The day after the Europe-wide elections for a European Parliament on 25 May 2014, I joined a debate in Kuala Lumpur around the question of whether “ASEAN should be more like the EU”. The key issues seemed to be whether deeper integration was in the best interest of Europe, and regardless, why Southeast Asia should try to emulate the EU. The EU’s Ambassador to Malaysia, Luc Vandenbon, had invited me to join the event, co-hosted by Tan Sri Dato Michael Yeoh, chief executive of the influential Malaysian think tank Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute.
There were about 140 people in the audience, a sophisticated mix of local and western professionals. The debating teams, comprising two panels of three members each, had to argue, one in favour of and one against the motion. Before the debate, the audience was asked for their views: a show of hands revealed a solid majority against the motion. Keep that in mind for a moment.
So, should ASEAN be more like the EU? The question behind the question is obviously the one Henry Higgins loved to ask in My Fair Lady: “… men are so honest, so thoroughly square; eternally noble, historically fair; men are so friendly, good-natured and kind – a better companion you never will find … why can’t a woman be more like a man? “.
If the EU was such a great template for regional integration, shouldn’t we assume that ASEAN really has little choice but to follow? What, though, would motivate the ten ASEAN member countries to imitate Europe, the old continent of pessimism and economic gloom? Wasn’t Asia the region of optimism and economic growth, its member countries cheerfully assuming that the 21st century belonged to them?
We had great debaters: on the pro-side was a born communicator, in the person of Irish Ambassador Declan Kelly, and the well-read Dr Lili Yulyadi of the University of Malaya (the organisers had put me in the team arguing in favour of an EU model for ASEAN, according to Schuman and Adenauer). The brilliant team on the contra side was composed of Mrs Ruhanas Harun, Professor at the Malaysia National Defence University, Mr Bunn Nagara of the think tank ISIS, and former minister Tan Sri Dr Fong Chan Onn, chairman of media group Star Publications.
The arguments are probably well known to readers: different histories make it difficult to compare the trajectories of both the EU and ASEAN. The debate was more about ASEAN seeking inspiration, rather than rejecting integration outright, or copying the Brussels model. More interesting was the tone and pace of the debate – engaged, enthusiastic and full of robust statements and retorts. The audience was a more than a match for the teams. Sharp minds asking pertinent questions about failures in Europe and shortcomings in the ASEAN region – ASEAN clearly did matter to the local audience.
More than five decades of European integration have changed the face of the continent. The question is not only what the EU has achieved, but also what we would be missing today if the Union did not exist – not least, the single market, student exchanges, joint research, borderless travel and consumer protection, just to single out some great achievements. The EU emerged from the recent economic crisis with more Europe, not less. Whatever it took, we have now a banking union and a European Semester, a commitment to work more closely on fiscal stability. The increasingly international context confirms regional integration as an intelligent response to globalisation and its hitches.
After the debate, our moderator asked the audience again what they thought. Surprise: a majority was now in favour of more integration, EU-style. I would not call it a victory for the team arguing in favour of the motion. I would call it a victory for thoughtfulness, or even pragmatism.
Deeper integration is indeed the answer, for the EU and ASEAN alike, despite their different historic backgrounds and political contexts. But the feeble voter participation in the EU elections – like some poll results – indicates that a sizeable portion of Europeans are not aware – or simply do not care about – what is at stake.
Maybe we should turn around the question for EU citizens: why can’t the Europeans be more smart, like the audience in Kuala Lumpur? Like Professor Higgins, I have no answer.