Did the ASEAN leaders have the estimated 625 million people in mind when they signed up for the new vision of ASEAN Community in 2025? The answer is yes. But there were different interpretations within ASEAN, especially towards the two phrases--the "people centered” and "people-oriented” community.
The people centered concept was first introduced in 2008 when the Eminent Person Group (EPG) on the ASEAN Charter came up with the term they wanted to be included in the charter. Subsequently, it was quickly adopted and used in subsequently documents in ASEAN. However, when Malaysia served as the ASEAN chair in 2014, Kuala Lumpur decided earlier on to use the theme--"Towards the People-centered ASEAN Community.”
After all, in 2005 Malaysia was the country which came up with the idea of "interface” between the representatives selected from the ASEAN-based organizations and the ASEAN leaders. The interface did not augur well with some of the ASEAN leaders. So, it was not practice within ASEAN, depending on the host’s willingness. Malaysia’s theme with the people-centered slogan did not last very long.
The reason was simple--some ASEAN members expressed objections to the wide-spread use of people-centered community because it could misconstrue the real ASEAN, which is not a bottom-up organization. The so-called people-centered activities also could mean mass mobilization, which is prohibited in some ASEAN countries. At the summit in Nayphidaw in November 2014, the ASEAN leaders decided to use the people-oriented alongside the people-centered community.
Therefore, Malaysia later on amended its theme into something different--Our People, Our Vison, Our community. After that, the "people-oriented” was included whenever the people-centered community was referred to in all ASEAN documents. The concept of people-centered, according to a former member of EPG, Sihasak Phuangketkaew, meant inputs and policy initiatives from civil society organizations or grass-root groups.
When the EPG members were drafting the ASEAN Charter in 2008, they thought it was about time that the ASEAN leader took into consideration some fresh ideas from the ground levels.
ASEAN has nearly 100,000 non-governmental organizations, mainly settled in Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand. However, Sihasak added that this interpretation caused some concern among ASEAN member, which still thought that contributions from the bottom-up should be a gradual process.
They preferred to add the people-oriented alongside with people-centered. To them, the people-oriented community meant clearly that that the ASEAN leaders still have lots of inputs and responsibility in the formation of ASEAN decisions and policies. Sihasak said that the ASEAN members have to explain to their peoples about the difference between the two concepts and the reasons of their adoptions in order to avoid any possible confusion.
The challenge of building strong and healthy ASEAN Community would very much depending on the success of activities and programs that benefit most of the people in the ASEAN region—the so-called people-centered programs.