor driven by the elites of ten national governments is practically limited as far as fostering a common identity among the citizens of the region. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of ASEAN, it is timely for the regional bloc to consider giving the provincial or state governments a long-awaited platform for regional cooperation.
Karl C.L. Lee is a PhD Candidate at the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Monash University (Malaysia Campus) and a young advocate of ASEAN’s integration. Currently, his research focuses on China’s provincial diplomacy towards its neighboring region and in particular, the participation of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (GZAR) within the framework of China-ASEAN cooperation. He also works on ASEAN’s sub-national approach to regional integration.
Chia Siang Kim is Researcher in Anbound Malaysia, a subsidiary of Anbound China which is a leading private think tank based in Beijing. He specializes in Vietnamese history and religious issues apart from being a regular observer of ASEAN’s international affairs.