Friday, October 28, 2011

Injecting Business Acumen into ASEAN's Leadership

Yesterday CIMB Bank head Nazir Razak, the chief organizer of the ASEAN Business Club (ABC) and supporter of the CIMB Asean Research Institute (CARI),* proposed that the next ASEAN Secretary-General come from the corporate sector in order to support development of the ASEAN Economic Community.  According to the Bernama news service, ASEAN needs “someone who can really shake things up.”   Although Datuk Seri Nazir’s proposal has almost no chance of being adopted in its entirety, it is exactly the kind of input that the business community needs to contribute to ASEAN and it needs to be adopted in some form. 

ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan’s term ends at the end of next year.  Being a former Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Dr. Surin has instilled greater political and diplomatic prestige to the position, and by extension, to the ASEAN Secretariat.  Dr. Surin has succeeded in his immediate and primary task, the full implementation of the ASEAN Charter.

The current crucial task is to implement the AEC fully within the region by 2015. Datuk Seri Nazir correctly identifies the need to have the next ASEAN Secretary-General be someone who understands the corporate community.   A Secretary-General with direct corporate experience will have greater appreciation of the aspirations and frustrations of the ASEAN business community, especially the lack of development in ASEAN’s institutions.  There is no shortage of ministers and former ministers with business experience in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand who are well-qualified to serve as ASEAN Secretary-General.

Unfortunately, Article 11.1 of the Charter requires that the next ASEAN Secretary-General must come from Vietnam, the country next in alphabetical order after Thailand.  Because Vietnam is relatively new to international commerce, it has not developed the pool of ministerial level candidates who also have business experience.  Fortunately, Vietnam is both an eager supporter of globalization and of ASEAN, so I remain confident that it will put forward a suitable candidate experienced from Vietnam’s WTO accession negotiations and implementation, if Vietnam correctly understands that ASEAN’s current great task is economic integration, and not necessarily resolving the South China Sea/Spratly Islands dispute.    Such a candidate will be able to appreciate the business community’s needs, even if she or he does not have first-hand corporate experience.

Nevertheless, ASEAN can still follow through on Datuk Seri Nazir’s proposal by selecting one of the Deputy Secretary Generals from the corporate community.  There are 4 Deputy Secretary Generals, 2 of which are chosen competitively and 2 of which are chosen through the alphabetical rotation system.   The current Deputy Secretary General for the AEC,  S. Pushpanathan, is a veteran of the ASEAN Secretariat and has done admirably.  However, he and the ASEAN Secretariat would benefit from the input of corporate experience.

In any event, Datuk Seri Nazir’s proposal is exactly the type of provocative proposal that the ABC and CARI should put forth.  Full development of the AEC requires active and constructive input from the ASEAN business community, and I hope that the ABC and CARI will continue to provide such input.

*CARI has republished some of my AEC blog articles. This article, as is the case for all of my articles, represents my personal opinion and not that of CARI or any other direct or indirect affiliation of mine.