Strengthening the ASEAN Secretariat and all aspects of ASEAN institutions

By Edmund Sim

The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) has published a fascinating paper on the ASEAN Secretariat entitled “A Strong Secretariat, a Strong ASEAN? A Re-evaluation

Incorporating oral history and written reflections, this paper provides a socio-political analysis of the ASEAN Secretariat, positing that the ASEAN Secretariat actually had robust authority and influence during the pre-Charter era, only to have it eroded by a lack of resources and support to decline to its current state.

The ASEAN Secretariat headquarters in South Jakarta, Indonesia.
Photo by Gunawan Kartapranata / CC BY-SA 3.0

The paper asserts that the heyday of the ASEAN Secretariat began in 1992 when the Secretary General of the ASEAN Secretariat became the Secretary General of ASEAN. With that change in status came higher salaries and increased resources, which attracted talent from within the region.  

Just as importantly, the paper puts forth that the ASEAN Secretariat assumed a greater role over ASEAN matters through a combination of geniality and indirect influence, particularly when a weaker ASEAN member served as the ASEAN Chair (imagine an ASEAN-version of Sir Humphrey Appleby from “Yes, Minister”). 

However, according to the paper, the failure of the ASEAN Secretariat to keep up with market salary levels, an influx of less experienced officers from the newer, less developed ASEAN members, and personnel policies that discouraged staff retention all eroded the overall capability of the ASEAN Secretariat, as well as the ties between the ASEAN Secretariat’s staff and the ASEAN member states, resulting in a decline in its influence on ASEAN.   

The paper opines that the formalization of the authority of the ASEAN Secretariat and the ASEAN Secretary General coincided with, but did not cause, a decline in influence. Yet, according to the paper, the culture of geniality remained, albeit with lessened indirect influence. 

Thus, the paper concludes that the ASEAN Secretariat actually had strength and authority in the past.  Hence calls to strengthen the ASEAN Secretariat should be considered with this in mind, e.g., that a strengthened ASEAN Secretariat is actually a return to a norm rather than an unprecedented situation. Furthermore, without improving the operating culture of ASEAN, increasing the formal authority of the ASEAN institutions alone will not strengthen ASEAN.

I think this paper is a welcome addition to the very small collection of scholarly material focused on the ASEAN institutions themselves.  However, I would make some additional points.

First, the purported heyday of the ASEAN Secretariat in the 1990s and 2000s was a time where ASEAN was smaller and less formal.  This was the case, in particular, for political-security matters.  Since that time, ASEAN and its commitments have grown significantly, particularly in the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC).  

Under such circumstances, the ASEAN Secretariat would necessarily have to take on more formal roles (and has done so), as the depth and breadth of the AEC has developed.  Hence in its AEC role, at least, the ASEAN Secretariat cannot operate as it did 20-25 years ago (although a stronger ASEAN Secretariat probably could do so in political-security matters). 

Second, the resources, capability and culture of any international bureaucracy are always inter-related.  For example, there were institutional deficiencies in the early days of the EU, as salary and status did not keep up with those of national governments or the private sector.  The EU also has had to incorporate less experienced officers from newer member states.  Yet as the EU strengthened its institutions with funding and resources, they were able to attract better officials, creating a virtuous cycle whereby better officials strengthen the institutions.  

If the ASEAN leaders were to make the same commitment to a more professionalized ASEAN Secretariat with better funding and support, the Secretariat will attract qualified staff from all across ASEAN and create its own virtuous cycle.

In sum, the paper does shine a useful light on the unwritten history of the ASEAN Secretariat, showing that the interactions of a regional organization such as ASEAN do not only depend on formal rules, but also on the people involved: it is a living entity.

I hope that ASEAN’s leaders keep this in mind as they examine the challenges facing ASEAN, and the need to strengthen the ASEAN institutions.

Edmund Sim is an American international trade lawyer and partner in the trade boutique firm Appleton Luff. He also teaches the first course on the law and policy of the ASEAN Economic Community at National University of Singapore law school and has served as an adviser to the ASEAN Secretariat and various ASEAN government ministries. He publishes the ASEAN Economic Community Blog.