It was Tuesday, 20 November 2007. As I stood together with my fellow ASEAN High Level Task Force (HLTF) colleagues in the imposing Banyan Ballroom of Shangri-La Hotel, Singapore to witness the signing ceremony of the ASEAN Charter, I could not help feeling a deep sense of satisfaction.
There was every justification to rejoice at a job well done. We have managed to complete our work within the stipulated 11-month time frame. We have proven what a dedicated collective effort could achieve within ASEAN by acting together.
The event itself was epochal for ASEAN. It marked a significant stage in the evolution of the 40-year-old regional organisation.
CRITICISMS OF THE CHARTER
Critics of ASEAN however, were quick to highlight the inadequacies of the Charter. It was belittled as merely a “compendium of ASEAN's existing principles and agreements already developed and in force in the last four decades”. It was criticised as not being “bold and visionary” enough and “a huge let-down”. The Charter, it was asserted; contained “no single big idea or single overarching policy to revitalise ASEAN's appeal to its 500 million people”. Particular criticisms were directed at the absence of specific provisions in the Charter on the mobilisation of resources including the setting up of a “Special Fund” to narrow the development gap within ASEAN as recommended by the Eminent Persons Group (EPG). The retention of the principle of consensus in decision-making and non-interference was also criticised as being not progressive or forward-looking. There was no provision for suspension or expulsion of members for non-compliance. Even ASEAN's attempt at defining and developing its own identity was ridiculed. The various “blemishes” it suffers would eventually relegate the Charter to nothing more than “a piece of paper”. In the wider context, comparisons were made between ASEAN and the EU, by looking at what had been achieved by ASEAN on the basis of the Charter, with the EU in Europe.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE CHARTER
These criticisms need to be addressed. Some of the critics did not fully appreciate the complexity of ASEAN including how ASEAN works as an evolving regional organisation. ASEAN's institutional building initiatives and improvement of its organisational structure through the Charter process were not fully understood. They also failed to appreciate the totality of the whole exercise.