Asean hostage to poor governance

Asean hostage to poor governance

As the Asean foreign ministers head home after another intensive round of discussions in Kuala Lumpur ahead of the inception of the Asean Economic Community in less than five months' time, several important issues remain unresolved. These include illegal migration and trafficking, the depletion of fish stocks, trans-border haze, weak civil aviation regulations and a failure to agree on air traffic rights, and the lack of substantive progress on the proposed South China Sea Code of Conduct.

Essentially, the region's biggest hurdle to successful integration, growth and security has yet to be addressed -- improved public sector governance. Nonetheless, the ten governments have been reluctant to examine their own capacity to lead Southeast Asia forward in the complex world of the 21st Century.

Only one of the ten member countries, Singapore, has managed to achieve the status of developed economy. Six are snared in the middle-income trap, unable to generate the innovation necessary to graduate to developed status. Most telling of all, more than 15 years after becoming members of Asean, three of its member states are still officially "least developed countries": Cambodia, Myanmar and Lao PDR.

Ominously, income inequality within and between the ten countries is increasing year-by-year, much of the region's economic infrastructure is in a decrepit state despite efforts led by the ADB and UN Escap to create economic corridors, and the living environment continues to deteriorate. A stable, secure and prosperous community cannot be built on such weak foundations.

Asean governments need to seriously address the governance issues which are holding the region back: traditional and inequitable education systems, weak institutions and regulatory environments, corruption and crony capitalism.

An important first step towards improving Asean public sector governance is to evaluate public sector performance in a way meaningful to the needs and aspirations of Southeast Asians. Measuring governance performance via outputs is now standard practice, with multiple indices prepared and updated annually by various United Nations agencies, NGOs and research institutions.

However, governments are typically reluctant to compare their governance performance against other governments -- even those in the same region -- because this runs the risk of highlighting their own shortcomings and providing political fodder for the opposition or civil society groups. Yet it is just this kind of comparative analysis which helps to identify regional best practice and bring greater accountability into public sector governance.

What Asean needs now is an "Index of Asean Governance" -- a comprehensive set of outcomes-based performance measures which clearly identify the areas in which each government in the region is doing well and the areas in which governance practices can and should be improved. The sectors to be covered by such an index would need to reflect the interests and needs of the people of Southeast Asia by selecting those goals and relevant statistical indicators which contribute to the region's social, economic and environmental well-being.

The objective of the proposed index would be to bring a host of accurate and verifiable data on government performance together in one knowledge base. This would help to identify the effectiveness of each of the ten Asean governments in planning and implementing public policy, and in delivering public goods and services.

By benchmarking public sector governance performance, the index would assist all ten governments to develop good governance practices and would assist stakeholders in good governance -- every citizen and every company in the region -- to make sound choices.

In short, the Index of Asean Governance would do much to make Southeast Asian governments accountable to their people.

Another region fighting to chart its own way, Africa, has already developed its own comprehensive governance index. The Ibrahim Index of African Governance is a major driver behind efforts by African governments to improve the livelihoods of their people and to attract foreign investment through greater transparency and accountability, improved participation, reducing corruption and a better allocation of government resources.

The improvement in the performance of a number of African countries relative to Asean member countries is one measure of the success of the Ibrahim Index. In 2004 only six African countries enjoyed a higher ranking than Thailand in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, but by 2014 the number of African countries with a better ranking than Thailand had more than doubled to 15.

As Asean countries slide down global governance indices such as Transparency International's, a host of African countries have been climbing the rankings.

Southeast Asia clearly needs to improve its governance performance if it is to achieve a genuine community which is not shackled by growing inequality, economic under-performance and environmental degradation. A tailored Asean governance index would also help to pragmatically address Transparency International's call for an "Asean Integrity Community" to address the chronic problem of corruption.

An institutional champion of good public sector governance in Asean must emerge to sponsor the development and promulgation of a regional index. The alternative is that governance in the Asean community will lack rigorous review. As Thailand is presently among the weakest performers in the region in a range of governance indicators, the adoption of a means for promoting good governance will benefit Thailand significantly. 

Yan Flint is a former New Zealand ambassador to Vietnam and former director of the Mekong Institute. He is currently a senior lecturer and researcher at Khon Kaen University. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa, Phd, is founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University.

Yan Flint

Former New Zealand ambassador to Vietnam

Yan Flint is a former New Zealand ambassador to Vietnam and former director of the Mekong Institute. He is currently a senior lecturer and researcher at Khon Kaen University.

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