The political tsunami in Singapore in recent weeks serves as a sounding board for the future political landscape in Southeast Asia.

The evolution from a tightly controlled society with the region’s highest income per capita to a more open one – less government’s surveillance and widen democratic space – is going to be an evitable trend. Changes, albeit small and at a snail pace, as it may be in the island republic, sends a strong signal to similar kinds of governments in Asean that they either take up reform or soon be challenged by their own people. Pragmatism and realism reign.

Economic performance that has led to double-digit development is no longer sufficient criteria to sustain power holding without democracy and acceptable governance. Obviously, in the context of Southeast Asia, it is a time-consuming process.

In the past four decades, Southeast Asia has gone through various forms of political mobilization and transformations such as the people’s power in Thailand in 1973, in the Philippines in 1986 and Indonesia in 1998 that toppled the region’s most notorious dictatorial leaders including the Thanom-Praphat regime, former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos and Indoensian president Suharto.

Most notable has been political turmoil in Thailand over the past decade that mirrors democratic society run amok but development continues uninterrupted although at a slower pace. The disparity between the urban and rural areas as well as income distribution remains the region’s biggest problem.

Elsewhere in the region, even closed societies have to take up political and economic reforms – some more discreet than others. Unfortunately, with a new government in place in Nayphydaw, President Thien Sein has yet to demonstrate any genuine desire for tangible changes that would usher in openness.

Amid this regional landscape, Asean secretary-general Dr Surin Pitsuwan last week went on three-city speaking engagement in the US (Boston, New York and Washington DC) to brief diplomats, policy makers and scholars on the outcome of 18th Asean Summit and the future of Asean beyond 2015 when Asean becomes a single community of 600 million citizens. He underscored the resiliency of 44-year-old organisation that it gets thing done in the Asean way with lesser costs. Given the diversity of the region with a potpourri of economic models and political systems, not to mention it is also the land of the world’s largest Muslim nation and largest Buddhist community, the region’s tolerance and patience have become the stabilizing forces for development and incremental democratization.

Speaking to the American audience, Surin has to explain repeatedly why US President Barack Obama is joining other world leaders including Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao at the inaugural expanded East Asia summit in Bali (November 17-19). These heavy-weight global players come to the region due to its economic dynamic that has helped to quicken global financial recovery in the past three years.

For the past four decades, Asean has served as a fulcrum for major powers to engage each other in a neutral and non-hostile environment. Now, Asean wants to help shape the future regional architecture.

Despite constant criticism of being a talk-shop, dialogue partners continue to partake in the Asean-led forums. Indeed, the US, a main, often harsh, critic of Asean, is a good illustration. Washington was first to set up a permanent mission attached to the Asean Secretariat.

The Obama Adminstration has paid special attention to Asean by signing the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, joined EAS and continued the high profile Asean-US Leaders Meeting, which will continue for the third time this year.

Another good barometer of Asean’s relevancy has been the growing numbers of countries, now totalled 54, which have been accredited to the Asean Secretariat. Several key dialogue partners including the US and Japan have also set up their permanent offices in Jakarta. As these networks augment, the future of Asean will become even more intertwined with the international norms and standards. Therefore, views and sentiments from the dialogue partners and others are also essential whenever Asean decides on policies.

For instance, the issue of Burma’s chairmanship frequently came up during the question and answer sessions. Surin’s answer was the same – the 2014 chair is not automatic. Burma has to fulfill the Asean Charter and tangibly turn around the situation that led to the country’s decision at the Asean Summit in 2004 to skip the chairmanship in 2006. Views from the floor, especially those in academics, diplomatic and business were equally succinct if nothing changes inside Burma then it would be difficult to see the East Asia Summit proceeds the way it has envisaged.

The speaking engagement was part of continued efforts to boost the Asean profile in the global politics. A similar tour is being planned for Europe. In the past three and half years, Surin has worked extremely hard to be both secretary and general of Asean, which is not easy. Within the region, insiders and skeptics often sarcastically referred to this position as neither secretary nor general – it is a mere messenger between national Asean committees. Apparently, Surin has refused to do that. He is reaching out all around talking of the grouping’s global potential.

Indeed, he is working on something bold that would set the compass for the future Asean beyond 2015. His agenda also echoes what the Indonesian chair wanted to do – promote Asean’s role in the global community.

Without common visions and platforms, it would be hard for Asean to be a high-value player in the international setting. He was happy that at the recent summit, the Asean leaders agreed to strengthen the Asean secretariat further.

Before his lecture at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars last week, I caught him unnoticed as he spent nearly 20 minutes reading President Woodrow Wilson’s wise words enshrined on the huge wall at the Reagan Centre. He was inspired. With impromptu analysis, he was quick to link Wilson’s wisdom that “Nations shall walk in the paths of liberty” to his lecture on the twin challenges of development and democracy that Asean is facing today.

Later, he explained that development is important as it provides the much needed improvement of livelihood and freedom from fear and want. The fact that the large number of population in this region still lives under US$2 a day testified to importance of developmental goals. Surin believed that the Asean members will continue this path and opening up gradually in its own way. Pressure, he said, will come from within their own populations with increased connectivity as the Asean community becomes more integrated and consolidated. These people, as numerous political mobilizations showed, would not take things lying down.

Finally, rephrasing the war-time British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who said that democracy is the least bad form of government coming from human experience, he was confidence that democratic governance among Asean countries would be the future norms, as Asean further contemplates its own path of liberty. –Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation (Thailand)