ASEAN’s Pathway to Sustainability Through Green Recovery Post-Pandemic Covid-19: Challenge and Opportunity

Written by Wahyu Candra Dewi

Striking in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has significantly brought disruption to people’s livelihoods worldwide. Upon its initial announcement in March, the pandemic extended from a global health crisis into a global economic crisis that impacted countless nations, including ASEAN country member. As the virus spread at an unprecedented speed through human interaction, governments started to impose the policy of limiting people’s mobility and travel, causing numerous businesses to stop operating, which led to an economic downturn. After undergoing growth of around 4.4 percent in 2019, the financial situation in Southeast Asia countries declined by an average of 4 percent in the following year (Asian Development Bank, 2022b). The degree of severity varied amongst the nations. Thailand’s growth, for example, underwent a sharp contraction of 9.6 percent, while Malaysia’s economy was shrinking by 5.6 percent (Asian Development Bank, 2022b). Furthermore, according to Asia Development Bank’s calculation (2022), the pandemic Covid-19 had blotted out 9.3 million jobs which pushed 4.7 million people in the region into extreme poverty.

Nevertheless, the coronavirus outbreak was considered to create a one-a-lifetime opportunity, to change the trajectory of a country’s development. How the pandemic Covid-19 nearly drove Southeast Asia to the brink of recession showed the vulnerability of the current economic system (Hanns Seidel Foundation, 2021). Therefore, a change in today’s structure is needed to create a more resilient and sustainable economy. ASEAN governments are apparently aware of this present moment. Through ASEAN Summits in Ha Noi, Vietnam, on November 2020, country members formulated a recovery framework focusing on five key areas, including the effort to create a sustainable and resilient future referred to as Green Recovery (ASEAN Secretariat, 2020).

Green Recovery as A Pathway to Achieve Sustainability

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by 193 member states of the United Nations in 2015 and consisted of 17 goals and 169 targets which cover three pillars of sustainability: people, prosperity, and planet (Suriyankietkaew & Nimsai, 2021). Under the UN 2030 Agenda, member states are committed to eradicating poverty, reducing inequality, decoupling economic growth, dealing with climate change and environmental degradation, and creating a better world for future generations (United Nations, 2015). Until 2020, the countries in Southeast Asia were lagging in terms of achieving SDGs. Albeit a thriving economic growth, the region is characterized by high levels of inequality; a lack of social protection; a sizeable informal sector; a decline in peace, justice, and robust institutions; as well as an alarming level of ecosystem damage, biodiversity loss, and greenhouse gas emission (United Nations, 2020).

ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework showed how ASEAN governments have become more attentive toward sustainability goals and manifesting the effort to address the issue through Strategy Number 5: Advancing towards a More Sustainable and Resilient Futures. Looking deeper into the area of priorities, this strategy can be considered as another endeavor to pursue a chance for green recovery post-Covid-19The approach identifies seven sectors that need to be developed by country members to achieve sustainability and resiliency, including: (1) promoting sustainable development in all dimensions; (2) facilitating the transition towards sustainable energy; (3) building green infrastructure and addressing fundamental infrastructure gaps; (4) promoting sustainable and responsible investments; (5) promoting high-value industries, sustainability, and productivity in agriculture; (6) managing disaster risks and disaster management; and (7) promoting sustainable financing (ASEAN Secretariat, 2020).

Green recovery is perceived as a crucial step that needs to be taken as a pathway for building back the world after Covid-19, necessarily in Southeast Asia. Research conducted by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (2020) showed how the coronavirus outbreak was closely related to environmental degradation. Numerous diseases that led to the pandemic came from microbes of animals that spilled over. With the desolation of many animals’ habitats, this spill-over will likely have a higher percentage in the future. As southeast Asia is located in a tropical area that is home to a wealth of biodiversity, this region would be more vulnerable to upcoming pandemics (Asian Development Bank, 2022a). Therefore, a recovery process that could ensure the repair of environmental damage would be needed to prevent future health crises and promote and protect sustainability.

According to Asian Development Bank (2022a), implementing green recovery can create more jobs, as every USD 1 million in government green spending would generate 7.49 full-time jobs in renewable infrastructures. The existence of renewable infrastructures could create a circular economy that would significantly impact the environment: cleaner energy and lower gas emission, leading to a greater chance of maintaining global temperature. Further, economic activities that take the environmental dimension into account are expected to prevent Southeast Asia’s GDP from declining by 25 percent in 2045 and would also increase the region’s competitiveness in the global market (Hanns Seidel Foundation, 2021). This way, the development trajectory would be more sustainable and long-lasting for future generations. However, the enforcement of green recovery in ASEAN is not without challenges.

Challenge and Opportunity for Implementing Green Recovery

Increasing environmental protection awareness amongst leaders in the region opens an enormous opportunity for executing green recovery. This concern is manifested in ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework, created by ASEAN as a recovery guideline post-Covid 19. Some country members have also adopted green growth or have a framework to fight climate change. Cambodia and Vietnam, for example, have specifically employed green growth as part of the national development plan (OECD, 2022). The Philippines released National Framework Strategy for Climate Change 21-22, and Singapore launched Singapore Sustainable Development Blue Print (OECD, 2022) as part of the effort to combat environmental issues and sustain growth. These approaches showed that Southeast Asia countries already have a tendency to mainstream the ecological dimension into economic development.

Nevertheless, the implementation of green recovery is being challenged by the absence of solid institutions that have the capacity to enforce the execution. The above-mentioned recovery framework is non-binding, which means that the decision to follow the guidelines is being referred back to the country member. ASEAN highly upholds the non-intervention principle as they prefer regional stability rather than enforcing values on unwilling countries, which could lead to rising tension. Therefore, non-compliance with the recovery framework would not inflict any consequences. Further, the transition into green infrastructures would need a long commitment and expensive investment. According to Asian Development Bank (2022a), green recovery would require USD 172 billion of capital annually by 2030. This would be a tough option for some developing countries in Southeast Asia with limited capital. The gain of the investment cannot be harvested immediately, even though the impact would be long-lasting. On the other hand, the government is confronted by demands from the domestic public for welfare that must be met promptly. With this dilemma, green recovery in Southeast Asia would still have a long way to go.

About Writer

  • Wahyu Candra Dewi is a graduate student in Universitas Gadjah Mada, majoring International Relations. She is interested in issues related to digital transformation, environment, and human security. Author can be contacted at


  1. ASEAN Secretariat. (2020). ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework. Ha Noi. Retrieved from
  2. Asian Development Bank. (2022a). Implementing Green Recovery in Southeast Asia. Manila.
  3. Asian Development Bank. (2022b). Southeast Asia Rising from the Pandemic. Manila. Retrieved from
  4. Hanns Seidel Foundation. (2021). Building Back Better: Southeast Asia’s Transition to Green Economy After Covid-19, Assessment and Recommendation for Parliamentarians. Vienna. Retrieved from
  5. IPBES. (2020). Workshop Report on Biodiversity and Pandemics of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Retrieved from
  6. OECD. (2022). Green Economy Transition in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. OECD.
  7. Suriyankietkaew, S., & Nimsai, S. (2021). COVID-19 Impacts and Sustainability Strategies for Regional Recovery in Southeast Asia: Challenges and Opportunities. Sustainability, 13(16), 8907.
  8. United Nations. (2015). Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Retrieved November 12, 2022, from Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations website:
  9. United Nations. (2020). Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on South-East Asia.

What’s Missing in the AHRD?: Synergizing with Civil Society Towards Better Human Rights Regime in ASEAN

Written by Gerald John C. Guillermo

Civil society has long been a bastion of service and advocacy—contributing to the development and uplifting of lives, particularly in marginalized and underprivileged sectors of society. The Southeast Asian region is a testament to the catalytic role that civil society plays in lobbying for positive sociopolitical and economic changes, most especially in human rights protection (Tadem, 2017). During the COVID-19 pandemic, civil society organizations (CSOs) have supported efforts to curb the effects of the pandemic, especially for the vulnerable and marginalized. Those CSOs involved in human rights and democratization have faced more constraints in operation and activities prior to the pandemic, but many have continued their advocacy to hold their government accountable (Nixon, 2020). 

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has embraced a shift toward a “people-oriented” approach, aiming to widen participation in civil society but restricting engagement which includes the establishment of an accreditation system and participation in informal consultations for CSOs (Gerard, 2014). Moreover, strict restrictions on the nature of participation and a limited set of issues up for discussion narrow cooperation with CSOs further, which results in discouraging participation from human rights-based CSOs. Therefore, the civic society narratives in ASEAN-sanctioned spaces are limited and controlled. 

This is particularly true with the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD). The AHRD has been criticized for being a context-dependent human rights document subject to laws, local principles, and customs. In fact, during its declaration, various civil society organizations denounced the AHRD and that it “falls far below international standards” by undermining the universality of human rights principles (Article 19, 2012). Furthermore, the drafting process was controversial, such that CSOs were primarily excluded from the drafting process except for carefully managed “consultations” and representatives were still accountable to their government (Renshaw, 2013; Davies, 2014). The exclusion of civil society in the drafting process of the AHRD illustrates the limited effectiveness of CSOs’ advocacy in having an actual human rights protection mechanism in the ASEAN (Gomez & Ramcharan, 2012).  

However, civil society has moved forward and beyond the broken dynamics between CSOs and official ASEAN processes. For instance, CSOs all over the ASEAN region has maintained a robustly critical stance toward the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) in its tenth year of founding and challenge them together with ASEAN to improve on acting on rights abuses (Hanara, 2019 & Forum Asia, 2019, as cited in Langlois, 2021). Moreover, in response to constraints on civil society participation, CSOs have developed “created spaces,” i.e., pursuing a political activity that bypasses regional and state actors such as with ASEAN-sanctioned modes of engagement and political arenas such as parallel activities, protests, and production and dissemination of critical knowledge (Jayasuriya & Rodan, 2007, as cited in Gerard, 2014) and supported by external actors (Sundrijo, Awigra, Safitri, Virajati, & Wening, 2020). 

While this seems as if parting ways between one of the moving spirits of the human rights agenda in the region, i.e., the civil society and the ASEAN, it is not the be-all and end-all scenario. There are ways for ASEAN to catch up to its commitment to human rights and live up to being “people-centered.” To develop and establish an institutional and normative human rights framework in the region, formal and genuine consultation mechanisms with the CSOs must be in place, which includes the establishment of formal complaints mechanisms in AICHR, expansion of the accreditation process for CSOs, particularly for human rights based CSOs, (Jones, 2019) and review of the effectiveness of the AHRD.  

The issues confronted by the Southeast Asian region, as surfaced in the recently concluded 40th and 41st ASEAN Summits, such as climate change, economy, peace, and security, are to be viewed not only at the state level but also in spaces where it matters—at the ground level. Recognizing the role of CSOs in helping solve such issues is one thing but engaging them more genuinely is another. ASEAN must support on-the-ground efforts of CSOs to mainstream human rights and connect networks of CSOs to promote understanding of particular issues with various stakeholders.  

Moreover, external organizations and stakeholders must support efforts for civil society to integrate and synergize with the broader organization of ASEAN. With ASEAN welcoming more external partners to pursue areas of cooperation, such international stakeholders must steer the discussion in crafting a more inclusive human rights regime in the region with the help of CSOs. 

Indeed, CSOs in the ASEAN region have been growing both in quantity and quality, constructively contributing to regionalism and strategically maneuvering against the institutional state-centrism of ASEAN through less structured mechanisms (Sundrijo et al., 2020). While CSOs have the means to navigate this “road less traveled,” it should not be that way. ASEAN must genuinely open its arms and confront the complex issue of human rights and “living” the AHRD, facing not only government dignitaries but listening to real people, real stories, and real lives, particularly the marginalized and the oppressed. 

*The views expressed in this article do not represent any of the organizations with which the author is affiliated. 

About Writer: 

  • Gerald John C. Guillermo is a Juris Doctor student at the University of the Philippines College of Law. He received his Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science, with a Minor Degree in Development Management at the Ateneo de Manila University. His areas of skills and interests include youth, public policy, international relations, governance, and law. Contact


  1. Article 19. (2012). Civil Society Denounces Adoption of Flawed ASEAN Human Rights Declaration: AHRD falls far below international standards.  
  2. Davies, M. (2014). An Agreement to Disagree: The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration and the Absence of Regional Identity in Southeast Asia. Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 33(3). 107–129.  
  3. Gerard, K. (2014). ASEAN and civil society activities in ‘created spaces’: The limits of liberty, The Pacific Review, 27:2, 265-287, 
  4. Gomez, J. & Ramcharan, R. (2012). ASEAN needs formal civil society engagement mechanism on human rights. Asia Centre.  
  5. Jones, D. (2019). ASEAN’S Human Rights Conundrum: An Analysis Of The Failures Of The ASEAN System For Promoting Human Rights (Bachelor’s dissertation).  
  6. Langlois, A. (2021). Human rights in Southeast Asia: ASEAN’s rights regime after its first decade. Journal of Human Rights, 20(2), 151-157. 
  7. Nixon, N. (2020). Civil Society in Southeast Asia During the Covid-19 Pandemic. The Asia Foundation.  
  8. Renshaw, C. (2013). The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration 2012. Human Rights Law Review, 13(3), 557-579. 
  9. Sundrijo, D. A., Awigra, D., Safitri, D., Virajati, K., & Wening, P.P.P. (2020). Civil Society Participation in ASEAN Regionalism Strengthening the Capacity of ACSC/APF to Advocate the Interest of the People of Southeast Asia. Human Rights Working Group. 
  10. Tadem, E. (2017). New Perspectives on Civil Society Engagement with ASEAN. Heinrich Böll Stiftung. 

ASEAN’s Human Rights Promises and Pitfalls: Is the ASEAN Effective in Advancing its Human Rights Agenda?

Written by Arvhie Santos


When the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) first recognized the concept of human rights in the ASEAN Charter promulgated in 2007, which led to the formation of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) in 2009, and subsequently the body’s adoption of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD) on 2012, it did so with the promise that Southeast Asian citizens shall enjoy the same rights and freedoms that all other peoples around the world are endowed with. 

This promise has been in grave peril with the flurry of human rights abuses in the Southeast Asian region for the past years. Any hope that ASEAN’s adoption of the AHRD presaged a new era of regional responsiveness to human rights violations was seemingly short-lived. This paper argues that while the adoption of the AHRD has set the stage for a formal human rights discourse in the region, little progress has been made since then for various reasons.  

ASEAN’s Effectiveness in Advancing its Human Rights Agenda  

  • The promises set forth through the AHRD and the AICHR 

The AHRD was created by the AICHR with the goal of upholding the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration for Human Rights (UDHR) while also bearing in mind the region’s socio-economic, political, and cultural particularities in which the AHRD will be operationalized.1 To a certain extent, the AICHR was successful in attaining this goal. ASEAN member-states affirmed therein all the civil and political rights, and all of the economic, social, and cultural rights, in the UDHR.2 The AHRD even included clauses or provisions not circumscribed in the latter, such as one that relates the problem of child labor,3 the rights of those suffering from communicable diseases, including HIV/AIDS,4 as well as the right to development, which must be exercised in a manner consistent with other human rights.5 

AHRD was seen as a significant achievement in the region because it reflected the shared commitment and explicit consent of the ASEAN Member-States, through the AICHR, notwithstanding its heterogeneous political and cultural dispositions, to a formal human rights systems and set of principles. Hence, the significance of AHRD as a human rights text emanates mainly from the fact that it represents the AICHR’s first step at human rights standard-setting.6 For this reason, it carries substantial political weight and normative value. 

The issue of human rights in the region has gained legitimacy by being incorporated into the AHRD. Thus, it has effectively placed the importance of human rights in the sphere of ASEAN discourse. The AHRD has become a starting point for the development of regional human rights norms. Establishing rights institutions and authorizing the use of rights language legitimizes norms that protect dissent and political contestation, in turn aiding the kinds of contestatory rights politics that press for the realization of these norms in regional and domestic political life.7 

From an optimistic point of view, AHRD is regarded as a preliminary to a serious regional-level effort to promote and protect the rights set out in the UDHR.8 It laid the groundwork for the passage of subsequent international treaties and independent mechanisms for a stronger realization and protection of Southeast Asian citizens’ human rights. However, for all of ASEAN’s “commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms,”9 the many pitfalls surrounding its human rights architecture have allowed the continuous perpetration of human rights atrocities within its Member-States with few repercussions. 

  • The general situation of human rights in the region 

Home to the world’s newest regional human rights system, it seems Southeast Asia is back to being a “club for dictators” with the onslaught of human rights violations in recent years. In Brunei Darussalam, the entry into force of its new revised Penal Code would result in human rights violations because it allows the punishment of homosexuality, adultery, and rape with the death penalty.10 In Cambodia, authorities have pursued a heavy crackdown against the media.11 As in the case of two of the reporters of Cambodia Daily newspaper who were investigated for baseless charges of “incitement.”12 Indonesia was urged to halt threats and intimidation against human rights defender Veronica Koman and her family.13 

 In Laos, human rights activists Ms. Lodkham Thammavong, Mr. Soukane Chaithad, and Mr. Somphone Phimmasone have been deprived of their liberty and their right to a fair and free trial for more than five years since their arrest.14 In Myanmar (Burma), military units carried out a large-scale ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim population through arbitrary detention, massacres, mass arson, and sexual violence.15 In Malaysia, violence against the LGBT community has been pervasive, with the murder of a transgender woman Sameera Krishnan in February 2018 and the rape and murder of T. Nhaveen in June of the same year, to name a few.16 

 In the Philippines, more than 120 children, including a one-year-old, were killed during Former President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs.” According to a report, most were killed while in the company of adults who were the supposed target or were deliberately shot as proxies.17 In neighboring Thailand, serious human rights concerns continue to persist, highlighted by its recent refoulement of asylum seekers who are seen as illegal migrants subject to arrest and deportation to Cambodia, where their lives and freedom would be at risk.18 In Viet Nam, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly have seriously deteriorated with the increasing number of journalists and rights defenders who have been arbitrarily detained.19 

  • The pitfalls and insights 

The lack of human rights progress in the region for the past decade magnifies the shortcomings of the AICHR and the AHRD to produce “the full realization of human dignity and the attainment of a higher quality of life for ASEAN peoples.”20 For one, the culture of ASEAN foreign relations generally does not encourage an establishment of cooperative approaches that would interfere with member-states domestic affairs. The ‘ASEAN way’ emphasizes that consensual decision-making and non-interference—including in the form of criticism towards human rights violations—in the internal affairs of fellow ASEAN member-states are overriding principles of intra-ASEAN relations.21 

Hence, as the institution responsible for the promotion of human rights, the AICHR must be guided by the principles of non-interference, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and respect for independence. These principles are deemed in conflict with the international human rights standards as enshrined in the UDHR and the Vienna Declaration, such as universality, interdependence, indivisibility, and interrelatedness of all human rights.22 This kind of approach leaves us with the danger of yielding the future of its human rights agenda to the political will of each member state’s government, some of which are patently unwilling or unable to abide by their human rights obligations. 

Secondly, AICHR consists of ten commissioners, all appointed by their respective governments. As an intergovernmental consultative body, it has no formal compliance or enforcement mechanisms. Its Terms of Reference do not envision the AICHR to have any judicial mandate nor provide any legal procedure23 through which a state or individual can file a suit or avail a remedy concerning alleged human rights atrocities by member-states, which differentiates it from the African, European, and Inter-American regional human rights systems.24 In conjunction and as previously mentioned, the AICHR’s commissioners are appointed by member-states and are, therefore, “accountable to” their appointing governments, who may decide, at the latter’s discretion, to replace them. Hence, the AICHR commissioners did not act, in meetings and consultations about the AHRD, as independent agents who were interested in furthering human rights discourse. They are bound by the strict instructions of their government which hinders them from carrying out their work progressively and holding their own or any member-state responsible. 

This is aggravated by the fact that civil society organizations (CSOs) had virtually little or no participation at all in drafting the AHRD.25 Despite repeated calls for transparency and participation from CSOs, it was not until September 2012 that a draft was formally circulated.26 By excluding or giving CSOs minimal opportunity to provide their inputs, the ASEAN citizens were not given an adequate way to ensure that their concerns were introduced, received, and incorporated into the Declaration. In May 2012, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Nava Pillay, expressed that “No discussion of human rights can be complete or credible without significant input from civil society and national human rights institutions.”27  

What’s Next? 

This article has presented a brief analysis of the situation and the legal framework in relation to human rights in the region. First, it has been asseverated that the ASEAN has laid down the foundation for the development of future binding human rights instruments in the region through the AICHR and the AHRD. Second, and in juxtaposition to the first, it has examined the general situation of human rights in the SEA, which implies that a lot of work still has to be done. Finally, it has argued that the ASEAN, despite the steps it has taken, still falls short in protecting the fundamental rights of its people.  

A human rights text, in this case, the AHRD, is indeed an important first step, but ultimately, the actual value of one will be evaluated by the role it plays in compelling concrete actions to promote and protect the ASEAN peoples’ basic rights and freedoms. While political and economic challenges do exist and present an enormous stumbling block, they should not stop the ASEAN from initiating concrete plans to achieve a truly peaceful region that respects its peoples’ human rights. Further, the ASEAN is in a fortunate position, being the newest among other regional human rights systems. It could draw inspiration and learn experiences from these older models.  

Through this article, the author meant to initiate discourse and reflection on the first decade of the ASEAN human rights regime. It acknowledges the aspirations of the regime to promote and protect human rights and, at the same time, identify challenges and opportunities for reform. 

About writers:

  • Arvhie Santos is a Filipino liberal arts graduate with a degree in Philosophy from the University of Santo Tomas-Manila. Currently, she is pursuing her Juris Doctor degree. A paralegal by profession and a human rights advocate by heart, she is committed to promoting human rights, social justice and democracy through education, research, legal aid, and mobilization. Arvhie is also the Vice President for Training, Exchange, and Development of Asian Law Students Association – Philippines.  She is affiliated with the Free Legal Assistance Group, Human Rights and People Empowerment Center, Court Appointments Watch PH, and the Citizens Alliance for Life and the Law of the Sea. She can be reached through



  1.  Catherine Renshaw, Human RIghts and Participatory Politics in Southeast Asia, p. 81.
  2.  Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, November 2013, Article 10 & Article 26.
  3. Betty Yolanda, et. al. “The ASEAN Human RIghts Declaration: A Legal Analysis,” American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative, 2014, p. 1.
  4. SUNDRIJO, Dwi Ardhanariswari. (2021) Regionalising Global Human Rights Norms in Southeast Asia (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan).
  5. Catherine Renshaw, Human RIghts and Participatory Politics in Southeast Asia, p. 3.
  6. Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, November 2013.
  7. (“Bachelet urges Brunei to stop entry into force of “draconian” new penal code”, 2019)
  8. (“Increasing attacks on Cambodia’s media are a threat to democracy – UN human rights report”, 2022)
  9. (Human Rights Watch, 2018)
  10. (“Indonesia: Stop reprisals against woman human rights defender – UN expert”, 2021)
  11. (“Lao PDR: Five years after arrest, human rights defenders still denied access to lawyers – UN expert”, 2021)
  12. (“Rohingya: the deadly situation in Myanmar explained”, 2021)
  13. (Human Rights Watch, 2018)
  14. (Radcliffe, 2020)
  15.  (“Comment by UN Human Rights Office spokesperson Rupert Colville on killing of Cambodian activist and refoulements from Thailand”, 2021)
  16. (“Viet Nam: UN rights office denounces ‘increasing clampdown’ on freedom of expression”, 2021)
  17. Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, November 2013. p. 13.
  18. Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia: ASEAN and the Problem of Regional Order by Amitav Acharya, London and New York, Routledge, 2001. However, this should not be construed in such a way that the ASEAN never engaged in human rights discussions amongst themselves. The case of Temple of Preah Vihear Case (Cambodia v. Thailand), ICJ Reports, 15 June 1962 was the first intra-Asian case referred to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Moreover, Singapore and Malaysia referred a territorial dispute to the ICJ: Sovereignty over Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh, Middle Rocks and South Ledge (Malaysia/ Singapore) Judgment, ICJ Rep 2008 12. The Philippines and Cambodia have also recognized as compulsory ipso facto the jurisdiction of the ICJ under Article 36, paragraph 2, of the Statute of the International Court of Justice.
  19. Yuval Ginbar, “Human Rights in ASEAN-Setting Sail or Treading Water”, Human Rights Law Review, Vol. 10 (3) September 2010, p. 514.
  20. Nicholas Doyle (2014). The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration and The Implications of Recent Southeast Asian Initiatives In Human Rights Institution-Building And Standard-Setting. International and Comparative Law Quarterly, 63, pp 67-101.
  21. Pepina Jane A. Petralba (2013). Hornbook on International and Philippine Human Rights Laws. REX Book Store, 37.
  22. It is well to note that CSOs–which are primarily composed of faith-based organizations, non-governmental organizations, labour unions, and indigenous groups–are traditionally recognized for their importance in defending human rights and holding governments accountable.
  23. See, e.g., Forum Asia, “Civil Society Demands Transparency and Consultation on the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration” (Apr. 8, 2012), at
  24. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Next two years key to human rights development in ASEAN region – UN human rights chief”, 28 November 2011. See also International Federation for Human Rights Joint Statement, “The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration: Drafts Must Be Published and Subject to Meaningful Consultations with Local, National and Regional Civil Society and Human Rights Defenders” (May 2, 2012), at

ASEAN at a Crossroads: An Autocratic Turn in the Region

According to Democracy Report 2022, published by V-Dem Institute, Southeast Asian countries were reported to experience either democratic stagnation or regression, indicating a shift towards a more autocratic region. 

Although most Southeast Asian countries hold elections, they are considered to be the feature of, rather than the cause of, democratization in Southeast Asian countries. These countries cannot simply be labeled as electoral democracies. Elections and electoral institutions are vulnerable to a certain degree of abuse and corruption. In that vein, Democracy Report 2022 did not qualify these Southeast Asian countries as electoral democracies, except Indonesia and Timor-Leste.  

The political development in the Philippines under Duterte made the Philippines fall under the category of electoral autocracies following Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Despite elections being held in these countries, their electoral institutions failed to uphold democratic principles.  

Meanwhile, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam downgraded from electoral autocracies in 2011 to closed autocracies in 2021, following Laos. The citizens of these countries barely have institutional capacities to hold accountable power holders — individuals or groups of people. Military forces have become a critical player in advancing autocratic governance in the region. It is evident in the 2014 Thai coup d’état and the most recent Myanmar coup d’état in which democratic institutions and human rights were violated.  

Beyond electoral components, an autocratic turn in the region has advanced through ‘authoritarian innovations’ in a broader regional geopolitical context and within individual countries. They are new governance practices, which take different forms, intended to shrink meaningful public political participation. The COVID-19 pandemic has also further intensified the use of authoritarian practices.  

Such an autocratic turn poses a challenge to ASEAN to realize its vision of being a people-centered and people-oriented community. In this vein, unpacking how this trend further intensifies is critical to enable ASEAN as a regional bloc to curb further democratic regression. Two issues are worth discussing here. 

First, in a broader geopolitical context, the rise of China has unavoidably shaped — complicated — the ways in which Southeast Asian countries and ASEAN navigate their internal political dynamics, enabling anti-democratic forces in the region to grow.  

The 2021 Myanmar coup d’état was clear evidence. The Myanmar armed forces claimed that the coup was a ‘constitutional’ response to the election fraud committed by the National League for Democracy, which won a landslide victory in the 2020 election. The Institute for Strategy and Policy reported that over 5,600 civilians, including four democracy activists, were executed by the junta under the banner of the State Administration Council (SAC). 

Responding to the political crisis in Myanmar, the nine ASEAN leaders and the Myanmar junta chief agreed upon the “Five-Point Consensus” as the framework to maintain peace and stability in the region. However, by exploiting the ASEAN’s ‘non-interference’ principle, the SAC refused to conform to the consensus, resulting in no tangible outcomes.  

It is clear that China maintains its legitimacy as a strategic and economic partner for ASEAN countries through its Belt and Road Initiatives while leveraging the democratic decline in the region to pursue its national interests. Positioning itself as the dominant power in the region, the rise of China’s power has indirectly empowered anti-democratic forces in the region by providing support for their political survival.  

China’s support for the Myanmar junta to protect its political sovereignty has complicated ASEAN’s approach to the crisis. Keeping this in mind, the non-interference principle must be revisited to avoid its abuse by the member states in the name of sovereignty at the expense of human rights and to enable Responsibility to Protect. 

Second, the emerging new authoritarian practices to subvert democratic progress are evident in and intensified by handling the COVID-19 pandemic in Southeast Asian countries. The handling has been shadowed by shrinking civic space 

Contact tracing essentially designed to halt the spread of COVID-19 may serve as a platform for governments’ digital surveillance unrelated to the pandemic. Digital Reach, an organization that looks into the impact of technology on human rights in Southeast Asia, monitored the use of digital contact tracing across six ASEAN countries, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam.  

One big concern arising from this digital contact tracing is a privacy issue. In Singapore, despite having a personal data protection policy, data collected from its contact tracing app was made accessible for criminal investigations. The report from Digital Reach showed that it is used to silence critics of the government of Singapore. In this context, the absence of a personal data protection policy in Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam increases the likelihood of public surveillance and violation of the right to privacy. 

Responding to the pandemic, ASEAN released the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework outlining ASEAN’s five broad strategies for recovery. Yet, this recovery framework disregards the importance of upholding democratic principles, although strengthening human security is part of its broad recovery strategies.  

Given the long-term impacts of the pandemic, democracy in the region will continue to deteriorate if ASEAN fails to center democratic principles in its COVID-19 recovery strategies. ASEAN must work closely with its accredited entities, including civil society organizations, to hold ASEAN governments accountable in their efforts for COVID-19 recovery. 

Two issues above demonstrate that ASEAN is, once again, at a crossroads. Democracy in the region is beyond fragile; it will continue to decline if ASEAN turns a blind eye to it. However, to renew ASEAN’s commitment to democratic principles in the region, it must begin from within each of ASEAN member states.  


*The views expressed in this article do not represent any of the organizations with which the authors are affiliated. 


About writers: 

  1. Muhammad Ammar Hidayahtulloh is a PhD candidate at the School of Political Science and International Studies, The University of Queensland. Twitter: @muhammadammarh_ 
  2. Muhammad Maulana Iberahim is Regional Media & Communications Support Officer at International Organization for Migration. Twitter: @iberahims  

The Challenge of ASEAN Institutionalism in Outer Space

Written by: Ade Meirizal & Dinda Julia Putri 

A lot of people are blurry to consider space. Space activities are more complex. Not only for telecommunication, banking, and GPS utility, outer space can provide fish movement data, disaster mapping, and even agricultural sources on earth from satellites. With information from satellites, the quantity of fishery activity could be maximized and can help fishermen to trace fish locations throughout the sea. Furthermore, satellites can help farmers to map fertile soil to start agriculture and create sustainability in the quality of the goods ( 2021). Geographically, ASEAN is surrounded by sea, which means fishery activity is part of Southeast Asia people, and agriculture is an essential element in SEA society. SEA is the best place to establish a launch site because it is close to Geosynchronous Equatorial Orbit (GEO). GEO was the most suitable and conducive orbit for satellites, especially for communication satellites; most of the USA communication satellites were positioned in GEO to make data gathering more efficient and reliable (Peterson, 2003). In the historical record, a few countries in Southeast Asia, like Indonesia and Vietnam, joined the space activity a long time ago. Indonesia was the first SEA country to launch its own satellite in 1963 through a national entity called LAPAN (the Indonesian National Institute of Aeronautics and Space). Vietnam was a part of the Soyuz 37 mission to send their first cosmonaut to space. Thailand and Malaysia are the main actors in SEA space history, which focus on space powers. Uniquely, four ASEAN space powers are surrounded by minimal interest and technology in space, such as Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. Unlike many other state members, Singapore stressed its interest in industrialization and academic-centrics of space technology (Verspieren and Coral, 2021). 

Advantages & Urgency 

Most ASEAN state members are located on the equator line, namely; Indonesia, Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. This position is beneficial to cut off budget and efficiency. The equator can give an additional natural boost for rockets to reach space and affect rocket fuel and booster consumption. Due to safety and prevention during the rocket launching process, the coastline of each area in SEA was a potential place to establish a launch site so debris and failed launch would not hit citizens (, 2022). The urgency of ASEAN to advance space activity is because of the geographical issue. We know that most ASEAN countries are lying on the ring of fire, the most dangerous area on earth. This area is vulnerable but has enormous potential in sources. Space technology such as satellites is beneficial in preventing disaster (Verspieren and Coral, p. 6. 2021). On the other hand, ASEAN is surrounded by major powers on geopolitics at the global level. Emerging countries outside of ASEAN, such as India, Brasil, and South Korea, show their progress in space activity, like India, which puts their space interest not only for commercial but also military purposes. Space rivalry has become a reality in recent decades. The main actors in space are not only states but also privateers and possibly threatening regional interests. 


Space activity in ASEAN was organized by SCOSA (Space Technology Development and Utilization), and this framework is part of the ASEAN Committee on Science and Technology (COST). SCOSA is one of the most extensive plans of ASEAN from 2016 to 2025 through the ASEAN Plan of Action on Science, Technology, and Innovation (APASTI), released in October 2017 (Verspieren and Coral, p. 11, 2021). However, SCOSA is a sub-committee that was created by ASEAN Committee on Science, Technology, and Innovation (COSTI). In other words, SCOSA is not an independent entity in ASEAN. SCOSA was established under the huge COSTI umbrella. Compared to the European Space Agency (ESA), which organized eight programs, namely; space science, human & robotic exploration, observing the earth, telecommunication, satellite navigation, space transportation, technology and operations, and standing independently, SCOSA stressed its focus on satellite, geoinformatics, and space technology applications ( 2022). Moreover, the “sub-committee” has a deficiency. Although it has a specific responsibility in terms of purposes (, 2022), this form has many disadvantages. According to the management studies, the sub-committee has limitations like; indecisiveness that brings stakeholders to the disconcerting decision, high cost, domination by few, and lack of secrecy, which means there are no stakeholders responsible for maintaining the decision had been taken.  

All countries in ASEAN can represent their country in SCOSA, but funding and participation are optional. Lack of sustainable funding affects space development on a regional level. Although state members are integrated into ASEAN, each country has its own space of cooperation outside of ASEAN due to the characteristic of ASEAN itself, which is flexibility. Many ASEAN countries authorize their space initiative from the national level or support from the space-faring countries outside of ASEAN like Japan and China (Verspieren and Coral, p. 12, 2021). We can assume this uncertainty might be crucial to institutionalizing space in ASEAN. The ambiguity of members to interpret common goals in the space program creates gaps among members. Each member has their own orientation in space activity. Like Singapore focuses on space academics and business, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam are more interested in space power, and Brunei Darussalam is uninterested in space. This uncertainty is a symbol of the emptiness of authority in the institutionalization of space cooperation within the ASEAN body. The “flexibility” tradition that is used in many ASEAN actions is one of the biggest challenges. ASEAN traditionally allows its members to take their own action without interference, and its effect is to equalize space development goals with a common interest at the regional level.  

Liberal institutionalism concept shows the direction in order to reach common goals. This concept is possible to organize its members to build the main agenda and accelerate equal economic development. Conceptually, Liberal Institutionalism argues that in order for there to be peace in international affairs, states must cooperate together and, in effect, yield some of their sovereignty to create “Integrated communities” to promote economic growth and respond to regional and international security issues (Rebecca David, 2011). Even though SCOSA established ASEAN, the sub-committee in ASEAN space activity is not enough. Regional bodies like SCOSA should stand autonomously, supported with clear main agendas, shared interests, and collective financial support. By designing mutual goals for state members, ASEAN can accomplish priority sectors in space technology. Single sector by utilizing satellites for collecting data affects many aspects of society in ASEAN. For example, using fish movement data from satellites can stimulate the fish quantity and rising efficiency in terms of the fishery. Farmers and stakeholders can use satellites to monitor fertile soil and crops, like Global Agriculture Geo-monitoring Initiative (GEOGLAM) launched by the USA authority (Brown, 2015). Remote sensing applied in satellites is possible to map disasters in various territories. For these reasons, ASEAN countries can apply outer space technology to rising prosperity, reducing hunger, and value-added to ocean products and agriculture, not only at the regional level but also around the globe. 


About Writers:

  1. Ade Meirizal studied in the Master’s Degree program in International Relations, UGM. he has an interest in space policy and its connection to global affairs. He has a field of interest covering Political psychology in international relations, diplomacy, and outer space. Contact information: 
  2. Dinda Julia Putri currently studies in the Master’s Degree program in International Relations, UGM. She was an awardee from Beasiswa Pendidikan Indonesia (BPI), managed by Lembaga Pengelola Dana Pendidikan (LPDP) in partnership with the Ministry of Education, Culture, Research, and Technology. She has a field of interest covering diplomacy, foreign policy, and European Union Studies. Contact information: 


  1. Verspieren, Quentin & Coral, Giulio. (2022). Introduction: Why Space Matters in ASEAN. Springer.  
  2. Devitt, Rebecca. (2010). Liberal Institutionalism: An Alternative IR Theory or Just Maintaining The Status Quo. E- International relations. 
  3. Brown, E. Molly Rebecca. (2015). Satellite remote sensing in agriculture and food security assessment. Elsevier. doi: 10.1016/j.proenv.2015.07.278.  
  4. Ashish. (2022, July 8). Why Are Rockets Launched From Areas Near The Equator? Retrieved from 
  5. Priority Areas of ASEAN Science and Technology Network. Retrieved from 
  6. Measures, Nick. (2021, March 2). How Satellite Imagery is Helping Precision Agriculture Grow to new Heights. Retrieved From 

AUKUS Impact for Achieving ASEAN Vision 2025

Written by: Hastian Akbar Stiarso & Rayhan Fasya Firdausi 

The newly formed trilateral security partnership between Australia, the UK, and the United States (AUKUS) on 16 September 2022 is a contentious issue across the Indo-Pacific and beyond. The planned purchase of nuclear-powered submarines increases Australia’s naval deterrent capability against China’s growing naval power (Pillai Rajagopalan, 2021). It is feared that this will threaten the politics and security of the ASEAN region because although AUKUS is known to be not an alliance, it is a sign that has shocked the strategic landscape of ASEAN. 

ASEAN welcomes the right kind of open competition among the great powers in the region—namely, peaceful and progressive. So far, ASEAN does not have a consensus with AUKUS. This is also why ASEAN member countries have mixed reactions to AUKUS. Indonesia is very wary of this development. Indonesia is “deeply concerned about the ongoing arms race and power projection in the region”. Like Indonesia, Malaysia is also concerned about whether AUKUS could trigger a regional arms race. Although Australia will not acquire nuclear weapons under the treaty, Malaysia remains concerned that transferring nuclear technology to an Australian submarine force could be a weak link in the nuclear weapons (Djalal, 2021). 

Meanwhile, Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines remain neutral. They believe that AUKUS will strengthen regional peace and security. AUKUS is seen as a welcome step toward strategic balance in the regional geostrategic competition (Djalal, 2021). 

The AUKUS issue should be a mutual concern of ASEAN member countries. This difference of opinion can be resolved if we adhere to the principles of the political-security pillar in ASEAN 2025, one of which is enhanced dialogue and cooperation with ASEAN external partners for mutual benefits and interests. This has also never been studied in previous studies. 

AUKUS is a defense pact formed by Australia, Britain, and the United States on 15 September 2021. This defense pact was formed as a forum to share knowledge about advanced defense and to facilitate Australian troops with nuclear-powered submarines. The existence of AUKUS caused various reactions, including France, which opposed this partnership because it impacted their partnership with Australia. ASEAN countries themselves have different views on the existence of AUKUS. Malaysia and Indonesia reject the existence of AUKUS because they think that AUKUS will provoke other powers to be more aggressive in the region, specifically in the South China Sea. Singapore has a different view from Malaysia and Indonesia. They view AUKUS as contributing to building regional stability and peace. Vietnam chooses to act more cautiously. They choose not to comment on this issue (Southgate, 2021). Differences in views between countries impact efforts to maintain balance with the United States and China. The presence of AUKUS has an impact on the difficulty of achieving the status quo. These conditions, plus the entry of Australia to become more influential in the Indo-Pacific. ASEAN itself does not have a single voice on regional security issues. Therefore, ASEAN’s centrality will continue to face the influence of outside forces. 

AUKUS is an essential issue for ASEAN, considering that they have the principle of centrality, where ASEAN is a key player in decision-making and the region’s future. While there has been a low level of concern over the struggle for power in this region, challenges to the principle of centrality are almost non-existent. However, China’s aggressiveness towards ASEAN countries caused this balance of power to be disturbed. In addition, the proliferation of non-ASEAN-centric cooperation, such as QUAD, whose members are DPs of ASEAN and members of the EAS, is a concern for ASEAN. With the advent of AUKUS, a partnership that is not ASEAN-centric in the region is added. The presence of AUKUS is seen as a geopolitical threat to ASEAN. This is related to the aim of AUKUS to counter increasing Chinese activities. Here there is a difference between QUAD and AUKUS. At the 2nd QUAD Summit, they convinced ASEAN that the existence of QUAD could reach ASEAN in practical terms. However, AUKUS has a different mindset; they have ideas about regional powers that interfere with ASEAN’s centrality. Therefore, the existence of AUKUS will cripple ASEAN’s strategic position (Gurjit Singh, 2021). 

AUKUS will bring ASEAN into a security dilemma where the procurement of nuclear submarines for Australia will bring a new chapter in the arms race in the region. On the other hand, ASEAN adopts the principle of balance of power in ensuring regional security. The presence of AUKUS as a new force will impact the distribution of power in the region. The condition of security integration in ASEAN itself is still low, so a joint defense strategy is far from being formed. ASEAN seeks to form a unified and inclusive community in the defense field through the ASEAN Community 2025. The ASEAN Community 2025 views ASEAN as a united and inclusive community and a resilient society. Our society will live in a safe, harmonious, and secure environment, embracing the values ​​of tolerance and moderation as well as upholding ASEAN’s basic principles, shared values ​​, and norms. ASEAN must remain cohesive, responsive, and relevant in addressing regional peace and security challenges and play a central role in shaping the regional architecture while deepening our engagement with external parties and contributing collectively to global peace, security, and stability. However, to achieve that, ASEAN itself is difficult to have one voice, and AUKUS plays a role in showing that there is no cohesion among member countries. AUKUS will increase regional power competition, creating the potential risk of arms races and significant power confrontations, further weakening regional prosperity, peace, and stability. However, AUKUS can also be a tool to trigger ASEAN to maintain regional order by promoting dialogue. This can be seen in ASEAN’s efforts to build an ASEAN-centric platform for security dialogue, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum. 

There has never been an issue like AUKUS in ASEAN before. The closest issue is the establishment of SEATO in 1954, which involved the Philippines and Thailand before becoming part of ASEAN. So this AUKUS issue must be faced without any examples from the past. AUKUS issues can be handled easily if ASEAN and AUKUS emphasize the dialogue function. As stated in ASEAN Vision 2025, dialogue and cooperation with ASEAN external partners must be increased to achieve mutual benefits and interests. Before reaching ASEAN’s external partners, we must improve dialogue within ASEAN’s internal. We can see that within ASEAN, there are still differences of opinion among ASEAN countries, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, which have different views from Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines in responding to the existence of AUKUS. With this dialogue, ASEAN member countries can have the same attitude in dealing with the AUKUS issue. 

Furthermore, dialogue can also be increased by presenting AUKUS as an external partner of ASEAN. In this dialogue, it can be discussed the possibilities that can occur in the cooperation of Australia, Britain, and the United States, which can affect the security of the ASEAN region. This dialogue is expected to produce beneficial cooperation for both parties while helping ASEAN achieve ASEAN Vision 2025 in the pillars of security politics. 


About Writers:

  • Hastian Akbar Stiarso is an undergraduate student majoring in International Relations at UPN “Veteran” Yogyakarta. Hastian is a member of KSM DEFENSIA, a study group engaged in traditional and non-traditional security studies. Hastian has an interest in security studies, especially in traditional security and conflict management. 
  • Rayhan Fasya Firdausi is an undergraduate student majoring in International Relations at UPN “Veteran” Yogyakarta. Rayhan is a member of KSM IRON FIRE, a study group engaged in research and writing for security studies. Rayhan has interests in non-traditional security studies, conflict resolution, and social movements.  



  1. Djalal, D. P. (2021). Asian review: Diplomatic caution: ASEAN responses to AUKUS security dynamic. East Asia Forum Quarterly, 13(4), 16–18. Retrieved from 
  2. Gurjit Singh. (2021). The ASEAN disunity over AUKUS. Retrieved 5 September, 2022, from ORF website: 
  3. Pillai Rajagopalan, R. (2021). Does AUKUS Augment or Diminish the Quad? Retrieved 5 September, 2022, from ORF website: 
  4. Southgate, L. (2021). AUKUS: The View from ASEAN. Retrieved 5 September, 2022, from The Diplomat website: 

Circular Economy in ASEAN: A Brief View on Plastics Harmonization and Micro, Small, and Medium-sized Enterprises Inclusion

Written by: Muhammad Rasyid Ridho

On 18 October 2021, ASEAN’s Framework for Circular Economy for the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) was promulgated at the 20th AEC Council Meeting. It signifies the importance of the circular economy (CE) as part of the AEC. This system is ostensible as an environmental-friendly alternative. However, ASEAN’s decision on this issue after six years of AEC establishment brings a simple question, what does “CE” mean, since it is quite a novel term for this region? Besides, how will this concept fit into the more extensive framework of AEC?

There is plenty of definition regarding CE. The most popular one is from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2012), a restorative industrial economic system to ensure the effective flow means of production and rebuild the used resources. The very purpose of this approach is to “close the loop” of the production process for attaining sustainability of the environment (Winkler, 2011). The “closure” is needed since the “linear economy” prevails as the major production process, which is characterized by “take-make-dispose”, dependent on new material use, and with no concern for the potential value generation of waste, which leads to the accumulation of waste as its negative consequence (Rathinamoorthy, 2019). The basic principles of CE are reduced, reuse, and recycle, sometimes with other additions such as repair, refurbishment, remanufacture, and repurposing.

Indeed, there are already many attempts from Southeast Asian scholars to explain CE. Most of the research is focused on its technical implementation and potential in the future in various fields. The level where it is operated also ranges from the village to the national level. However, despite the different nature or scopes of those research, it is to be noted that several kinds of research from these countries bring out similar tone-related factors of CE adoption and the recommendations. In the factors of adoption or consumption, it includes the willingness of stakeholders, personal attitude, economic cost and benefit, public acceptance or support, government incentives and support, company culture, and consumer demand (Pasaribu, 2006; Ngan et al., 2019; Jan 2022; Gue et al., 2020; Akkalatham & Taghipour, 2021; Piyathanavong et al., 2021; Tseng et al., 2021; Abbasi et al., 2022).

These researches also point out the recommendations such as: putting the commitment into long-term legal, regulation, and masterplan favoring CE with its enforcement; giving incentives in the forms of funding, grants, or tax to practicing-CE enterprises; raising public awareness; coordinating between stakeholders (between government agencies or government-private-society); campaigning awareness; and supporting research and development (Pasaribu, 2006; Ha, Levillain-Tomasini, Xuan, 2019; Wichai‑utcha & Chavalparit, 2019; Adi & Wibowo, 2020; Abdul-hamid et al., 2020; Dung et al., 2020; Dung & Hong, 2021; Hoa & Khanh, 2021; Khor & Teoh, 2021; Taghipour & Akkalatham. 2021; Vân, 2021; Vu et al., 2021; Bueta, 2022; Mangmeechai, 2022). While these researches are conducted in different countries, which automatically only puts emphasis on their respective countries. Thus, there is still a limit on how CE could be seen from a regional perspective. In addition, the other CE common principle that is being implemented in these countries is the 3R (reuse, reduce, recycle) approach (Rahmadi, 2020).

As explained by Anbumozhi and Kimura (2018), while the linear economy is the motor of ASEAN growth, it cannot solve the problem of diminishing natural-nonrenewable resources, inequality, and climate crisis. It has become one of the reasons why the Framework of CE was recently promulgated. Of the strategic priorities contained in the Framework, one that needs to be put into focus is standard harmonization. It is deemed necessary to fulfilling this aspect in the right platform and focus because its absence would be one obstacle to further coordination of regional CE practices, which possibly lead to deeper regional integration in the future (Kojima, 2019).

However, since there are a lot of areas in which sector needs to be great, thus ASEAN perhaps could pick an urgent sector on which it needs to be focused. Regarding this issue, then revisiting the report of Akenji et al. (2019) would be appropriate since their report brings a fresh outlook on regional CE practice, especially on the issue of plastic. He proposes several points regarding the position in which ASEAN could involve, which are: a regional guideline of plastic use; a network of research and development; technical standards for products and recycling; agreement on plastic pollution. Plastic waste has become an issue due to the total ASEAN contribution to plastic waste is 31 million (Trajano, 2022). The timing could not be better; in the same year, ASEAN announced the Framework of CE in AEC and the ASEAN Regional Action Plan for Combating Marine Debris in the ASEAN Member States (2021-2025. The framework could serve as a big umbrella, and the action plan complements the specific aspect. Thus, integrating these two frameworks should promote CE as the long-term remedy for the plastic problem.

It is mentioned briefly in the Framework that micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) are considered on CE practices in ASEAN. The inclusion of SMEs is essential due to their vast numbers in the region, which is approximately 71 million (Tan, 2022). They contribute 97% of total business activity and employ 67% of the working population (Tan, 2022). It is found that enterprises which implement CE practices are more resilient to global economic shocks than others due to their inclination to shorten the supply chain and follow local business situations (Rishanti & Suharyadi, 2020). In relation to the previous discussion, MSMEs need to be catered to in the framework relating to CE and the plastic issue. They need to be supported because it is evidently easier for the bigger company to transition to the CE scheme, while it is another problem for MSMEs due to its perceived high cost. In this regard, then we can revisit OECD’s (2021) suggestion of “greening the SMEs”. The suggestions include capacity support, availability of low-interest financing; incentives through tax exemption or deduction; and government-backed and free consultancy for these MSMEs to give needed information on technical or cost calculation of CE adoption. These are the area where the private sector, MSMEs, and society are essential to tackle the plastic problem at its root while simultaneously creating a circular chain -especially related to plastic- in the region. The intended consequence of MSME inclusion in the CE scheme is more public exposure to CE and a reverse of the known trend that only limited knowledgeable people who are eager to consume CE-based products (Dinh & Nguyen, 2018). Indeed, as a sign of a stronger commitment, the top-down initiatives in form of a more legally binding agreement to translate into national policy serves as the cornerstone for the thriving CE and MSME.


About Writer:

  • Muhammad Rasyid Ridho is an Research Assistant at Centre for World Trade Studies Universitas Gadjah Mada (CWTS UGM). His particular research focuses are international political economy, Southeast Asia, and China. For further inquiries, he could be contacted at


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Amicable Solutions to Philippines’ Sovereignty Claim Over Malaysia’s Sabah

Written by: Arianne Joy Fabregas and Ahmad Amsyar Ahmad Effendy

Before colonial powers arrived in the Southeast Asian region, the Malay Sultanates ruled northern parts of Borneo, i.e., Sultanates of Sulu and Maguindanao (Norizan Kadir & Suffian Mansor, 2017). When the trade industry flourished in the region, Sir Alfred Dent was persuaded to sponsor a business in Sabah by Baron von Overbeck, the Austrian Consul-General in Hong Kong at the time. They both planned to sell their rights to any interested governments. Therefore, the Sultan of Sulu and von Overbeck signed an agreement on 22nd January 1878, under which the latter obtained three territorial grants, and the Sultan received a total annual tax money payment of 1600 US Dollars (Shaffa Aulia Yasmin, 2022).

Nonetheless, it is also alleged that the Sultanate of Sulu acceded (rather than leased) North Borneo (Sabah as it then was known) to the Overbeck and Dent Company (hereinafter referred to as “North Borneo Chartered Company” or “NBCC”) in conducting business and administering the territory from 1881 until the Japanese Empire invaded and ruled North Borneo since 1942. When Japan surrendered in 1945, the British Empire secured North Borneo as a colony. While the Federation of Malaya achieved independence from the British Empire in 1957, North Borneo remained under British colonial rule (Sabah Tourist Association, 2022). Only in 1963, did it attain self-government through the formation of Malaysia by virtue of the Malaysia Agreement 1963.

The agreement between the Sultan of Sulu and Von Overbeck that was signed in 1878 until the time of the establishment of the Federation of Malaysia with the inclusion of Sabah sparked objections from countries like Indonesia and the Philippines. However, it could be acknowledged that legal battles that happened during the advent of the Sabah claims have to arrive at amicable solutions for Malaysia, the Philippines, and ASEAN region as a whole. Firstly, from the early 19th century, the Sultan of Sulu consented to give up his authority over Sulu under the Carpenter Agreement of 1915, although the Sultan kept control of North Borneo and maintained his sovereignty. Meanwhile, to obtain the funds owed to them under the 1878 Grant, the heirs of Sultan Jamalul Kiram filed a lawsuit in the Borneo court in 1939. The question before the court was who the Sultan’s heirs were and who was entitled to receive money after his passing. They had the sole English translation from the original Malay version by Maxwell and Gibson through their solicitor (who translated the Grant of 1878 as cessation instead of the lease [Malay: “Pajak”] which is inaccurate) (Boncales & Jones, n.d.).

According to Naureen Nazar Soomro (2014), the Philippine government had made repeated attempts to request the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to hear the sovereignty claim over Sabah’s case, but Malaysia has not consented to such claim. Although there are many diplomatic and legal attempts to settle the dispute, nevertheless the issue is still affecting both countries’ bilateral relations. Hence, the ASEAN community should recognize the long-standing issue between the Philippines and Malaysia over Sabah could affect its political security sooner or later. Islands in the Sulu and Celebes Seas of the southern Philippines are involved in unofficial trade with Sabah. The Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East Asean Growth Area, the ASEAN subregion economic cooperation pact, is affected by the unrest in this area in terms of trade development. To avoid further conflict from erupting in the ASEAN region, harmonious steps must be taken, as there are potential tensions there as well. Keeping in mind that the ASEAN Charter, a constitution whose existence further stresses the legal personality of ASEAN itself, has been ratified by the ASEAN member countries.

Furthermore, this issue would contradict the ASEAN Community Vision of 2025 on having a united, inclusive, and resilient community. According to ASEAN Secretariat (2015), the ASEAN community foresees to realize having a rule-based community that adheres to international law; has a comprehensive approach to security that enhances the capacity to address effectively; and a community of developing friendly and mutually beneficial relations strengthens engagement with other external parties, reaches out to potential partners, as well as responds collectively and constructively to global developments and issues of common concern.

Nevertheless, both national governments still respect each other’s rights and claim to prevent any further conflict. This can be seen when the latest Constitution of the Republic of Philippines 1987 describes national territory without specific reference to include Sabah as a part of the country as follows:

Article I National Territory

The national territory comprises the Philippine archipelago, with all the islands and waters embraced therein, and all other territories over which the Philippines has sovereignty or jurisdiction, …

On the other hand, Article 1(2) of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia 1957 clearly provided that Sabah is one of the States of Malaysia as stipulated below:

Name, States and territories of the Federation

1.(2) The States of the Federation shall be Johore, Kedah, Kelantan, Malacca, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Penang, Perak, Perlis, Sabah, Sarawak, Selangor and Terengganu.”

Notwithstanding the provisions in both countries’ constitutions as quoted above, it is arguable that if the Sulu Sultanate did not cede or lease its territory in the northern part of Borneo to NBCC before, the present Philippine sovereignty claim over Sabah might not happen and it will be included as one of the Philippine territories today. The 1878 Grant played a crucial role in determining the actual sovereignty status of Sabah in the post-colonial era, and as discussed above, the issue here stemmed from the translation and interpretation of the Malay word “Pajak” (English: “lease”) in the original Grant document which was written in Malay.

Nevertheless, an additional grant entitled “Confirmation by Sultan of Sulu of Cession of Certain Islands dated 22nd April 1903” (hereinafter referred to as “1903 Grant”) manifested the Sulu Sultanate’s intention to cede certain islands surrounding Northeast Sabah and, subsequently, it could also be considered as affirming the legal status of Sabah that has been ceded to NBCC at that point time. Therefore, this issue might have been resolved earlier, even since 1878, if both Sulu Sultanate and NBCC rectified the English translation version by Maxwell and Gibson before acknowledging it to ensure the accuracy of translation of the word “Pajak” to its actual English translated word “lease.” This further step is extremely important to avoid confusion, as happened nowadays when the English-translated version of the 1878 Grant did not reflect the actual meaning of “Pajak” in the original Malay version of the similar Grant.

In conclusion, it is firmly suggested that Malaysia and the Philippines should discuss this matter diplomatically as soon as possible with careful consideration of Sabah’s status quo under Malaysia’s sovereignty and ongoing claim by the Philippines. In addition, the researchers also agree with the recommendations of foreign diplomatic experts and international legal scholars. Wherein they recommend the following: a) to amend the ASEAN Charter of 2007 and provide a provision for the resolution of the Sabah claim to adhere to the international laws; b) provide slick diplomacy with a rigorous attempt to consider Sabah as an independent state for the claim of Sultanate of Sulu prosper and; c) provide unique settings for the three claimants that would eventually resolve the claims.


About Writers: 

  • Arianne Joy Fabregas graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Broadcast Communications from the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. She is currently taking her Juris Doctor degree at Arellano University School of Law, where she is the former Treasurer of the Arellano Law Forensic Guild, the official debating society of the law school, and has joined several debate competitions in her tenure. Moreover, she held the position of Deputy Director for Legal Affairs of GoodGovPH, an organization advocating for good governance and human rights in the Philippines. Aside from leadership positions she has conducted several local and international legal research.
    Contact Information:
  • Ahmad Amsyar Ahmad Effendy is a Pupil-in-Chambers who graduated with a Bachelor of Laws (Hons.) degree from The National University of Malaysia (UKM) and a youth activist based in Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia. He is currently serving as the International Affairs Vice President at the National Union of Malaysian Muslim Students (PKPIM), a prominent local student NGO. He has a keen interest in advocating national unity and global issues among Malaysian students and youths. He also occasionally pens his analysis and thoughts on contemporary legal issues relating to criminal justice, fundamental liberties, constitutional law, and international law.
    Contact Information:


  1. ASEAN Secretariat. (2015). ASEAN Community Vision 2025. Retrieved from
  2. Boncales, A. R. & Jones, E. (n.d.). The Philippine Claim Over Sabah: Legal and Historical Bases. Retrieved from
  3. Carpenter Agreement 1915. Retrieved from
  4. Confirmation by Sultan of Sulu of Cession of certain Islands 1903. Retrieved from
  5. Federal Constitution of Malaysia 1957. Retrieved from
  6. Grant by Sultan of Sulu of Territories and Lands on the Mainland of the Island of Borneo 1878. Retrieved from
  7. Jayakumar, S. (1968). The Philippine Claim to Sabah and International Law. Malaya Law Review, 10(2), 306–335. Retrieved from
  8. Naureen Nazar Soomro. (2014). Malaysia-Philippines Bilateral Relations: The Issue of Sabah Island. Asia Pacific – Annual Research Journal of Far East & South East Asia 31, 16-29. Retrieved from
  9. Norizan Kadir & Suffian Mansor. (2017). Reviving the Sultanate of Sulu Through its Claim over Sabah, 1962-1986.Akademika 87(3), 125-138. Retrieved from
  10. Sabah Tourist Association. (2022). History of Sabah. Retrieved from
  11. Shaffa Aulia Yasmin. (2022). Clarity of the Sabah Area in The Dispute of Malaysia and The Sulu Sultans Based on International Law. Researchgate. Retrieved from
  12. The Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines 1987. Retrieved from

ASEAN Back in the Indo-Pacific Saddle

Written by: Seonyoung Yang

Indo-Pacific has been one of the most spoken buzzwords regionally and globally. Discourses for conceptualizing Indo-Pacific are still in progress. The rift caused by exacerbated US-China rivalry, the Ukraine crisis, and energy and food prices ensued complex enigmas for all stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly for ASEAN. This essay, therefore, analyses the embedded meaning of various Indo-Pacific strategies, including the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific, and suggests how ASEAN should maneuver the strategic reefs in Indo-Pacific.

The Asia’s Geopolitical Circumstances

The US-China tit-for-tat has gotten only worsened since the Ukraine crisis. The US, EU, and its allies have criticized Russia for its horrendous attack and supported Ukraine in an unprecedented manner not only in humanitarian aid but also militarily, albeit the very foundation of the EU, the European Coal and Steel Community, aiming to deter the war under any circumstances.

A mammoth in the room, China has never been quiet per se, but its tone and demand have been stronger over recent years. Xi Jinping even started proposing new initiatives such as Global Development Initiative to regain respect worldwide after overcoming a century of humiliation[1]. From the trajectory of power dynamics, though, it is natural to observe such frictions between existing and emerging ones.

In this inimical dynamic, small and middle countries across Indo-Pacific squirm to avoid being entrapped. Amitav Acharya (2021)[2] defined that “‘Asia’ was built by nationalists, ‘Asia-Pacific’ by economists, ‘East Asia’ by culturalists, whereas ‘Indo-Pacific’ by strategists’”. This definition is succinct yet clear to understand why some countries are in favor or against ‘Indo-Pacific’.

Paradigm Shift

Geographically speaking, China is nestled within the Asia-Pacific region. Since China prioritizes economic development for regional cooperation, such as Belt and Road Initiative, hence tenaciously sticks to Asia-Pacific. On the other hand, as defined by Archarya, Indo-Pacific, encompassing two vast oceans, the maritime strategy is a salient feature. It is worth remembering Wang Gungwu[3] (2019) argued that the maritime domain has been the historians’ and strategists’ core interest for colonial expansion leading to globalization and, furthermore “the focus of global power” (p 129).

Asia-Pacific is arguably obsolete, although China and Russia grapple with holding on to it. Wang (2019) also acutely analyzed that Indo-Pacific would shed more light than ever in the era of paradigm shift[4]. He further argued that ASEAN, therefore, would be given a central role and closely watched by superpowers in the Indo-Pacific domain[5]. Conceptual geographical shifts in parallel with paradigm shifts are being occurred. Therefore, we may need to put howling arguments aside but collect heads to think of paradigm shifts within Indo-Pacific and decode various strategies, outlooks, and frameworks available until today.

ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific

The champion of ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP)[6] is undoubtedly Indonesia. As the biggest archipelago in the world, encompassing the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, Indonesia’s ambition to become the global maritime fulcrum is intrinsic. Some naysayers quickly gnaw at the AOIP’s four main areas by belittling those as nothing an inch closer to so-called a strategy. The four main areas, namely maritime cooperation, connectivity, sustainable development and economic cooperation, and other areas, are indeed functional but clearly what ASEAN needs in high demand.

Pragmatists are dissatisfied with the progress of AOIP. They even vilified that incompetence as ASEAN’s chronic disease. The moderate argue that ASEAN threw a dummy in the name of AOIP to collect ideas and tighten its grip, a convening power, to explore, define and develop ideas of Indo-Pacific. Bearing such arguments, Endy Bayuni (2022)[7]calls on superpowers to reconsider Indo-Pacific as a multi-player poker game, not a duel chess game. ASEAN does not wish to judge but remains relevant within and beyond Indo-Pacific to exercise its leeway and leniency for every player, whether big or small, to take part without being neglected.

Earlier this year, Indonesia proposed to mainstream AOIP in all ASEAN-led mechanisms. Still veiled to dialogue partners, this would not be a meticulous manual. Instead, it would suggest a loose guideline allowing maximum flexibility among all parties interested in implementing AOIP with ASEAN on lead. Even though EAS is explicitly mentioned twice as the relevant implementing mechanism in the AOIP, this leaders-led forum does not befit the ASEAN’s initial plan, given the challenging geostrategic circumstances. Alternatively, ASEAN might begin its ‘mainstreaming’ AOIP by incorporating the four main areas in each ASEAN+1 mechanism. In doing so, ASEAN may have multiple options and means to concretize the AOIP. This choice, however, might lead to ambivalence which may turn out as competition among dialogue partners but overlapping and redundancy on the other hand.

Psychological approach

In order to decode ASEAN’s ways of thinking, psychological approaches might be useful. Richard Nisbett wrote an eye-opening book, ‘The Geography of Thoughts[8]‘. Long story short, he argued that Westerners, precisely Europeans, and North Americans tend to think they are in control of their surroundings. They often consider that the rules and laws governed in society are concluded from lengthy discussions and subsidiary decision-making processes. Therefore rules-based and lawful society should not be interfered with or distorted by any supremacy. Asians, on the other hand, think nothing is permanent; hence adaptability to change and environment is crucial rather than sticking to control. Rules and laws are therefore meant to be changed constantly. ASEAN, in this regard, is eager to create a conducive environment where different actors and ideas could be freely floated but not necessarily conflicted. ASEAN would like to be a respected moderator who can exercise adroitness and wisdom to encourage everyone, even dichotomous actors, to try to seek a middle way. Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC[9]) is a prime example in which ASEAN has paved the way to consolidate its identity and suggest means under six fundamental principles as a proactive regional group pursuing peace and prosperity. Established in 1976 by five founding member-states, 49 countries[10] are listed as high contracting parties within and beyond the region. TAC suggests six principles that are characterized as highly flexible yet adamant on sovereignty, independence, non-interference, and peaceful settlement. Accession to TAC is a prerequisite for any external parties to tie a knot with ASEAN. Such conditions optimize ASEAN’s leverages to set the agenda for starting businesses in ASEAN Way by maximizing flexibility and inclusivity. Leaving space for maneuvering is ASEAN’s disposition in diplomacy, which is more pronounced in dealing with external partners.

External partners’ contribution to the AOIP

Thus far, Japan, the US, Australia, and the EU, including France, Germany, and the Netherlands, have announced Indo-Pacific strategies. Among ASEAN Dialogue Partners, Japan[11] and India[12] adopted the Leaders’ Statement on pledging to seek concrete cooperation for implementing AOIP.

Dr Shofwan[13] argued that all major powers label strategies or frameworks for their Indo-Pacific concepts while ASEAN retains low-key, using a neutral term, ‘outlook’. Unlike AOIP, major powers’ strategies or initiatives outline values such as freedom, openness, and democracy. These liberal values are embedded in AOIP to some extent but not outspokenly. These values are selective depending on the areas of cooperation or even partners ASEAN wishes to work with. Clearly, options are vast and never limited.

The US allies and partners have published Indo-Pacific initiatives besides the Republic of Korea. The incumbent government has announced a plan to announce its own Indo-Pacific framework underpinning “a pivotal global state, with a focus on promoting freedom, peace, and prosperity based on Seoul’s liberal democratic values[14](Ramon Pacheco Pardo, 2022). Concerns and questions have loomed over the continuity of Korea’s full-fledged support to ASEAN under the New Southern Policy. Nevertheless, ASEAN is considered the centerpiece of its newly unveiled Indo-Pacific framework later this year.


Indo-Pacific is arguably the busiest area where multipolarity would be revealed sporadically. As long as ASEAN remains relevant as a regional group, harsh skepticism over ASEAN’s disunity or being a toothless talk shop would gradually fade away. How ASEAN could safely stay relevant in the Indo-Pacific realm lies in ASEAN’s wisdom. ASEAN needs to be more eclectic to garner various Indo-Pacific strategies and concepts to revisit and detail its very own AOIP step by step. ASEAN never rejected proposals from elsewhere bluntly, and it never will. Conflicting or coalescing into something better is up to ASEAN’s call. For the latter, ASEAN cautiously calculates its psychological strengths and weakness to converge various Indo-Pacific concepts on the ‘middle way’ to encourage ASEAN’s role in the era of paradigm shift.

About Writer:

  • Seonyoung Yang Senior Research Officer at the Mission of the Republic of Korea to ASEAN (2013-Present), MSc of EU Studies and Communication Science from Vrije Universiteit Brussel (2011-12), Graduate Diploma in International Relations from London School of Economics (2016-17), BA of Linguistics from University of East Anglia (2006-9)


  1. The Diplomat (2020, August 20), ‘China’s ‘Never Again’ Mentality,’ Retrieved from
  2. Amitave Acharya (2021, July 8), Retrieved from
  3. Wang Gungwu (2019), ‘China Reconnects: Joining a Deep-rooted Past to a New World Order,’ Singapore: World Scientific, p. 129
  4. Ibid (2019: p. 161)
  5. Ibid (2019: p. 18)
  6. ASEAN Secretariat, ‘ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific’ (2019) Retrieved from
  7. Endy Bayuni (2022, July 19) ‘Poker, not chess, is the name of the game in the Indo-Pacific’ available on The Jakarta Post, Retrieved from
  8. Richard E. Nisbett (2003), ‘The Geography of Thoughts: How Asians and Westerners think differently,’ New York: Free Press
  9. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (2020, November 12), ‘Joint Statement of the 23rd ASEAN-Japan Summit on Cooperation on ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific,’ Retrieved from
  10. ASEAN Secretariat (2022, August 16), ‘Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC),’ Retrieved from,in%20the%20region%20and%20beyond
  11. ASEAN Secretariat (2021, October 28), ‘ASEAN-India Joint Statement on Cooperation on the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific for Peace, Stability, and Prosperity in the Region,’ Retrieved from
  12. Habibie Center Youtube (2022, July 6), ‘Talking ASEAN on “The US’ New Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Future of Taiwan’s Strait Stability,’ Retrieved from
  13. Ramon Pacheco Pardo (2022) ‘South Korea as a global pivotal state: the role of partners’ Brussels: CSDS Policy Brief 07/2022

An Online Citizen: Revealing Restrictions on the Freedom of Press and Mass Media in Singapore

Written by: Syukron Subkhi

Democracy is continually evolving to keep pace with the changing nature of the world. In the digital era, a new form of democracy has emerged through the transformation of media or other tools used to implement the principles of democracy, such as digitalization. Digital democracy is tied to modernization in a variety of daily life aspects. Accordingly, the internet provides a more open platform to access opinion and expression worldwide rather than traditional mass media.

There is a role for the media and press in overseeing the formation of various government policies and regulations. Media criticism is thought to be more effective in empowering the community to shape policies centered on citizens’ interests. So far, it appears that independent media and press are generating critical voices to influence public opinion against the government. The goal is to ensure and control that the government policies and activities are in accordance with applicable law (Lestaluhu, 2015).

Current Situation on Democracy and Press Freedom in Singapore

One way to exercise one’s democratic right to free speech is through the press and other forms of mass media. According to the 2021 Democracy Index, the indicator of civil liberties -comprises individuals’ fundamental rights and liberties that are protected against any arbitrary measures or other government intervention without due process of law- in Singapore is at the point of 6.18 out of 10, and the country’s average score with four other indicators is 6.23, despite Singapore’s relatively high economic level compared to other ASEAN member countries (Arbar, 2022). In terms of press freedom, Singapore is ranked 141st out of 200 countries on UDI and 66th overall based on an average of the other four indicators. This places Singapore as one of the countries with a faulty democracy system. (EIU, Democracy Index 2021: The China Challenge, 2022).

The Singapore Parliament passed the Foreign Interference Act (FICA) on October 4, 2021. People’s freedom of movement and political participation are at risk under this law, which could be used as ambiguous yet biased laws to weaken the “people power” and ability to influence the ruling government. According to the International Court of Justice, FICA violated international human rights law’s principles of legality, necessity, and proportionality. Unnecessarily sweeping legislation covers a wide range of politically-motivated conduct in Singapore. The FICA Law’s unclear provisions also give the executive branch the ability to interpret and implement the law in any way they see fit (ICJ, 2021).

One of the most damaging aspects of FICA is its ability to allow the executive, through Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), to order the removal or deactivation of online content. The provisions of the FICA Act state:

“Activities carried out in connection with foreign interests and directed at political ends in Singapore may be criminalized if there are indications of communications being conducted in secret or with fraud, including the intentional use of encrypted communication platforms.”

There is a wide range of activities that fall under the umbrella of “activities aimed at political ends,” including social justice advocacy, artistic commentary, academic research, and journalistic coverage by members of the public and private sectors. Singaporeans’ ability to organize and participate in public affairs will be severely restricted by this law, it is clear (ICJ, 2021). This issue will definitely affect the versatility of the democratic advocacy activities, for instance, The Online Citizen that will be discussed in this article.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) believes that punishments for violators of FICA laws are disproportionate and that many of these sentences can be imposed without adequate independent oversight or remedies in cases of human rights violations, which can have long-term negative effects on public discourse. Authorities may fine censored online content, accounts, services, apps, and locations (ICJ, 2021). As a result, UDI Singapore’s political participation and political culture assessment indicators have been lowered from 4.44 and 7.50 to 4.44 and 7.50, respectively. (EIU, Democracy Index 2021: The China Challenge, 2022).

“An Online Citizen”

In order to express and criticize the government’s abuse of power, a documentary film titled “an Online Citizen” was made, which examines how the government of Singapore controls nearly 90% of the country’s media and the information that is widely available there. “An Online Citizen” was produced in 2019 and directed by independent British journalist Calum Stuart, who lives in Singapore. This documentary film features the story of Terry Xu, the Chief Editor of TOC (The Online Citizen), a platform for blogging communities in Singapore. He describes this film as “very observational” to investigate the expression of democracy in Singapore is slightly restrained (in an interview with the New York Times).

Scene from the film “an Online Citizen”

In order to better understand the impact of the film’s production, the film’s director was given permission to focus on examining the effects that were experienced by groups of people or organizations, independent journalists, and media outlets towards the implementation of POFMA (The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act). As a result of the passage of POFMA by the Singaporean Parliament, the political and democratic situation in Singapore has become tenser and more charged than it had been previously. TOC is an excellent choice for the primary subject of a documentary because of the fact that the TOC is a long-standing media community in Singapore that has been active and steadfast in conveying personal freedom and conveying information in Singapore.

“an Online Citizen” managed to accomplish two things at once. The movie demonstrates that TOC, as an independent media community, has limitations in conveying criticism and facts about poor policy-making in Singapore from the perspective of public involvement, as well as the criminalization of journalists and media that are against the government. First and foremost, the Singapore Broadcasting Law’s blocking of this movie shows the government’s unwillingness to accept criticism and opinions from the public because it is feared that it will lead to an increase in public awareness of direct political participation, which could influence policy-making. These facts demonstrate how the current Singaporean government restricts and harms the freedom to express one’s views and take part in politics, both of which are essential components of a healthy democracy.

Conclusion and Recommendation

The rights of freedom of expression and participation in political movement are part of the fundamental aspects of democracy which are stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948. As a country that adopted the democratic system for its governance, it is mandatory for Singaporean Government to protect its people to actively participate in political movements. Disobeying the human rights mechanism means that the ruling government fails to implement the commitment to the democratic system.

This issue needs a deep concern and understanding, where the legal systems will be unable to protect the critical voices of its people from the ruling government that has the power in controlling the media and surpass ambiguous laws without truly independent courts. Attempting to embarrass the government’s action is arguably an effective and potent measure of those who favor freedom of expression. Bringing to light instances of legal actions, persecutions, and violations against journalists and their publications in the form of critical and creative approaches may seem modest, but it might mean the difference between freedom and its antithesis.

About Writer

  • Syukron Subkhi is a Media Publication and Research Assistant at ASEAN Studies Center Universitas Gadjah Mada. He holds a bachelor’s degree in social sciences majoring in International Relations with a particular focus on human rights, democracy, and development studies. He can be contacted through


  1. Lestaluhu, S. (2015, April 2). Peran Media Massa dalam Mengawal Kebijakan Publik di Ambon. p. 2.
  2. EIU. (2022). Democracy Index 2021: The China Challenge. London: The Economic Intelligence Unit.
  3. Arbar, T. F. (2022, February 11). Daftar Terbaru Negara Terkaya Asia Tenggara, RI Nomor Berapa? . Retrieved from CNBC Indonesia: terkaya-asia-tenggara-ri-nomor-berapa
  4. ICJ. (2021). Singapore: Withdraw Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill. International Court of Justice.