Asean lacks leadership, says Saifuddin

Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah says decision-making is a ‘sticky topic’ among Asean members.

PETALING JAYA: Asean lacks leadership and needs to re-examine its decision-making process, Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said.

He also said the grouping needed to make better use of its 650 million population as a market, increase trade between member states and have more joint venture projects.

“We have to seriously look into the decision-making process in Asean,” he told Australia’s The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald in an interview, acknowledging that it was a “sticky topic” that had been discussed among member states for some time.

“The way Asean makes decisions is by consensus – consensus is important but sometimes consensus can be difficult.”

Saifuddin, who visited Australia as foreign minister for the first time last week, said Asean lacked leadership.

He said, however, he was not suggesting changing its annually rotating chairmanship, which will be assumed by Vietnam next year.

“I think it works. I am not saying there should be someone who is like a big brother in Asean,” he was quoted as saying.

He suggested that individual countries could assume leadership over pillars of Asean, such as economics and political security.

Saifuddin also said Asean should make full use of its large population as a viable market, “not necessarily a single market like the EU, but 650 million is a huge market”.

He said there needed to be more trade and joint ventures among Asean members.

He described Putrajaya’s relations with Canberra as “very good”, adding that Australia is Malaysia’s 10th largest trading partner, with two-way trade worth A$13.6 billion (RM38.7 billion) last year.

There are also about 24,000 Malaysian students in Australia.

Australia is a dialogue partner of Asean. Asked if Australia’s full membership in the organisation was possible one day, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad last month told The Age “I think it will happen”.

However, Saifuddin said he did not think this had ever been discussed.