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From ASA to ASEAN: Challenges and Opportunities for the
Five Founding Fathers (1961–1967)

ISSUE 2020
No 04
Release 28 April 2020
By CHHEUN Sokla*

Executive Summary

  • Challenges and opportunities facing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) before its establishment in 1967 are popular research topics forsome scholars of the region. ASEAN has faced several obstacles caused by major global political transformations, which have threatened regional and inter-regional security.
  • In 1961, the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA) was established by Malaya (a name for a collection of Malay states and Straits settlements under the British rule), the Philippines, and Thailand to be used for dialogues and forsecurity, economic and socio- cultural cooperation. However, territorial conflicts among the ASA members particularly between the Philippines-Malaya-Indonesia prevented the ASA from becoming a powerful non-state actor.
  • Thailand’s constructive mediation roles in the dispute settlement in conjunction with Singapore’s readiness enabled the ASA to become ASEAN in 1967. ASEAN was very much influenced by major wars in the region, especially the second and third Indochinese wars.


The challenges and opportunities related to ASA’s changing to ASEAN have attracted great scholarly interest. Many regions of the world have experienced military conflicts or war, some of which were waged by great powers. States in Southeast Asian region struggled to build peace and establish mechanisms to protect their sovereignty and independence. Establishing a regional organisation as a framework for cooperation was a major part of the efforts. The regional organisation serves as a platform to build confidence and trust to address common issues facing countries in the region.

This article aims to examine the contexts of ASA’s changing to ASEAN. For over seven years, there was a potential risk of an outbreak of serious conflicts among ASA Member States. The article explains the factors that caused major challenges in Southeast Asia, especially the confrontation between Malaya-Philippines-Indonesia. It also analyses the forces that contributed to the rising cooperation in ASA and ASA’s institutional roles in helping de- escalate the tension.

The analysis in this article is based on desk research reviewing relevant existing literature and internal ASEAN documents related to the history of ASEAN and Southeast Asia. The article contributes to the understanding of conflicts, peace and peace settlement mechanisms in Southeast Asia.

This article is divided into six sections. First, it provides an overview of the major challenges in Southeast Asia by focusing on the factors that pushed Southeast Asian countries into conflicts. Second, it specifically explains about the ASA in Red Lines. ASA was exposed to influence by great powers like the United States of America, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), China, and India. The ASA Members played key roles in the de-escalation of the situation by employing peaceful means. Third, it discusses the contexts of the territorial conflict between Malaya-Philippines-Indonesia. Fourth, the article looks at what contributed to the end of the conflict and to the rising cooperation among the former conflicting parties. Fifth, it focuses on ASEAN as a Miracle and ASA’s changing to ASEAN as a successful regional organisation. Last, the concluding section provides a summary and some policy recommendations for peaceful dispute settlement.

Major Issues in Southeast Asia

International politics in the first half of the twentieth century was dominated by two world wars. The winners of World War II were the USSR and the US.1 Soon after the victory, they competed for global ideological dominance creating the Cold War era which lasted for nearly half a century. The Cold War left small states with little choices but to build alliances for their political and economic survival and independence. Southeast Asian countries were influenced by colonial rules of great powers─ Britain, France, Holland, Portugal, Spain, and the US. After World War II, Southeast Asian countries struggled to attain independence, so a regional cooperation framework was quite difficult to establish although Ho Chi Minh of Viet Nam and Aung San of Burma displayed interest for some sorts of regional cooperation. In 1947, a regional conference was hosted by India with the participation of 31 individuals representing Southeast Asian countries. The purposes of the conference were “anti-European [colonial rules], pro‐liberation and pro-neutrality”, which motivated Indonesia to rise up against the Dutch. Indian Prime Minister Nehru held a second conference in 1949 in New Delhi, where he proposed that “Free Countries of Asia” should consolidate a team spirit towards achieving a common goal in developing a framework for consultations.2 After the brief control by Japan over Malaya, Singapore, and Borneo ended, the nine states including Malaya and Sarawak fell back to British control. Britain’s rule covered important areas like Penang, Singapore, and Malacca.

However, the North Borneo or Sabah (see Figure 1) was occupied by the British Company. A few years later, world politics changed and those Malay states including Malacca and Penang unified and formed the Federation of Malaya, but they remained under British control. It was a historic step for the Malay Peninsula to have its own government. Singapore was on a course to become a separate state. From 1951 to 1955, the internal politics of Malaya was eventful with the high-profiled visit of Lennox Boyd, the British Colonial Secretary, to Kuala Lumpur.

Indonesia was occupied by the Dutch and got its full independence in 1949. Having many islands formed under its control as a single political unit, Indonesia emerged from independence as the most populous countries in Southeast Asia.4 The Philippines proclaimed independence from the US in 1946, a year after the end of World War II, whereas Malaya got its independence from Britain in 1957. Joining that wave of independence in the region, King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia also made an utmost effort and built momentum to achieving independence from France. Owing to his wise diplomacy, he managed to make France agree to sign a protocol with Cambodia on 9 May 1953. France eventually relinquished its control on 7 November 1953 paving the way for Cambodia to declare independence on 9 November 1953. 

Due to the influence of the US and British policies on Southeast Asia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaya had conservative attitudes towards anti-imperialism. As a result, the ASA was established on 31 July 1961. The ASA’s founding members had achieved the highest economic growth and social progress in Southeast Asia by 1960. Therefore, the main objective of the ASA’s formation was to enhance economic cooperation. The ASA’s Charter was later signed. Its preface part states the objectives including “the ideals of peace, freedom, social justice and economic well-being…common action to further economic and social progress in Southeast Asia”.6 Due to the ASA’s instability as a result of numerous factors (such as internal conflicts, the breakdown between the Philippines and Malaya, issues related to the formation of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, and Indonesia’s confrontation policy against Malaya and the Philippines in 1966), the ASA’s initiative approach was to expand its membership.

ASA in Red Lines

Peace and stability in Southeast Asia were achieved as a result of cooperation and wise leadership in the region. Gradually, ASA had enhanced trust among its members leading to a more inclusive political, security and economic cooperation. ASA was initially launched to enhance economic cooperation and social progress. However, it was challenged by the competition between the world’s superpowers namely the US and the USSR, and between Washington and Beijing, as well as the Cold War tension. From China’s perception, the ASA would face obstacles and would not have a good future just like the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), which was an organisation formed by the United States, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand and Pakistan. It was established to contain the spread of communism in the region.7 There were only two countries from Southeast Asia as signatories to the treaty, the Philippines and Thailand.

Nevertheless, ASA sought to achieve economic cooperation than political and security cooperation due to the impacts of World War II and the Cold War. The Philippines, Malaya and Thailand were growing economies in Southeast Asia. After World War II ended in 1945, every region remained unstable and countries suffered unstable economic growth. The ideological confrontation between the world’s superpowers caused small states to suffer and become weak. Worse, the spread of the Cold War in Southeast Asia added further instability to the region, particularly the Vietnam War from 1950 to 1975. 8 The influence of the Cold War affected Viet Nam and Laos, as internal conflicts erupted there and spilled over to neighbouring Cambodia. 9 Taking all these into account, the founding members of ASA were extremely concerned about the conflicts and their implications for the region as a whole. 

Malaya-Philippines-Indonesia Confrontation

The geographical features of Indonesia and Malaya are similar to those of the Philippines, which are bordered by the sea (see Figure 1). The three countries were under the colonial rules of major colonial powers. There were conflicts between them. Firstly, the conflict over the northern part of North Borneo (Sabah Island) between the Philippines and Malaya. In 1959, both countries started to cooperate to establish their identities in the international fora with the exchanges of official state visits by President Garcia of the Philippines and Malayan Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahaman. Initially, Prime Minister Tunku had a proposal to his counterpart that Malaya wished to discuss areas of bilateral cooperation and the formation of a new regional organisation. As a result of the increasing cultural exchanges, tourism, and trade between the two countries, ASA was established. The North Borneo issue, which is the northern part of Borneo that is geographically bordered with Brunei (see Figure 1) and Kalimantan of Indonesia (see also Figure 1), became a sensitive topic during the discussion and also a focal point of diplomatic relations between Malaya and the Philippines in 1960. In fact, the territorial dispute had occurred since 1878. North Borneo was then ruled by the Sulu Sultanate─ known as Malaysian─, which had a contract with the British North Borneo Company. Later, after the end of World War II, North Borneo was occupied by the British Government as its colony in 1946. After that, the Sulu Sultanate ceded it to the Philippines in 1962 without prejudgment to its own holding rights. However, Malaya pointed out that the North Borneo claim was only between the British and the Philippines, so that part of territory should come to Malaya as a “Clean State”. Based on some evidence, the Philippines sought for the possibility of taking the North Borneo case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In response, Malaya underscored that the behaviour of the Philippines appeared untruthful and would affect the bilateral relations if the latter proceeded to the ICJ.

The final stage has since been reached, and the Foreign Secretary of the Philippines now seeks from us an assurance that their stale claims to sovereignty over parts of Sabah should be taken to the International Court of Justice. I cannot but regard this attitude of the Philippine Government as unreasonable and as showing distrust for us. If this is its attitude, this Government considers that it is fruitless and futile to expect normalization of relationships with the Philippines in the near future.

Secondly, the conflict between Malaya and Indonesia known as the Konfrontasi in Indonesian language was an undeclared war. It started in 1963. The confrontation between the two parties became complicated due to the continuing influence of Britain over Malaya. Indonesia saw the British geopolitical strategy with its allied country, Malaya, as a major threat. Therefore, President Sukarno of Indonesia launched his own strategy to deter Malaya in areas of political, economic, and propaganda means including the use of force when the conflict developed into a crisis.12 During the conflict, Malaya was supported by its strong allied countries from the British Commonwealth military forces, including from the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. The two years of armed confrontation caused casualties on both sides. The dispute led to the collapse of the unity within the ASA.

The two cases of conflicts in the region involved major powers which sought to gain economic and political interests. They wanted the countries in the region to form alliances with them in order to achieve their grand foreign policy objectives.

Rising Cooperation

A great progress was achieved through improving diplomatic ties. An Accord was issued by the Philippines, Malaya, and Indonesia on 31 July 1963.14 The Accord is an agreement among the tripartite states to strengthen cooperation and establish a negotiation process over common issues at all levels including security, economy, culture, and stability in the region. In this connection, the positive development was made by ministers of the Philippines and Indonesia over the joint cooperation in the Accord. The two ministers highlighted the proper progress and appreciated the Malaysian Government on the support of the people of North Borneo. The above three countries took into account the peaceful settlement which comprised negotiation, mediation or conciliation, arbitration, and judicial settlement with a special focus on the international law.

After that, on 3 August 1963 the first declaration was made to focus on the collaboration among neighbouring countries to ensure that they would work together to enhance peace, security, close relations, historical ties, and stability for their peoples. It was the Manila Declaration made by the Philippines, the Federation of Malaya, and Indonesia. The three countries also agreed to embrace equal rights based on the Bandung Declaration and the Charter of the United Nations. In reference to the Accord, the Manila Declaration, and to the strengthening of peaceful settlement of conflicts, the three states issued a Joint Statement on 5 August 1963. The statement emphasised the significance of consultations among relevant parties such as, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and the participation of the British Government to address all the common problems. The statement also called for the setting up of the “Mapilindo”, which was an agreement to have a National Secretariat for the Mapilindo affairs in order to negotiate and to coordinate all relevant discussions. 15 In 1963, North Borneo joined Malaysia based on the results from the referendum showing overwhelming votes of support.

The dispute revealed the difficulty to find a good resolution between the Philippines and Malaysia as they were all members of ASA. Thereafter, the bilateral relations between Malaysia and Indonesia became more constructive and developed. The tension became reduced and there was good progress in the relations when Tun Abdul Razak, Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, and Lee Kwan Yew, Chief Minister of Singapore, paid official state visits to Indonesia between 1964 and 1965. Singapore officially became an independent state in 1965. The leaders discussed the agenda of the Afro-Asian states (the gathering of Asian and African states to discuss aspects of economic and cultural cooperation and to prevent colonialism or neo-colonialism). It was also called the Bandung Conference 1955 that was participated by a large group of members of the UN and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). NAM was an international movement found in 1961 dedicated to representing the interest of small states that had recently gained their independence.

In this connection, why did the Malaysian leader pay a state visit to Indonesia? Indonesia was a founding members of NAM along with four other states ─ Yugoslavia, Egypt, India, and Ghana. There was hope that the conflict would subside when Indonesia had a new leader. After Suharto became president in 1966, he reformed the new policy and decided to use diplomatic options in compromising and ending the conflict. As a result, Indonesia and Malaysia successfully ended confrontation or the undeclared war by signing a peace treaty in 1966.

The two conflicts–the Philippines-Malaysia and the Malaysia-Indonesia, had underscored as the obstacles to the formation of ASEAN. The ASA was not powerful enough to strengthen and further enhance collaborations among its members, so conflicts could occur due to the influence of third states. For example, the above-mentioned conflicts were complicated in term of the imbalance of power because of the alliance between Malaysia and Great Britain. Nevertheless, ASA needed to stand ready as an organisation for cooperation by opening to other countries to accede. It was fast changing from ASA to the Southeast Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, which finally became ASEAN. The founding members of ASEAN had high hope with shared motivations when they first met in Bangkok.

ASEAN as a Miracle

Numerous factors had contributed to the transformation of ASA to ASEAN. The formation of the ASA occurred at a time of conflicts and wars. Some states in the region got independence from colonial powers. However, imperialism still dominated other states. Therefore, some states were interested in being a part of the ASA in order to ensure security and prevent conflicts, but at the same time they were also afraid of the ASA becoming an unsuccessful organisation like SEATO. They were the main reasons encouraging the founding members of the ASA to make closer relations and to seek to build stronger cooperation with other states in Southeast Asia that shared similar interests. The ideal purpose of the ASA was to build unity, confidence and trust among the members to protect them from the superpowers rivalry. 17 After compromises were achieved among the ASA members, they gradually ended the internal conflicts through peaceful means. Those states conducted numerous diplomatic activities since the signing of the peace treaty in 1966. Thailand, which was a country coordinator and also an active existing member of the ASA, proposed to form a new organisation that would ensure the long-lasting of the ASA. Then two founders of the ASA, Malaysia and the Philippines, along with Indonesia were invited by Thailand to join a meeting in Bangkok. Immediately afterward, S. Rajaratnam, Foreign Minister of Singapore, met with Thanat Khoman, Foreign Minister of Thailand, to express Singapore’s intention to join the new organisation. Singapore’s application was constructively deliberated. Later on, in May 1967, the ASA was replaced by its members to set up a new regional grouping called the Southeast Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. However, it was soon changed to ASEAN. ASEAN was officially established on 8 August 1967 by the five leaders─ the Foreign Ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. The establishment was announced in the Department of Foreign Affairs in Bangkok. Those foreign ministers were Adam Malik of Indonesia, Narciso R. Ramos of the Philippines, Tun Abdul Razak of Malaysia, S. Rajaratnam of Singapore, and Thanat Khoman of Thailand. They signed the ASEAN document called the ASEAN Declaration or the Bangkok Declaration. ASEAN Member States (AMS) has until now celebrated the ASEAN Day on the 8 th of August every year.

The main purpose of ASEAN’s inception was to protect the stability of Southeast Asian region from the negative influence of war and conflicts of imperialism and the Cold War. ASEAN’s members were tired of war and internal conflicts, especially of the interferences of big countries in their domestic politics. Southeast Asian countries could not achieve stability unless they cooperated and consolidated as a strong regional organisation.

However, the Declaration of the Five Founding Fathers of ASEAN or known as the ASEAN Declaration of 1967 stated non-political aspects such as socio-economy, confidence-building based on a spirit of mutual respect, the promotion of peace and stability, and the respect of international law and orders. ASEAN would be served as people-to-people connectivity and for community-based approaches to advance concrete interest through joint collaborations for mutual benefits under ASEAN leadership.

The aims and purposes of the Association shall be: To accelerate the economic growth, social progress and cultural development…To promote regional peace and stability…To promote active collaboration and mutual assistance on matters of common interest in the economic, social, cultural…To bind themselves together in friendship and cooperation and, through joint efforts and sacrifices, secure for their peoples and for posterity the blessings of peace, freedom and prosperity.

In other words, the declaration aimed to achieve regional solidarity and cooperation, peace, progress and prosperity in the region, social justice and economic well-being, good understanding, and good neighbourliness to ensure stability and security of the region from external interference.20 The declaration is recognised as a key instrument, and ASEAN has become a successful organisation in contributing to the positive development of Southeast Asia. ASEAN is now a successful intergovernmental organization comprising of ten member states in the region including Brunei Darussalam, the Kingdom of Cambodia, the Republic of Indonesia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, the Union of Myanmar, the Republic of the Philippines, the Republic of Singapore, the Kingdom of Thailand, and the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam.

ASEAN has three main pillars: ASEAN Political-Security Community, ASEAN Economic Community, and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community. They form the common ground for the acceleration of peace and security, economic growth, social progress and cultural development, as well as for the promotion of regional stability in accordance with sustainable development and respect for justice and the rule of law. 22 In addition to the ASEAN Declaration, ASEAN has made another major achievement with its ten members agreeing on the creation of a legal and institutional framework called the ASEAN Charter. The intention to establish ASEAN Charter was first announced on 12 December 2005, and it was signed by the ASEAN leaders in 2007. It entered into force on 15 December 2008. 23 The Charter is a legally binding agreement among the ten members.


Contesting geopolitics in Southeast Asia by super powers and the influence of the Cold War and the Vietnam War caused great political and security risks due to the absence of reliable negotiation mechanisms and poor diplomatic ties. Small states in the region were vulnerable. In addition, the territorial conflicts between Malaysia-the Philippines and between Malaysia- Indonesia added further chaos in the region. The pursuance of national interests by states was a major issue that destabilised Southeast Asia. Due to the influence of great and superpowers, Southeast Asia region fell into wars for several decades. Therefore, rising cooperation among states in Southeast Asia provided a platform for the respect of the principle of non-interference into the internal affairs of a state. The changing of ASA to ASEAN was considered as an ongoing movement toward the establishment of a strong regional organisation. Despites some challenges, today ASEAN is a successful organisation. It has reaffirmed its centrality to maintain peace and security. It has committed to achieving prosperity, people-oriented, and people-centred ASEAN community.

The opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Vision Institute