ASEAN should not be smug over the Brexit debate on the future of the EU

By Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid

BRITAIN IS IN the throes of an intense national debate on whether or not to remain in the European Union (EU), the decision on which will be made in a referendum on 23 June. 

Dr Munir Majid. Photo:
The issues involved and the conduct of the debate have a relevance to ASEAN, even if we may seem distant from them.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has been able to receive an undertaking from the EU that the “ever closer union” thrust would not apply to Britain, and that the extensive UK welfare benefits would not be enjoyed by freely-moving EU immigrants, including a four-year moratorium before such immigrants in work could even enjoy supportive family tax benefits.

Even so the Eurosceptics, primarily in his own Conservative Party, are not satisfied, and their number has been boosted by outgoing London Mayor Boris Johnson – largely seen as a credible challenger to the leadership when Cameron steps down – joining their ranks. 

Market analysts now give a 40% chance of Britain getting out of the EU and the pound is taking a bit of a battering because of that prospect.

There might be some self-satisfaction among ASEAN leaders and officials that the “ASEAN Way” does not envisage an ever-closer union, let alone a rush towards it. Thus ASEAN, it would seem, will be spared the kind of member-state stress that Britain feels and the budgetary burden it does not want to continue to bear.

However, it would not be advisable for ASEAN to be too sanguine, for at least two reasons.

Firstly, it could equally happen that too slow a rate of progress towards greater integration would frustrate some member states which might seek economic and political solace through closer association elsewhere, or just pay lip-service to the ASEAN community while building a series of strong bilateral or extra-regional relationships.

ASEAN, in other words, becomes just a fallback, useful but not critical, its centrality among even just member states suspect. Some say this is indeed ASEAN. So there must be meaningful progress to make ASEAN meaningful.

Moving sideways is not an option. It would not be particularly wise to be too self-satisfied against the woes of those who seek to go forward.

Secondly, even in the slow-paced ASEAN way there are laggards who think it is too fast and are looking for any harm to their economy they could attribute to ASEAN integration. At the same time, some of them would despair over promised benefits not materialising.

On the former score, let us not forget large ASEAN economies like Indonesia have this feeling that more advanced members are predators of their large and growing markets. While they see opportunities for some of their larger companies they do not see them as compensation enough for the market penetration they will suffer.

If their own smaller companies experience serious difficulties and unemployment rises, ASEAN should be prepared for the kind of stress in the EU today.

This is why it is so important these small companies, the MSMEs which provide the bulk of employment for the working population, must be provided with the means to compete – finance, technology and knowledge.

Otherwise there will be a strategic threat to ASEAN integration and its potential reversal, if not disintegration.

On the second score, the less developed ASEAN economies generally (CLMV - Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, although Vietnam is increasingly forging ahead and Indonesia wants to be treated less developed but does not want to be so identified), want to see the development gap narrowed.

This is one of the four pillars of the ASEAN Economic Community, but if they feel left behind rather than driven forward through ASEAN they will not see the point of the association.

Already, less developed member countries like Myanmar talk about developmental assistance, like a contribution of 0.7% of GDP by the developed members who surely are not going to buy into this.

There are enough issues therefore to be addressed and anticipated within ASEAN than to be smug over the travails of Brexit and the future of the EU.

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Civilised conduct & political wisdom

FOR MALAYSIA, THERE is much to be learned from the civilised conduct of some very sharp exchanges in the Brexit debate, from the substantive content of the debate even if passionate, and from reliance on legalities without giving rise to acrimony or threat.

Certainly religion and race do not come into it although there are innuendos about Polish workers, the French and so on. These are British pastimes and the Anglais get as good as they give. Absolutely there is no threat of outbreak of racial clashes, or delirious calls to send the Europeans back, including those descendant from French Huguenots or even Polish Second World War refugees.

There have been attacks on Boris Johnson’s motives in supporting the “Get Out” side, but these were more political and even witty. Obviously his ambition to be Prime Minister came under scrutiny – what an opportunistic person, it is said.

However there was a concession his “move” (as his father unfortunately put it) might have been based on principles, even if of the Groucho Marx kind: “These are my principles. If you do not like them.....I have others.”

Cameron was not spared the whiplash. He was accused of exaggerating the concessions the Europeans made to Britain and, worse, of being a turncoat on membership of the EU, having ridden on the support of Eurosceptics to become leader of the Conservatives in the first place.

Members of his Cabinet supporting the stay-in-EU side were also accused of inconsistency and of being self-serving. There were ministers who wanted Britain to get out but, while there were comments they would have hell to pay if the referendum sustained Britain’s membership of the EU, there were no calls for them to be immediately kicked out of government, or dragged through the streets.

The debate was focused on the substance of the issue at hand.

Certainly two British Asian ministers on opposite ends of the debate received no racial taunts, as could easily have been the case with the one against staying in the EU because, she argued, of the burden European immigrants impose on Britain.

Just imagine what the exchanges would have been like among politicians in Malaysia. We cannot continue to use the excuse that Britain is a mature democracy and can afford to have political business conducted that way. We are not even talking about democracy. We are talking about civility. We are talking about not stooping down ever so low and so quickly to have a go at someone because of race, or some contrived religious argument, or so many personal and petty unrelated matters. Everything but the subject matter, which requires research and thought.

And if we start talking about convictions, we have to confess most of our politicians have them aplenty of the Groucho Marx kind.

Not once in the Brexit debate, where Cameron declared that remaining in Europe was vital to the economic and political security of Britain, was anyone threatened with being hauled into jail, or of being taken to court, or of having his legitimate business and other interests cleaned out.

If we in Malaysia do not tone down on many of our political propensities, there will be outlets of frustration with means of expression which will not be good for the political stability of our country.

With the video doing the social media rounds of Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem expressing his disquiet with the political discourse in Peninsular Malaysia and his desire not to have anything to do with it, we should sit up and take note of the message coming from what is considered to be a less developed part of Malaysia. Well, certainly not less developed in political wisdom.

And, with the cogent points he made about Sarawak’s rights under the Malaysia Agreement, there is opportunity to discuss outstanding issues in a calm and collected manner, without agitation and accusation. 

Let’s take a long, hard look into the political mirror. Malaysia is in absolute need of political change management.

Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid is Chairman of Bank Muamalatvisiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) and Chairman of CIMB Asean Research Institute. This article was first published by The Star, Malaysia.