Webinars on 35th ASEAN Roundtable

The annual ASEAN Roundtable provides a forum for leading scholars and commentators to examine key issues and challenges affecting ASEAN as a region and as a regional organisation.


Wednesday-Friday, 21-23 October 2020 – The ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute held its 35th ASEAN Roundtable, themed “The COVID-19 Crisis: Impact on ASEAN and the Way Forward” on 21 to 23 October 2020. This year’s Roundtable took a deeper, analytical look at the impact and implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on the ASEAN region, with speakers examining pressing issues facing ASEAN governments and societies as they attempt to recover from the crisis.

Opening Remarks

Mr Choi Shing Kwok
Mr Choi Shing Kwok kicked off the Roundtable session with his Opening Remarks. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

In his Opening Remarks, Mr Choi Shing Kwok (Director, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Head, ASEAN Studies Centre) stated that besides being a public health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has also affected the global economy and exacerbated existing geopolitical tensions. New challenges such as the COVID-19 infodemic, vaccine nationalism, and institutional accountability gaps have also emerged. Against this backdrop, regional cooperation is imperative for the maintenance of peace and stability in Southeast Asia. Citing the theme of Vietnam’s ASEAN Chairmanship 2020, “Cohesive and Responsive”, Mr Choi reminded of the importance for ASEAN to band together to mitigate COVID-19’s impacts, chart a path towards recovery, and build resilience against future shocks to maintain its relevance in the shifting world order. ASEAN has made considerable efforts in its collective response to the pandemic on the health, economic, travel and connectivity fronts. The region has also continued to collaborate in areas such as the ASEAN Smart Cities Network, cybersecurity, transnational crime, and climate change. Mr Choi remarked that the pandemic, as well as ASEAN’s experience in tackling it, has highlighted some opportunities for ASEAN moving forward, including in continued support for multilateralism and in leveraging digitalisation for regional growth and resilience.

Mr Christian Echle
Mr Christian Echle also delivered the Opening Remarks. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Next, Mr Christian Echle (Director, Regional Programme Political Dialogue Asia, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung) noted that the region has done comparatively well in managing COVID-19’s impacts, warranting attention on how the region will move forward and tackle long-term challenges beyond COVID-19. He cited the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute’s State of Southeast Asia: 2020 Survey Report that highlighted the encouraging outlook for the European Union as a strategic partner of ASEAN and a potential global leader in upholding the multilateral rules-based order. Mr Echle shared that Germany has adopted guidelines on the Indo-Pacific region which emphasise multilateral cooperation, free trade, connectivity, and climate change, amongst other partnerships. Most importantly, the guidelines stress a need to work together to avoid a bipolar world order and to ensure that countries in the Indo-Pacific region will have a choice in their political and economic affiliations. Mr Echle also shared Germany’s plans to establish a Regional German Information Centre in Singapore to combat the challenge of misinformation and disinformation in the region.

Dr Koh Poh Koon
Dr Koh Poh Koon gave the Keynote Message. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

In his Keynote Message, Dr Koh Poh Koon (Senior Minister of State for Health) noted that while ASEAN member states were among the first to be affected by COVID-19, most of its governments have reacted quickly to contain the outbreak. Despite ASEAN’s existing mechanisms, COVID-19 has still had manifold impacts on the region’s health, social and economic sectors. Dr Koh highlighted the importance of investing in health security to prepare for future public health emergencies. While fiscal stimulus packages rolled out by the region’s governments have helped to cushion the economic blows of COVID-19, there remains a large informal economy and unbanked population that complicate the distribution of relief aid. The pandemic has threatened to widen the inequality gap, with governments facing the twin challenges of saving lives and livelihoods and the pandemic also affecting longer term investments needed for regional development. Dr Koh shared five areas in which ASEAN can work together to overcome the COVID-19 crisis, namely (i) upholding ASEAN solidarity; (ii) building a robust healthcare system to support reopening efforts; (iii) maintaining trade flows and keeping supply chains connected; (iv) accelerating technology adoption and digitalisation; and (v) cooperating on vaccine multilateralism. He encouraged ASEAN member states to embrace regionalism and engage with global partners to overcome the challenges posed by COVID-19 and realise the ASEAN Community Vision. He stated that ASEAN’s response to the pandemic will determine if it forges ahead or falls behind the competition.

Click here to download Mr Choi Shing Kwok’s Opening Remarks.

Dr Koh Poh Koon’s Keynote Message can be viewed here.

Session I: COVID-19’s Multi-faceted Challenges in ASEAN

Following the Opening Remarks, a panel discussion was held featuring Professor Mely Caballero-Anthony (Professor, The S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University), Dr Jonatan Lassa (Senior Lecturer, Charles Darwin University), and Dr Ross Tapsell (Senior Lecturer and Researcher, Australian National University). Moderating the session was Ms Moe Thuzar (Fellow, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute).

Professor Caballero-Anthony
Professor Caballero-Anthony noted that ASEAN’s comprehensive security framework did not traditionally include health security until the outbreak of SARS. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Professor Caballero-Anthony opened with an overview of the history of ASEAN’s cooperation on health security. She noted that ASEAN’s comprehensive security framework did not traditionally include health security, which was seen as a national issue, until the outbreak of SARS. As a result, ASEAN established important regional mechanisms to manage emerging health threats. These formed the basis of ASEAN’s health mechanisms to manage COVID-19, which largely focused on ensuring the flow of timely and accurate information, providing risk assessment, and technical support. Professor Caballero-Anthony noted that ASEAN has fared comparatively well as a region in managing COVID-19, and has shown the capacity for regional cooperation. However, further regional cooperation is still needed in (i) the development of a regional reserve of medical supplies; (ii) the establishment of the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases; (iii) promoting ASEAN as a supply or manufacturing hub for vaccines; and (iv) developing common travel protocols to aid in the opening of borders. Despite the prevalence and potential of such regional mechanisms, ensuring ASEAN’s health security is still largely dependent on national initiatives. ASEAN member states should work individually and bilaterally to strengthen health systems.

Dr Jonatan Lassa
Dr Jonatan Lassa stressed that there is no one ASEAN Way in crisis leadership and management. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Lassa noted the widespread and multi-faceted impacts of COVID-19 cannot be tackled with a single ministry or departmental approach and that institutional set-ups can better mobilise resources during pandemics, especially in large countries. He stated that the declaration of a state of emergency also allows governments at the central level to mobilise resources quickly, but there are many variations of this practice in the region, with some member states delaying their declarations of COVID-19 as a public health emergency. Dr Lassa stressed that there is no one ASEAN Way in crisis leadership and management. ASEAN governments have diverged in their establishment, deployment, and assigned roles of arrangements and structures to deal with COVID-19. Finally, Dr Lassa emphasised the need to integrate risk and crisis communication strategies in handling pandemics, as well as for the interoperability and integration of national response frameworks into the regional framework.

Dr Ross Tapsell
Dr Ross Tapsell highlighted that governments themselves can be significant drivers of disinformation. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Tapsell began by pointing out that governments tend to blame fake news as the cause of their problems. The term “fake news” and the way in which leaders dismiss criticism is a growing problem, as legitimate issues might not be addressed when they (or their parts) are categorised as “fake news”. Dr Tapsell highlighted that governments themselves can be significant drivers of disinformation. Additionally, governments sometimes act out of “regulatory opportunism”, taking advantage of situations or crises to crack down on critics. There has been a rise in political participation driven by online movements and a decline in civil liberties, which could lead to more clashes between the government and civil society. In closing, Dr Tapsell described how the information society will affect and shape our immediate future in (i) decisions on getting vaccinated against COVID-19; (ii) the channelling of anxieties, which can either lead to positive reform or further repression; (iii) the organisation of protests, dissent and actions and the blurring of the line between fake news peddlers and genuine activists; and (iv) the “post-truth” society. However, the handling of the infodemic in the ASEAN region underscores that trust in governments is not earned by stifling dissent and dismissing concerns.

Over 150 participants attended the first session of the ASEAN Roundtable which was moderated by Ms Moe Thuzar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The Q&A discussion touched on relevant issues including the role of non-governmental actors in contributing to regional recovery policies, ASEAN’s capacity-building efforts to cope with COVID-19, measures to protect and manage migrant workers in ASEAN, how to further leverage ASEAN’s relationship with its Plus Three partners, and efforts to counter governments’ use of social media to promote propaganda.

Session II: The Economic Impact of COVID-19 on ASEAN

The second panel featured Ms Selena Ling (Chief Economist, OCBC Bank), Dr Jayant Menon (Visiting Senior Fellow, Regional Economic Studies Programme, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute), and Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid (Chairman, CIMB ASEAN Research Institute (CARI)). Professor Tham Siew Yean (Visiting Senior Fellow, Regional Economic Studies Programme, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute) moderated the session.

Ms Selena Ling
Ms Selena Ling shared that it will take at least a year for Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia to recover to pre-pandemic levels. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Ms Ling opened by acknowledging that COVID-19 is relatively contained in ASEAN, with the region accounting for only 2% of global COVID-19 cases and having a relatively low rate of 16 deaths per million. Nevertheless, COVID-19 has widely impacted the region’s economy, and full-year recessions are expected across the ASEAN economies. She said that a “V”-shaped recovery can be seen in Q3 2020 but is expected to waver in Q4 2020. Ms Ling shared that it will take at least a year for Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia to recover to pre-pandemic levels, and recovery is expected to take slightly longer for Singapore, Thailand and Philippines. However, Ms Ling pointed to several silver linings on the horizon. Due to early and heavy government interventions including fiscal and monetary policies, there has not been a sharp spike of unemployment in the region. ASEAN has also benefited from China’s First-In-First-Out recovery as economic linkages have intensified. Evidence of China’s machinery exports growing significantly gives pause for hopes of growth. Additionally, ASEAN is well-positioned to leverage global supply chain reshuffles. and finally, digitalisation and e-commerce appears set for a growth trajectory in ASEAN.

Dr Jayant Menon
Dr Jayant Menon noted that GSCs’ share of global trade has started to decline after many years of strong growth. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Menon highlighted the prominence of Global Supply Chains (GSCs) in global trade, and explained that GSCs are an important tool in increasing income and reducing poverty in the ASEAN region. However, he noted that GSCs’ share of global trade has started to decline after many years of strong growth, in large part accelerated, though not induced, by the US-China trade war and the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr Menon described GSCs to be ever-evolving and dynamic, noting that small shifts in trade costs can have a big impact on GSC relocation. Reducing trade costs is therefore critical to retaining and expanding GSCs in ASEAN. Dr Menon noted that the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) can promote the growth of GSCs and attract more GSC investment to the region in light of the opportunities created by the US-China trade war and COVID-19 pandemic. However, ASEAN needs to take further steps to implement the AEC agenda and achieve its targets before its 2025 deadline.

Tan Sri Dr. Munir Majid
Tan Sri Dr. Munir Majid stressed that ASEAN lacked the urgency to make decisions to achieve integration, and needed to stop pushing paper around and up its game. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Tan Sri Dr Munir agreed that ASEAN’s headline numbers were excellent, but the region needs to continue to attract investment, enhance trade facilitation, and reduce non-tariff measures (NTMs) to strengthen economic integration. The distribution of investments in the region is uneven with slightly more than half of total investments flows going to Singapore. Infrastructure development and human capital and trading capabilities need to be improved. On the trade facilitation front, the ASEAN Single Window (ASW) project was completed earlier this year but is only limited to a single document, the ASEAN Trade in Goods Agreement (ATIGA) electronic Form D. More has to be done, such as automating custom procedures. Tan Sri Dr Munir noted that there has been an almost 60% increase in NTMs in ASEAN, particularly in Vietnam and Thailand, since the establishment of the AEC in 2015 to 2020. While NTMs are in place to protect food and medicine safety, they should also be transparent and harmonised. Tan Sri Dr Munir highlighted that the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) can be a huge boost to the region, but member states are unequally positioned to take advantage of 4IR. He stressed that ASEAN lacked the urgency to make decisions to achieve integration, and needed to stop pushing paper around and up its game.

Over 150 participants attended the second session of the ASEAN Roundtable. Dr Tham Siew Yean moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The Q&A discussion covered topics including underemployment in the ASEAN region, the financing of COVID-19 fiscal stimulus packages in the region, barriers to trade in e-commerce, how ASEAN economies have benefited from the US-China trade war, the regional economic outlook in the case of vaccine deployment, and the role of the ASEAN Way in economic integration.

Session III: Dealing with a Volatile World

The concluding session featured Mr Bilahari Kausikan (Chairman, Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore), Mr Sihasak Phuangketkeow (Former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Thailand), and Dr Marty Natalegawa (Former Foreign Minister of Indonesia). The panel was moderated by Dr Malcolm Cook (Visiting Senior Fellow, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute).

Mr Bilahari Kausikan
Mr Bilahari Kausikan urged ASEAN to think about the Mekong as an existential and strategic issue. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Mr Kausikan explained that agency is present even in the most seemingly dire of circumstances, but whether we have the wit to recognise it and the agility and courage to use it are different matters. While observers have questioned ASEAN’s agency, taking both critics and flatterers of ASEAN too seriously will lead to a degradation of agency. Mr Kausikan expressed that being in the midst of great power competition is not new to ASEAN. One of ASEAN’s fundamental purposes is to maximise the agency of its members to preserve national autonomy and pursue their own national interests as they define them. However, the understanding that regional interest must be some part of national interest is weaker in some of ASEAN’s newer members. Mr Kausikan noted that one of ASEAN’s mistakes was its expansion without adequate socialisation of new members. He believed that the US-China rivalry is less immediately dangerous than the previous US-Soviet competition because the destructive proxy conflicts in Southeast Asia during the Cold War are today highly improbable. Mr Kausikan urged ASEAN to think about the Mekong as an existential and strategic issue. True neutrality was knowing one’s own interests, taking positions based on that, and not allowing others to define one’s interests. Mr Kausikan noted that US-China competition is more complex as they are intertwined in the same system and entangled in a web of supply chains which distinguish the current interdependence from previous periods. Complete decoupling of the two countries is improbable, and this complexity creates agency by broadening choices. He said that Southeast Asia, and the Indo-Pacific region as a whole, is a naturally multipolar region. Multipolarity enhances agency as it maximises manoeuvre space. ASEAN-created forums will help to promote multipolarity and ASEAN should fully optimise such platforms. He closed by explaining that agency depends on having the wit to recognise it, and the agility and courage to use it. The present generation of ASEAN leaders now operate within more complex and pluralistic domestic political environments, and this is true even of the one-party systems. It is harder to get domestic consensus and without domestic consensus, there can be no regional consensus. Leadership – and agency – begins at home.

Mr Sihasak Phuangketkeow
Mr Sihasak Phuangketkeow stressed that the regional organisations like ASEAN must uphold the concept of multilateralism and regionalism. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Mr Phuangketkeow expressed that COVID-19 has accentuated the ongoing crisis of multilateralism. The pandemic is a wake-up call to generate momentum for long-overdue reforms of international institutions to reflect the structural changes in the international system, the shift in the global distribution of power, and the rise of digitalisation. Going forward, the outcome of the November US presidential election will significantly determine how multilateralism will evolve. Although the US-China strategic competition will not go away, the Biden administration will make more efforts to better manage the competition and cooperation between both countries. Mr Phuangketkeow stressed that the regional organisations like ASEAN must uphold the concept of multilateralism and regionalism and continue partnerships with the UN system to fill the current gap in global governance. Additionally, ASEAN has to overcome the immediate challenge of economic recovery by advancing regional economic integration through the conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and other FTAs. Mr Phuangketkeow noted that ASEAN has an opportunity to advance the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) to shape a multilateral and multipolar regional order that is open, inclusive and rules-based. In this regard, the ASEAN Way needs to be recalibrated and reinvigorated in the post-COVID-19 world.

Dr Marty Natalegawa
Dr Marty Natalegawa stressed that ASEAN’s relevance won’t come by itself; it requires ASEAN’s capacity to act. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Natalegawa described ASEAN’s adeptness at recognising and analysing geopolitical challenges that confront it. However, it is vital that ASEAN can move beyond this to identify concrete actions to respond to developments and anticipate future challenges. He stressed that ASEAN’s relevance won’t come by itself; it requires ASEAN’s capacity to act. Dr Natalegawa said that it is not in ASEAN’s interest to exercise neutrality in the most passive sense. ASEAN must demonstrate realism in recognising its strengths and weaknesses, managing expectations, and assessing ongoing major power rivalries, and idealism in its potential to be a net contributor to peace and its transformative capabilities. The bloc must recognise what is at stake – regional peace and security. Dr Natalegawa expressed that ASEAN should extrapolate the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) to ensure non-use of force in the Indo-Pacific, among non-ASEAN countries, and to promote a dynamic equilibrium in the region. ASEAN should also develop its crisis management toolbox, boost political will to set up peace and security councils within ASEAN and the East Asia Summit (EAS), and ensure that there is no burden to peace and security projected to the international community (for example during instances of intra-regional conflicts).

160 participants attended the final session of the ASEAN Roundtable. Dr Malcolm Cook moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Capping off the panel session was a Q&A discussion that covered topics including the future of ASEAN’s membership, regional economic integration, the ASEAN Troika, ASEAN’s stance on the South China Sea issue moving forward, and ASEAN’s regional COVID-19 response.

Concluding Remarks

Ms Sharon Seah
Ms Sharon Seah delivered the Concluding Remarks. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

In her Concluding Remarks, Ms Sharon Seah (Coordinator, ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute) summarised the topics and issues discussed over the three sessions and highlighted the underlying conclusion that ASEAN is at a strategic crossroads. She pointed out that the nexus between ASEAN centrality and unity is manifested in two dimensions: firstly, ASEAN itself must matter to its own members – centrality therefore begins at home. Secondly, alignment of national and regional interests requires the wisdom and courage to accommodate regional interest as part of national interests. Ms Seah stressed that it was time for ASEAN to get “woke”, drive regionalism and integration, and advocate for an open, multilateral agenda. ASEAN neutrality is not to be identified with taking a passive stand; instead, ASEAN must take a proactive approach, making institutional changes from within, developing capabilities for early crisis detection and implementing concrete action. Only by acting in solidarity can ASEAN emerge stronger and build back better.

Video highlights for 35th ASEAN Roundtable