The goal of AEC is to move toward a globally competitive single market and production with the free flow of goods, services, labor, investments and capital across the 10 Asean members. (Antara Photo/Hafidz Mubarak)

Jamil Maidan Flores: An Edifice for Asean — Concrete Proof of Indonesia’s Commitment


AUGUST 26, 2015

Physical structures do have a role in the scheme of things. What’s the UN without the UN building in New York?

The building on Jalan Sisingamangaraja in Jakarta that bears a logo showing a sheaf of ten rice stalks — that’s the place of work of the Asean Secretariat. It’s where some 300 people carry out thousands of tasks in support of the collective work of the ten governments that make up Asean. It’s just a building, but let those 300 people do without it and its facilities and see how much work they can get done.

The building was an instant Jakarta landmark when it was inaugurated in 1981. Before that, the Secretariat operated out of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Jalan Pejambon.

An early secretary-general of Asean, Narciso Reyes of the Philippines, described it as “a gleaming white seven-story building with spacious, elegantly furnished rooms ... a showpiece of Indonesian esteem for Asean. But it is a headquarters in name only; none of the Asean organs ever stay put in it. Not even the Secretariat, although it is called the Asean Secretariat Building.”

As to Asean itself, he wrote in his memoirs, “All its various organs, from the ministerial bodies down to the working groups are continually in orbit, flying to meetings from one Asean capital to another in alphabetical rotation. They comprise a veritable flying circus.”

Times have changed. Over the years Asean membership grew to ten. Dialogue partners multiplied and so did Asean treaties and Asean-led processes. The high trapeze act of the flying circus is no longer the ministerial meeting but the twice-a-year summit. The Asean Secretariat must now stay put in its own building, which is no longer spacious enough for the work being done within it.

So in 2011 then-Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa turned over the keys to an additional office building to then-Asean secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan. The additional building sits on a lot next to the Asean Secretariat.

Nothing much happened after that — until four years later, during the Asean anniversary earlier this month when Vice President Jusuf Kalla presided over the handover of the Asean extension premises to Asean Secretary-General Le Luong Minh.

Ambassador Ngurah Swajaya, Indonesia’s representative to the High-level Task Force on Strengthening the Asean Secretariat and Asean Organs, says a new building will be built on the donated lot and will be inaugurated in 2018. It will be 20 stories high, he enthuses, and will be in the same league as the Asian Development Bank building in Manila.

Connected to an MRT station, it will stand out as a new landmark of a Jakarta that has consolidated its claim to being the diplomatic capital of Asean. It will also be concrete proof, literally, that Asean remains the bedrock of Indonesian foreign policy.

That’s nice. But as Ambassador Ngurah himself must admit, there’s a lot of homework yet that Asean must attend to. To name a few:

There’s a need for a bigger budget for the Asean Secretariat, and a stronger mandate so it can take policy-making initiatives. And perhaps help push stubborn members to comply with agreements.

There’s an imperative to revise the terms of reference of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) to get the body more involved in the protection of human rights, not just in its promotion.

Moreover Asean should truly unite and take a cue from Vice President Jusuf Kalla when he says, in effect, “Don’t let the big countries dictate upon you.” Let me add: don’t let any of them decide what you can and can’t say in your own communiqué.

Here’s to hoping a plush new headquarters will inspire Asean to mature and become a more cohesive community.

Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based literary writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy. The views expressed here are his own. He may be contacted at