Asean hails new secretary-general amid challenges

Asean Secretary-General Kao Kim Hourn's inauguration comes as the organization is tested by the ongoing crisis in Myanmar and renewed geopolitical rivalries playing out in Southeast Asia.

Yvette Tanama

Yvette Tanama

The Jakarta Post


A worker adjusts an ASEAN flag at a meeting hall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Oct. 28, 2021.(Reuters/Lim Huey Teng)

January 10, 2023

JAKARTA – New ASEAN Secretary-General Kao Kim Hourn will prioritize the six P’s of peace, prosperity, planet, people, partnerships and potentials during his four-year term as administrative head of the bloc, he said in his inaugural speech on Monday.

Kao, a Cambodia-based international relations scholar, took the baton of leadership from Bruneian diplomat Lim Jock Hoi in a ceremony at the ASEAN Secretariat in South Jakarta.

His inauguration comes as the organization is tested by the ongoing crisis in post-coup Myanmar and renewed geopolitical rivalries playing out in Southeast Asia.

A “strong pivot” toward the digital economy would be a top priority, Kao added, to realize the region’s economic potential and open fresh employment opportunities. ASEAN also needed to move toward greener development, he said.

“The next page in ASEAN’s important story will be one shaped by new and emerging trends that present both challenges as well as opportunities,” Kao said.

“For sure, ASEAN has always been at its very best when it works together collectively. […] I am confident that if we stand united, act collectively and positively, […] there is nothing that ASEAN cannot achieve.”

Among Kao’s ASEAN priorities were empowering the region’s youth population through community building, fortifying partnerships internally and externally as well as pursuing a green economy.

“As a region very much prone to natural disasters and vulnerable to climate change, we must hasten our drive toward sustainable development and accelerate our collective efforts to transition to a carbon-neutral economy,” he said. “[We must also] prepare ourselves to deal with any potential or eventual natural calamities.”

Rocky road ahead

But calamities would also likely come from other actors outside of the natural environment, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi warned in her speech. The ASEAN that Kao had inherited, she said, was not on a smooth road.

“The five-point consensus is still stagnant. Externally, intensifying rivalries in the region will continue to threaten ASEAN centrality. Looming recession poses a grave risk for global economic growth,” she said.

“There is no other choice but to ensure ASEAN remains relevant to address critical regional and global issues. ASEAN must be in the driver’s seat in navigating the new geopolitical dynamics.”

The five-point consensus is an ASEAN initiative to resolve the crisis in Myanmar that calls for the appointment and engagement of a special envoy, humanitarian assistance and the immediate cessation of violence. More than a year after the agreement, little progress has been made, and ASEAN has been criticized for its perceived sluggishness on the issue.

At the same time, Southeast Asia continues to be a theater for competition between the United States and China, which some observers say threatens to sideline ASEAN and undermine its Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AIOP).

Under Indonesia’s ASEAN chairmanship this year, Retno said, enhancing financial growth and strengthening the region’s resiliency would be top of the to-do list, as well as strategizing to provide humanitarian assistance to the Myanmar people.

Continuing partnerships

Despite these challenges, ASEAN had managed to rise to the occasion through collective efforts and partnerships, said former secretary-general Lim at the event. It had displayed “resilience and tenacity”, he noted.

“I am grateful for the warm and constructive working relationship with the CPR [Committee of Permanent Representatives], sectoral bodies, external partners, the diplomatic community and the various relevant stakeholders,” Lim said.

The same system would continue to support ASEAN in the future, Lim’s successor affirmed.

“I look forward to working closely with the ASEAN member states […] and all other external friends and partners, as well as relevant stakeholders,” Kao said.

Kao, a senior fellow at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia and a two-term minister delegate to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, focuses on ASEAN research and policy advocacy. In his hometown Phnom Penh, Kao established the University of Cambodia and earned the Royal Order of Cambodia.

Arriving in Jakarta on Friday, Kao will reside in Indonesia until his tenure ends.

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