BEARING FRUIT: Malaysia and Asean believe engagement and encouragement, not sanctions and isolation, are the best ways to bring positive changes, writes Datuk Seri Najib Razak
I WAS among the 10 heads of state and government in Phnom Penh for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit yesterday.
Over the course of the next two days, we will be analysing the challenges and opportunities facing our region and discussing how we can best work together to address them.
But although our eyes will be firmly fixed on Asean's future, it is worth taking the time to cast our minds back to our collective past to see just how far we have already travelled.
The association was formally founded in 1967, but the first Asean summit didn't take place until 1976 -- a turbulent time for the region and its people.
War had gripped Vietnam for much of the previous two decades. Genocide was sweeping across Cambodia. Indonesia and the Philippines were struggling under autocratic military rule, and Thailand's fledgling democracy was bogged down in chaos, confusion and violence.
As the leaders of Asean's five founding nations sat down to begin discussions in Bali, many in the wider world thought Southeast Asia was doomed to a permanent state of post-colonial conflict and poverty.
Of course, that isn't how the story ended. By the beginning of the next decade, peace, prosperity and democracy had begun spreading across Southeast Asia as new leaders infused with new ideas came to the fore.
Even the financial crisis of 1997 proved to be just a bump in the road as Southeast Asia's economies and global influence grew even greater.
And Asean grew with them -- not just in size, but also in scope.
From its roots as an organisation aimed primarily at maintaining regional stability, today Asean members are united by numerous economic, social, educational and sporting treaties, initiatives and events.
We are less of an association and more of a family, celebrating one another's successes and supporting one another when times are hard.
Unlike many Western cultures, where "difficult" members can be marginalised, ignored or left to be dealt with by others, Asians are proud to take care of their own.
The same is true of the Asean family. Economically, we are stronger than ever -- the region's overall gross domestic product (GDP) is greater than that of India -- but we still have to deal with a democratic deficit.
Despite advances throughout the 1980s and 1990s, many Asean citizens are still not able to elect their leaders.
Some say this shows a failing on the part of the Asean leadership.
They say democratic nations such as Malaysia should shun their less free neighbours, and that the only way to bring about improvements is to hold an economic gun to the head of those who have not yet embraced the ballot box.
I take the opposite view. Malaysia and Asean have long believed that engagement and encouragement, not sanction and isolation, are the best ways to bring about positive change — and it’s a position that is bearing fruit.
After a quarter of a century in the wilderness, Myanmar is beginning to head back into the democratic fold. Last week, I met President Thein Sein to congratulate him on the steps he has already undertaken and encourage him to continue on that journey.
As the leader of Southeast Asia’s oldest democracy, I am always keen to share our experiences and, in the half-century since independence, we have found that steady reform is the best way to secure lasting stability.
It is a process that continues in Malaysia to this day.
Three years ago I became prime minister, and since then I have never wavered in my commitment to deliver real change across all fronts, along with lasting prosperity, security and democracy for all Malaysians, regardless of their race or religion.
To that end, I have transformed our economy to make it fit for the challenges of the 21st century, increasing competitiveness, raising incomes and cutting unemployment along the way.
I have repealed oppressive, colonial-era legislation and replaced it with modern, progressive laws that protect both the lives and rights of all Malaysians.
And I have listened to calls for greater transparency in elections, establishing a bipartisan commission to look at the voting process and introduce measures such as the use of indelible ink to reduce the possibility of fraud at the polls.
It is a process of evolution rather than revolution, and that process can best be supported and encouraged by a tight-knit family of nations working together to help one another.
That is why, at this week’s summit, we will be putting the final touches to a declaration titled “One Community, One Destiny”.
It is a very real acknowledgement that our future lies in closer, warmer relations, speaking with one voice and with one goal in mind: the continued development of our economies, our societies and, above all, our democracies.
This article was first published by the Phnom Penh Post yesterday in conjunction with the Asean Summit
Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi
Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal
Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein
Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir
Tan Sri Isa Samad
Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam
Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil
Raihan Sulaiman Palestin
Datuk Maznah Mazlan
Datuk Suraya Yaacob
Datuk Azizah Mohd Dun
Akhramsyah Muammar Ubaidah Sanusi
Syed Rosli Syed Harman Jamalullail
Abdul Karim Ali
Irwan Ambak Khalid Izhar
Lokman Noor Adam
Mohamad Iruan Zulkefli
Khairul Azwan Harun
Mas Ermieyati Samsudin
Jamilah Hanim Othman
Norsabrina Mohd Noor
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