ASEAN (and the EU)

The foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are meeting in the beautiful mountain resort of Ubud in Bali this week. An editorial in the Jakarta Post calls for renewed action in the association:

“ASEAN risks becoming irrelevant if it does not respond to the huge challenges it faces today, nearly 40 years after it was first formed. The foreign ministers have the task of convincing the international community that the regional grouping continues to be relevant by taking strong action against any members who threaten the existence of the association.

Established with a grand vision, ASEAN is increasingly seen as ineffectual. Apart from becoming a never-ending talking circuit — it sometimes seems not a day passes without a meeting linked to ASEAN — it has done very little in the way of practical action.”

The editorial links ASEAN’s lack of action mainly to the Myanmar issue. Myanmar’s inclusion into ASEAN has until now not led to any significant changes. On the other hand, the adjourning of diplomatic relations by other countries have also not led to any results. Besides, it wouldn’t be fair to judge ASEAN’s actions solely on the basis of the Myanmar issue.

Compared with many other regional groupings, ASEAN has performed fairly well. Although it started (in August 1967) mainly as cooperation for security reasons, it has launched an ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) in the 1990s and it now covers a wide range of other issues, ranging from telecommunications to education.

Last year, an ‘Eminent Persons Group’, consisting of former political leaders from the 10 countries, was established to think about ASEAN’s way forward and the drawing up of a charter.

“Members of the Eminent Persons Group are close to agreeing on means to strengthen the role of the ASEAN secretary-general and effecting a sanction mechanism for recalcitrant members. The 10 members also want more involvement of citizens of ASEAN countries in the decision-making process to ensure the grouping is not seen merely as an exclusive club for government officials and civil servants. They also agreed that the present ASEAN approach to decision-making through consensus has to be revised.”

“To make ASEAN more people-oriented, an ASEAN Consultative Assembly, consisting of members of parliaments and representatives of civil society, could provide advice, feedback and oversight. Decision making needs to be redefined and redesigned, when consensus is required and when voting can be used. In the case of voting, what should be seen as adequate: 50 + 1, two-thirds, or three-quarters?”

At the same time, the Jakarta-based ASEAN Institute for Strategic and International Studies (ASEAN-ISIS) proposed the establishment of an ASEAN Court of Justice which should serve as an independent body.

“The Court of Justice would ensure the timely resolution of any regional disputes that arise based on agreed rules and obligations and the norms and principles of international law. The ASEAN Court of Justice, according to the proposal, should be given jurisdiction over economic agreements, interstate disputes and ASEAN agreements.”

These new developments – a Charter, a Court of Justice, an Assembly including civil society actors, a shift away from decision-making by unanimity – show a great deal of similarity with European developments. The question therefore comes up: will ASEAN become like the EU? Former Secretary General Severino addressed this question five years ago. His answer?

“Most likely not. At least not exactly. As the EU itself acknowledges, it is unique as a regional organization and will probably remain so. But we can expect domestic and external forces, the logic of globalization, and the imperatives of regionalism to move ASEAN to resemble the EU more closely than it does today, and as ASEAN evolves, more closely than we can foresee today.”

(Jakarta Post quotes are from its 18 and 19 April editions. They are not directly linked because the JP does not use stable links.)

Around the World in 1 Post

I haven’t had the time to write many posts this week. Besides, I did not come across any news items of real urgency this week. However, a few items caught my attention.


First, there was an interesting statement of Australia’s Minister of Education Julie Bishop. She claims that uniform degree structures, a diploma supplement and international recognition of qualifications are among radical changes Australia needs to adopt to meet competition from a powerful higher education bloc forming in Europe. She warns that if Australia does not align itself with the changes taking place in 45 European countries under the Bologna Declaration, it will be left out of the tent. The risk is that students will no longer want to study here and those who graduate from Australian universities will find it harder to have their qualifications recognised overseas.

“The Bologna process seems likely to have a profound effect on the development of higher education globally,” the paper says, acknowledging that other continents are considering it. “Lack of movement on Bologna compatibility will make it harder for Australia to demonstrate to the Europeans its bona fides in this area.”

Julie Bishop expressed her concerns at a meeting of 30 education ministers from the Asia Pacific in Brisbane where they discussed their response to the challenges posed by the European Bologna Process. I have heard some people in Southeast Asia also expressing an interest in joining the process or starting a similar regional process in the region.


A second item is not really new, but worthwhile to read. The US News & World Report has an article on ‘Blogging your way to academe‘. It’s about the perils and promises of academics that maintain a weblog that is somehow related to their academic activities. Some time ago the Chronicle published a few letters by ‘Ivan Tribble‘ about the risks of blogging and especially, academic bloggers using their own names.

I haven’t read much about this issue in Europe or Australia. Australia has some respected academics that maintain a weblog. Some examples from political science and economics are John Quiggen from the University of Queensland and the group blog ‘Larvatus Prodeo‘ maintained by Mark Bahnisch of Griffith University. Some in Australia even argue that academics should blog or be damned (but obviously his arguments are rather weak and one-sided). And of course there are the Sydney Uni students blogging their way through campus life.

In the Netherlands I have not yet come across many academic bloggers. I think some members of the popular group blog Sargasso are academics. One of their new members, a female scientists that goes by the name of Akufu, keeps an individual academic weblog as well. If anyone is aware of any other Dutch academic bloggers, let me know!


A final thing that caught my attention is not so much a current issue but is something that has astonished me for some time now. For my own research I keep track of the news related to higher education and science in Southeast Asia and especially Malaysia and Indonesia. What amazes me about the mainstream media in Malaysia is their extensive coverage of higher education related issues. Higher education (and education in general) takes in such an important position in Malaysian society and politics that issues related to the quality of their universities are widely reported. The issue about university rankings for instance was widely discussed in the Star. The recent resignation of the Vice Chancellor of the University of Malaya and the search for his successor also featured prominently in this newspaper. This week, the selection of a few bright Malaysian students by a range of reputable US universities was shared with the rest of the nation (thanks goes to the Education in Malaysia blog for keeping me up to date).

The Pot and the Kettle?

Joseph Stiglitz, in Globalization and its Discontents, shows how the principle of conditionality is increasingly used as a political instrument by institutions like the World Bank and the IMF. According to this article in the International Herald Tribune, current World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz now speaks up for including freedom of the press as one of the conditions for loans of the Bank.

Wolfowitz and senior World Bank economists know that strong, independent news media play a key role in promoting transparency and good governance, which in turn lead to economic and political development. Corruption can only flourish when governments operate with impunity outside the bright lights and public exposure that independent media bring. So autocrats and corrupt politicians everywhere seek to suppress their homegrown independent media.

The bank has been reluctant in the past to speak out on this issue for fear that it would be seen as interfering in the domestic politics of sovereign states. But media freedom is a universal right; it is also a precondition for tackling the central issue of corruption. As Wolfowitz has said, “you really can’t talk about economic development without talking about freedom of the press.”

Although in principle I am positive about such an inclusion, it clearly increases the political role of the World Bank. And what’s more, in the perception of many, it will even more than before put World Bank policies in line with the ‘spread of democracy’-strategy of the US (and some European countries).

In the IHT article, Wolfowitz claim is mainly illustrated through the case of Kenya. At the same time, rightly or not, it might also create opportunities for developing countries to criticise western democracies and their relations with the press. This includes the administration of which Wolfowitz was part, which has been criticised over press matters more than once.

And what about the EU? Are we still talking about free press when parliaments pay journalists to report on their activities? As is reported in the same issue of the IHT:

The funding for journalists can include payment of a first-class round-trip train ticket or an economy-class plane ticket to Strasbourg from any of the 25 EU countries and a daily stipend of 100 Euros to cover hotel, food and entertainment over two days.

The Parliament also provides television journalists with unlimited use of free state-of-the-art television studios, free sound and camera equipment, and free two-person camera crews that can be borrowed for the day.

Hans Peter Martin, an independent member of Parliament from Austria and a former journalist for the German magazine Der Spiegel, said the Parliament’s funding of journalists showed that representatives of EU institutions had not understood the principles of free press and democracy.

So are we talking about a typical case of the pot calling the kettle black? I myself do not think that argument really stands firm. I however do think that this argument will be used by states that try to limit press freedom in their countries. Also, the perceived alignment with US foreign policies might jeopardise the legitimacy and credibility of the World Bank. And for the EU payments to journalists? This of course has to stop immediately if the European Parliament wants to have any credibility left in the future.

Spitting Image

It’s been a bit over a year now since I moved to Australia. Roughly 399 years after another Dutchman, Willem Janszoon, the first European to visit Australia. In honour of this 400 year anniversary, Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende is visiting Australia this week. He wrote an article about the Dutch and the Ozzies which was published in the Australian yesterday.

Obviously it is not hard for a Dutchman to feel at home here. He claims that despite the differences, The Netherlands and Australia are well matched:

Our societies share the same values: freedom, democracy, tolerance, respect for human rights and solidarity with those in difficulties.

We both have diverse populations

Contrary to what many people think, The Netherlands, like Australia, has always been an important destination for immigrants. (I don’t why he says that that is contrary to what people think. To my knowledge, the Netherlands was long known as being an immigrant country; maybe this became less so through the policies of his own cabinet, Ed)

Our countries are at similar levels of development.

And, most importantly, we have similar mentalities: enterprising, creative, upfront, unconventional and egalitarian.

The Dutch too are familiar with the tall poppy syndrome. Fortunately, neither the Dutch nor the Australians let it stand in the way of their approach to science, business, art and design.

The Dutch and Australians also share a strong focus on Asia. Afghanistan and Indonesia are two countries where Australia and The Netherlands are prominently active.

(And of course, we are both led by a politically conservative/economically liberal government, Ed)

It’s a good thing that there are a lot of differences as well.

The PM visited the Formula 1 races in Melbourne this weekend. Today he met Australian PM John Howard and visted the Australian National University. Tomorrow he might join us in Sydney for an early celebration of the Dutch Queensday. The annual excuse to eat bitter balls and raw herring and drink Heineken.