BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – At the end of December, ASEAN’s secretary-general Dato Lim Jock Hoi will be leaving Jakarta after completing his five-year term as the bloc’s chief diplomat.
It has been a period marked by several regional and international crises, from the COVID-19 pandemic and the protracted conflict in Myanmar, to the global ripple effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Despite Southeast Asia’s significant challenges, the outgoing secretary-general maintains a sanguine outlook on the region’s future, and the resilience of ASEAN despite the perennial questions surrounding its effectiveness and relevance.
Dato Jock Hoi took over the reins of the ASEAN Secretariat in 2018, after a long career at Brunei’s foreign ministry, where he was permanent secretary and the sultanate’s chief negotiator for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks.
The Scoop spoke with him recently to get his reflections on five years at the helm of ASEAN.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The two crises that have dominated regional headlines over the past few years are the pandemic and the ongoing political unrest in Myanmar. How do you see these two events shaping ASEAN in the years to come?
LJH: Well, it’s been a challenging couple of years, the most important [challenge] being the pandemic — certainly one of the greatest challenges to regional peace. It has had a lasting impact on the livelihoods of the people of ASEAN, particularly our most vulnerable groups and members of society.
As for the secretariat, I think there have been many challenges in managing some of the work through video conferencing… At the same time it has also presented ASEAN with the opportunity to build back a better, stronger, more resilient ASEAN community.
ASEAN has strengthened its drive in two very important areas: while we were in the midst of the pandemic, we utilised technology and digitalisation to connect and interact with one another. And digitalisation is now the driver for economic growth.
We know that digital technology, digital e-commerce will reach around USD$300 billion in value by 2025 and USD$1 trillion by 2030, which is a very important driver for our growth.
Second is sustainable development, which enabled the region to expand its potential in the area of finance, education, as well as investment. We think sustainable development will be another driver for our growth in the future while we are mitigating the impact of the climate change.
ASEAN’s COVID-19 response fund was set up early in the pandemic to try and address some of the glaring health inequality across the region. How has it been utilised so far?
LJH: The COVID-19 response fund was basically a contribution from each ASEAN member state, as well as dialogue partners. Its establishment served as a mechanism for ASEAN to pull together financial resources to combat the pandemic.
We’ve had 22 countries contribute around USD$30 million to procure COVID-19 vaccines, as well as medical supplies and equipment. This is on top of the national procurement processes of each ASEAN member state.
We also work closely with each individual country on research and development, we have the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases in Thailand, and also together another centre in Jakarta, as well as Hanoi.
These are with the help of Japan, but also Australia, the European Union and United States, and others who were willing to come up and help us to develop this centre, which we hope will be like [the US] CDC in the future.
At the same time we’re also creating a regional reserve for medical supplies where countries have apportioned supplies and vaccines for any country that needs it. This is a work in progress.
So the aim of this regional reserve of medical supplies is to prepare for the next pandemic?
LJH: The idea was to prepare ASEAN, so that we will eventually be ready in the future if there is any new emerging disease. Of course we will link this to other international research centres that will help us to develop our capabilities within ASEAN.
Do you think there was a lack of cohesiveness in the region’s response to the pandemic, in terms of a consistent approach across all ASEAN member states?
LJH: I do not think we lacked initiative. In fact, ASEAN was the first regional organisation to sit together to discuss the issue. At that time, there was no vaccine, and then there was hardly any vaccines produced by any ASEAN member state, so the vaccines had to be procured from other dialogue partners – that’s China, United States, Europe, Japan and Australia.
So eventually when the vaccines are available in the market, we worked together to procure it. But now we are not short of vaccines, we have more than enough vaccines around ASEAN. What is short is the capacity to detect [COVID-19].
I think this is very important in the future. That’s why the centre is critical for the future of ASEAN health. And we are also working together to strengthen our health systems in each ASEAN member state to eventually help the whole region.
With regards to Myanmar, there has been little progress on the 5-point consensus, but the ASEAN Secretariat has been able to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance.
LJH: Progress has not been easy because it’s a conflict situation. On the humanitarian side, we have mounted life-saving measures in Myanmar and we need to have a good approach to serve the immediate needs and longer humanitarian needs of the people.
A total of USD$27 million in humanitarian assistance has been pledged by ASEAN member states and dialogue partners to date. During Phase 1, we delivered three batches of medical supplies and equipment to all 17 states and regions across Myanmar, valued at more than USD$13 million. Phase 1 is still ongoing and USD$4.8 million worth of items is planned for distribution in the coming months.
As part of Phase 2, a needs assessment [was started] by the ASEAN ERA Team in June, but we have not concluded. Hopefully, once it’s concluded we will have a [dollar] amount in mind and a better idea of what to do in the future.
Despite certain challenges on the ground, as well as conditions attached by the contributors, in general we are able to continue our work and make concrete progress in the delivery of aid to people in need.
At the most recent ASEAN Summit in November, leaders agreed “in principle” to admit Timor-Leste into the group, possibly under Indonesia’s chairmanship next year. What will this mean for Timor Leste and ASEAN going forward?
LJH: The leaders have made the decision that Timor Leste will be the eleventh member of ASEAN… I cannot tell you when they are coming in, how they are coming in, because we have not discussed this in detail.
What we will do is create a roadmap for them to come in. I think being a member of ASEAN is something that people look for, as a friend that will help the future direction of their development, like the CLMV countries. Look at where they are now — they are climbing up the ladder. We look at Vietnam, Cambodia, they are going faster than the others.
In the next couple of years, ASEAN will be finalising its post-2025 vision. There’s been a lot of discussion about the need for ASEAN institutional reform, or even amendments to the ASEAN Charter, including proposed changes to consensus-based decision making. What kind of changes do you think ASEAN needs to undertake to become a more effective and relevant organisation?
LJH: I think there’s ongoing discussion on the institutional reform of ASEAN, as mandated by foreign ministers. The high-level task force had a fruitful discussion to further strengthen the capacity of the institution but I think it’s too early to tell at the moment. Although the recommendations were submitted to the leaders, it was just an initial recommendation.
But I must stress that this does not involve amending the charter for ASEAN member states. What’s important is how to make it work? To make the institution work. There are many areas, I think work is still in progress in this area. Hopefully by 2025 we can see the actual recommendation to the leaders.
As your tenure comes to a close, what do you see as the main challenges and opportunities facing ASEAN?
LJH: I have a bright hope for ASEAN in the future, particularly in the area of the economy. For their chairmanship year, Indonesia has put in place a motto called “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth”. This is precisely how I see it. If you look at economic recovery of ASEAN after the pandemic, it was very robust, 5.1%. Next year, and next couple of years it is going to be positive.
So with proper plans using the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework, plus RCEP and the upgrading of several trade agreements with dialogue partners, things are much brighter, much rosier in the future.
What’s next for you once you leave the Secretariat? After a long career in public service will you be retiring?
LJH: As I conclude my term in the office, I look forward to continue serving my country, Brunei, as well as ASEAN in any capacity. I’d like to register, of course, my appreciation to ASEAN member states and also to His Majesty [the Sultan of Brunei] for giving me the opportunity to serve as the fourteenth secretary-general of ASEAN. I very much appreciate that experience and also the challenges of being secretary-general.