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Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Learning the ASEAN consensus Through MODEL ASEAN MEETING

Feature Story

The event, he said, was definitely an eye-opener. Having no background in public policy, Kim Soon Tan had little knowledge on how ASEAN policies are made—like most of ASEAN nationals at the outer circle. Some may think that, as ASEAN is a regional institution, its member states cooperatively resolve their problems. The event, said Tan, showed the opposite: in ASEAN meeting the member states have to struggle to reach a common agreement.

Unlike Tan, Antonio-Marie Siddayao has a background in international affairs. Like Tan, Siddayao had assumpted that ASEAN meeting was run similar to that of the United Nations—through majority ruling. Again, the event did not point so. ‘’What is very unique to ASEAN meeting is its emphasis on consensus-building,’’ the student of De La Salle University of Manila concluded.
Tan and Siddayao are among 76 university students from ten ASEAN countries who participated in the ASEAN Foundation’s First Model ASEAN Meeting on November 2015 that took place in Sunway University, Selangor, Malaysia. The event is a new initiative of the ASEAN Foundation aims to promote ASEAN as a process and mechanism and to raise awareness of the ASEAN identity. Participants role-played senior officials, ministers, and leaders of ASEAN to learn about ASEAN’s mechanism in resolving and making decision upon a certain regional challenge.

‘’On the surface, the decision making process in ASEAN meeting may look like a toothless device,’’ Jianhong Chan shared his previous view on ASEAN policy making. ‘’However, if one were to look deeper, it is one which is highly deliberated,’’ Chan told his impression after joining the event.

Chan’s term ‘’highly deliberated’’ sums up it all. The simulation showed that, during any ASEAN meeting, a certain regional policy is formulated and agreed through a complex deliberation process. For most of the part, complexity arises due to ‘’conflict of interest’’: in one hand, states that have bigger interest towards certain issues will strive to take ‘’bigger portion of the policy cake’’; on the other hand, the meeting must come up with a solution where everyone affected is a winner.

Siddayao illustrated how the member state could eventually cope with these challenges: first, by putting themselves in the place of other countries in order to understand their point of view, then making an initiative to help each other out. ‘’Looking deeper into national context and addressing it in a way where the whole ASEAN community can benefit from common agreement,’’ he told the solution taken by the member states.

In short, the simulation gave recognition on how difficult it is the decision-making process within ASEAN meeting. For Jianghong Chan, it has further changed the way he is looking at ASEAN. Before the simulation, he had a belief that ASEAN has been slow in dealing with its regional. After the event, ‘’I believe that ASEAN is trying to tackle the problem from the root, instead of just solving or curing each symptom at time,’’ the National University of Singapore student said.

Studying international and public policy affair, both were familiar with diplomacy. But, placed in ‘’a real diplomatic situation’’, Chan and Siddayao became aware of two things: first, diplomacy cannot just be learned from text books and, second, the real diplomatic situation is even more awesome. The group dynamics, Chan said, was fantastic—a moment that has thickened his interest in diplomacy.

It is also the group dynamics that has attracted Kim Soon Tan to international affair. Having majored in economics and was unacquainted with diplomacy, Tan was fascinated by the complexity of how regional policy was made. ‘’The thrills of watching participating members pitching and lobbying their respective ideas to reflect their national interest is very interesting,’’ the University Malaysia Sarawak student said.

For most of the participants, like Tan said, the beauty of diplomacy was somewhat reflected in the uphill process of making consensus: the meeting became more than just an intergovernmental discussion, but a battlefield between national interest and regional common ground. As conflicts occurred at all time, ‘’We almost applied retreat section in every meeting,’’ Tan told the process.

The conflict was not the end of the game. As the session went along, member states found a certain way that all parties were comfortable with and this became sort of like the norm. Throughout the meeting, all could see how groups were not only forming and storming, but also norming and going back all as friends—reaching the equilibrium. This, for Siddayao, is the very essence of diplomacy.

Not only does it arouse participant’s interest in diplomacy, the dynamic of diplomatic process has eventually brought them some skills. The important one is negotiation skill—the art to bargain and moderate arguments. As the event necessitated participants to speak up for their national interest, they also honed skill on public speaking.

Not less important is skill on being ‘’empathetic’’. As the meeting was set to reach common agreement, participants were encouraged to look at the big picture. In that, ‘’Member states need to strike a balance between their national interests and the interests of all parties,’’ said Hong Vui Sim, student of Brunei Institute of Technology. Although this was the most complicated part, the member states—through tense trade-off and balancing—finally could make it.

This year, the Second ASEAN Foundation Model ASEAN Meeting will be conducted on 1-7 October in Vientiane, Lao PDR.