ASEAN needs rules-based culture

From left: Mr George Yeo, Professor Walter Woon, Professor Simon Chesterman, Professor Tommy Koh, Professor S. Jayakumar and Associate Professor Robert Beckman (Director for CIL)

When the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) came into being as “a confidence-building measure” in 1967, it was “in essence, not a legal organisation”, said former Singapore Attorney-General Professor Walter Woon. Even with the formation of a charter 50 years later, the body still faces obstacles in observing the rule of law, said the David Marshall Professor of NUS Law.

Professor Woon shared his first-hand experience as a Singapore representative drafting the charter at the David Marshall Lecture titled “Building the Rules-Based ASEAN Community: Strengthening the Centre” on 13 November. Organised by NUS Law and the Centre for International Law (CIL), some 160 guests attended the event, including Professor Jayakumar, former Deputy Prime Minister, and Chairman of NUS Law Advisory Council and CIL; Professor Tommy Koh, Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large and CIL Chairman; and Mr George Yeo, former Singapore Foreign Affairs Minister.

Professor Woon, who is the Deputy Chairman of CIL, highlighted that the ASEAN Charter has promised to create a rules-based organisation committed to democracy, good governance and rule of law. However, he noted that the ASEAN way has been rather ad hoc. The Association continues tackling issues based on pragmatism, fixing them first then looking at rules and institutions later.

Professor Woon reiterated the need for proper rule-making procedure in settling disputes, rather than relying on the political will of member states or the chairperson. He cited the Thai-Cambodian disagreement over the ownership of UNESCO World Heritage site Preah Vihear Temple in 2008. The conflict was finally resolved after the then ASEAN chairman Marty Natalegawa from Indonesia stepped in to broker a truce.

ASEAN’s three pillars — the ASEAN Economic Community, the ASEAN Political-Security Community and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community — currently function independently. Thus, a legal culture must be adopted such that a strong Secretariat centre can monitor and enforce its rules, Prof Woon stressed. If a political rather than legal decision occurs in arbitration, ASEAN will lose all credibility as a rules-based organisation, he warned.

Even so, he conceded that the key challenge in driving this goal lies in some member countries having problem in legal expertise, and using English as the lingua franca.

Mr Yeo, who also spoke at the lecture, differed in his view on ASEAN’s progress although he admitted that the journey had been slow. He pointed out the organisation’s role in facilitating the democratic transformation of Myanmar, particularly the recent “incredible peaceful” transition to the National League for Democracy led by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi.

Mr Yeo attributed this to the body’s patience in accommodating disagreement and evolution, “We allow time for the branch to be gradually bent. If you do it too fast, it breaks.”

Prof Koh, a member of the High Level Task Force behind the Charter, added that its establishment represented a history-making moment as it marked the shift from a network- and consensus-driven community, to one based on rules and institution.

Prof Woon has penned his insider views on the Charter in The ASEAN Charter – A Commentary. Launched at the event, the book published by NUS Press navigates the provisions of the Charter and their relation to actual diplomatic practice. It serves as a valuable reference for scholars, working diplomats and parties interested in ASEAN.

Reproduced with permission from NUS News (