Let’s face it, ASEAN is going nowhere

Pranoto Iskandar
Institute for Migrant Rights

This post responds to Social & Legal Studies’ (S&LS) kind offer to further discuss my recently published work in S&LS. Since this is more of an extension of the paper, I will not repeat what I have stated in my S&LS paper. The paper is built on disparate levels of both theoretical and practical engagements of the Asian ideation. To be specific, the paper uses the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as the latest and most ambitious manifestation of what it means to be the “exceptional” Asia as opposed to the “regular” West. This post is aimed at providing an account of the general insights which propelled the articulation of the argument that I advance. First, I present some of the “deleted scenes” that did not appear in the paper. The last-half of the discussion is dedicated to some post hoc developments that are tightly connected to the spirit of the paper. I am hoping to show that there is still something out there that can be done.

Bringing the implied to the fore

As the last stronghold, the very idea that Asia as the Orient embodies the inexplicable exoticism is yesterday’s news. Its sentimental implication sends the unambiguous signal that its general population is docile and politically passive leading them to deserve fewer, if any, rights. As history confirms, this exoticism has justified the otherness of the population of the Orient. This otherness has conveyed the derogatory notion that gives credence to the Oriental population as no more than a horde of speakers of some nonsense words (barbarians). This dehumanizing rendition endorsed by Aristotle with his conception of oriental despotism stands in stark contrast to the Ancient Greek subjects who were thought capable of handling the fraught freedom. In a similar vein, Hegel repeats the chant by placing the Oriental despotism as the primeval stage of human history. Thus, it is unsurprising that Marx himself endorses the European imperialism as a force for good to liberate the Orient. This makes another Twilight Zone episode when China shouts it from the rooftop that “Marx was right” and following him is “the true path” in order “to understand the world, grasp the law, seek the truth, and change the world.”

Going deeper, what is more interesting here is that the postcolonial reality in Asia has confusingly self-reinforced the above image. The promise of postcolonial rhetoric is no more than a self-serving propaganda for the feudal indigenous elites. Seen thus, the brave new postcolonial order is more about maintaining the status quo that suppressed the rest of the commoners’ chance to improve their lives. The most blatant example is the Asian states making use of the Western notion of sovereignty in an indiscriminate fashion without taking into account the gravity of the humanitarian problems that are at stake. Given the growing list of transnational issues, the display of an unrestrained use of sovereignty in inter-Asian states’ politics is clearly nonsensical. Arguably, this zero-sum-game reasoning is also prevalent in the rest of non-Western world. In short, everybody wants to have and eat the only cake in the room. As a result, being outside of one’s country is the worst thing that can happen to anyone in the region.

Even more confusingly, it appears that the “indigenous” scholarly works have deliberately turned a blind eye to this more-than-inconvenient situation. Many of them seem to legitimize the hideous political rivalry that benefits no one but which perpetuates the predatory state-centered system of regional politics. Under the guise of putting a premium on state equality and, thus, non-interference, the Asian mode of foreign relations hallmarks the disregard for pressing humanitarian concerns. Hence, it is fair to suspect them as a mere conservative government mouthpiece that responds to the pressure of the humanization of inter-state politics. Or, this may simply signify that the internalization process of the Oriental despotism has been willingly taken to heart. From another related front, the regional activism is too disenfranchised to be able to speak as one voice. Not only due to the almost nonexistent sense of common interest, the region’s non-state actors indelible sense of nationalism has prominently debilitated the already weak commitment to issues that are beyond the scope of their respective national interests.

Looking back to the future

Be that as it may, it is timely to question along these lines: what is going on, why is it all happening, and, certainly, and what can we do, if anything, to ameliorate this regional conservatism that is deeply rooted in almost everyone’s psyche? To be blunt, the postcolonial project has lost its purpose. Postcoloniality supposedly eventuated as an open forum with a strong collaborative spirit that lead to nothing but the betterment of its long-neglected population. Should we all be on the same page, the more important agenda can be defined as presenting the much-needed corrections to the prevailing arrangement that proved to be the enabler for some of the most heinous crimes perpetrated by humanity. In fact, it might be very likely that this is what postcolonialism was all about in the first place.

Along these lines, it is worth quoting at length Sukarno, like so many other early Third World “great” liberators, when he deplores the fact that:

“There is no indigenous industrial and middle class as in Hindustan, now existing in Indonesia. … All the roots of the big indigenous enterprises have been pulled up and wiped out for a long time … by the old and modern imperialism. … Now there only remains small-trading, small-shipping … small-farming … added to millions of workers who have no enterprise at all – now Indonesian society is a society typically of little men, of kromo, of Marhaen, who have nothing that is not small.”

It is unfortunate that in the process, not only did Sukarno, but also many other liberators succumb to their lower selves and ran a capricious and often brutal administration. At least, two great humanitarian catastrophes, perpetrated by Mao and, then, imitated by Pol Pot, can be squarely perceived as Asia’s postcolonial legacies. In fact, Asia is reeling from humanitarian crises, one after another with the most recent being the Rohingya which reveals another historic testimonial of the swift fall of today’s Asia’s much lauded human rights’ icon into disgrace. As I have discussed at length in my contribution to S&LS, it is unreasonable to expect an instantaneous change. The reason being that Asia is simply too conservative to move beyond the self-limiting discourse of national interest, whatever it may be. As a mother lode of the authoritarian mode of political arrangement, for Asia to undergo a change of heart a series of incremental nudges consistently need to be pushed through. It is this conviction that has led me to further develop my (quasi-practical) theoretical research agenda that aims to unravel the ideation of the Orientalized Asia.

In addition to some micro changes that I set out in my S&LS paper, another modest attempt that I believe to be worth trying is the uncompromising assessment from the academic front. Again, this is by no means to be seen as a panacea. As one may easily recognize, the more established tradition in academic research in Asia is exclusively connected with the non-eroding sovereignty issues. After almost 12 years since I published a textbook on international law that presented a critical treatment of the hegemonic role of statism in Indonesia’s scholarly tradition in foreign relations, I haven’t seen any substantial progress. It is still common to see academic voices coming to the same positions as those advanced by diplomats. Indeed, Indonesia’s representative in the governing bodies of the Asian Society of International Law is a staunch nationalist diplomat who is now appointed as Indonesia’s deputy minister.

For what is worth, the academic engagement is the most doable option as it is relatively inexpensive, free of bureaucratic hurdles, and leaves an opportunity for the next generation to capitalize on it. As a follow up to that belief, I currently co-direct with Beth Lyon a collaborative comparative research program on the rights of farmworkers that covers most of the jurisdictions in South East and East Asia. Recently, an op-ed that aimed to raise the region’s awareness of the plight of farmworkers has been published in Bangkok Post (see here). The core research team members are comprised of some Asian Cornell law students with strong interest in social activism, coupled with some researchers with non-law backgrounds. Each of them is connecting with their respective regional partners to co-write a rights report that is adjusted to the particularities of their countries. Perhaps, the most significant of all is the partnership with a local law school in Cianjur, Indonesia, where the team discovered the persistent violation of the Indonesian tea pickers’ labor rights that use the same “colonial” system to take advantage of the middle-aged female workers. Taking this cue, a team of local lawyers, with the support of the research team in consultation with Valerie Hans, are preparing to start the first litigation of its kind to take full advantage of a social science methodology toolbox. While this may not be the kind of earth-shattering fix that we have all been waiting for, as a “small men” man myself, I believe, a small spark could be a decent treat as well.

Pranoto Iskandar is the founding director of the Institute for Migrant Rights and visiting scholar at Cornell University’s Southeast Asia Program. Iskandar is the author of publications concerning Asiatic rightism constitutional thought, his most recent publications are: Indigenizing Constitutionalism and the Unbound Postcolonial Leviathan. This blog is based on the article Non-Citizen Rights in ASEAN: The Need to Chart a New Course published in Social & Legal Studies, written while he was O’Brien Fellow in Residence at the McGill Centree for Human Rights & Legal Pluralism, Canada. The article can be viewed for free for a limited time (correct on 06.06.18) via the link above.


This writing improved immensely after Greg Carlson contributed his “close” reading. And (Sri) Taarna Grimsley, as usual, has provided the much-needed kick-start reading.



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