DSG Kung Phoak reflects on the rationale for producing The ASEAN, the challenges of getting it off the ground, and what it has achieved so far. He also discusses the future prospects of the magazine in light of ASEAN’s community-building and communication goals and the trend towards digitalisation.
What was your idea for the magazine and why did you have this vision of having one for the ASCC?
When I first joined ASEC (ASEAN Secretariat), I had one big question: How can people have ownership of the things that we are doing? It’s not just about people benefitting from what we are doing, but also being a part of the story. The only way for all of the people to be part of the story and to benefit from what we are doing is for them to know more about what we are doing.
We then started talking about what would be the best way to share these stories to the general audience—not just policymakers, but also people who may not have a lot of experience with or may not know a lot about ASEAN. The magazine could be a channel for people to voice their views, shape policy directions, and find out how they can contribute.
Then, we looked at how people could get information, understand more about ASEAN. When it comes to regional matters, sometimes people seem out of touch. There are so many problems happening at the national level that what’s going on at the regional level is something that they may not know. So, this is the second objective.
Lastly, I thought about how we can create a bridge between the policymakers’ world, the leaders, and the people through some sort of a publication that does not just present the work of ASEAN or the views of the leaders, but also stories that are happening every day on the ground. When we look at the content of the magazine, it is not just about the meetings, it is not just about the views of our ministers, but also the views of people from all walks of life, such as business people, shop owners, young entrepreneurs, or youth activists. In a way it is a melting pot of some sort, right? People can come together in terms of sharing ideas, sharing views, embracing all sorts of questions, and offering all sorts of solutions as well.
These are the three main objectives that summarise all of the work that we do. One thing that I hope the magazine can continue to do is to speak the language of the people on the street, not the language used in meeting rooms. In this way, they can feel that they have some way to influence the direction of community building, have some ownership of the discourse, and have some say on the kind of policies and decisions that the region as a collective body will take.
Can you explain to us the challenges that you faced when you tried to generate interest and support for the magazine? How hard was it to sell it to the people you needed support from?
ASEAN is used to doing things a certain way. For example, after we discuss matters in the meeting room, we have outcomes that we make available to the public in a shorter version. But ASEAN has its own way of working when it comes to the kind of language they use and the kind of information that they share with the public. So, I think there is an internal struggle about how much and in what ways the work we do can be translated into stories.
Having said this, I think that ASEAN colleagues are not resistant to the idea that these kinds of stories need to be shared with the general public. They also understand the importance of letting people know what the ASEAN community pillars are doing because they sometimes also feel the disconnection between their world and that of the general public.
They started to embrace it. The challenge now is how we can help our policymakers f ind the best way to communicate with people.
Would you also say that the magazine is an analytical tool?
That’s the truth. This is actually the internal struggle of our people. On one hand, we want to maintain the way the problem is presented in the policy world. But on another hand, we want to make sure that the way we interpret and write policy conversations is easily understood by those who do not have the background or experience. We have to find the right balance between our policymaking role and our responsibility to the general audience.
Do you think that we are reaching our goals based on the audience reaction and the content of the magazine?
I don’t think that we have achieved what we want to achieve in terms of bringing the stories to all corners of the ASEAN region. The language of the magazine is still English. Not many people can understand that. I hope that the magazine will be translated to different national languages so that more people can really benefit from this magazine. I believe that there is a lot of people who are really interested in understanding and learning more about ASEAN but we need to create an enabling environment for them to really get a chance to understand and read all of these stories.
Earlier, I mentioned the three main objectives. Put into a single sentence, this magazine is a platform where the leaders and the ASEAN people can meet and shape the future of the region together.
What do we need to do more of so we can make that shift and convince more people that communicating what you’re doing, communicating your work to the people you serve is important?
In terms of sharing the views and stories or providing information, these are all in the magazine. My hope is that we go one step further by translating all of these stories and information into something concrete and can be addressed by policies or decisions of ASEAN as a collective body.
For example, we have young people telling us what they think about our responses to the COVID-19, the experiences they are going through, the possible solutions to the health crisis, and the things that ASEAN Member States can do. These kinds of information are useful for policymakers, for leaders to read in the magazine. But I think there is another way for us to help and that is to translate all of these information into concrete action. At the end of the day people will ask you the question: “I share my stories, I share my views, and then what’s next?”
Our aim is for the magazine to one day evolve into a place that puts together all of these information, stories, and conversations and turn them into some sort of a roadmap or even vision for the ASEAN region which all the Member States can implement. We want to make sure that all people benefit from the contribution that they are making to this magazine.
What reactions have you gotten, especially from policymakers, ASEAN Member States, and the Committee of Permanent Representatives to ASEAN? Readers are asking, what’s next after sharing all these stories? How can we narrow that gap and connect both worlds together based on their reactions?
Actually, we haven’t had a lot of extremely difficult conversations in ASEAN although it’s been almost 60 years. But, with all these disruptions, we are going to have them very soon. The safest way for us to have a conversation and not abandon the community building project entirely is to make sure that we have all the people behind us. To rally the people behind us, we have to let them know what we are doing and what they can benefit in the long term. For example, people may ask, “We don’t understand what you are doing and now you ask us to give up our jobs to our friend from other countries?” Imagine at a certain point in the future when we begin talking about deep regional integration where people can move around without having to apply for work permits and things like that, then what would be the reaction of the local people? We have a chance to build trust, to build confidence, to build support among the people through this kind of communication. And then when we start to have conversations on tough issues, it gives us some support.
In terms of messaging, what are the greatest achievements of ASCC that you would like to communicate more in the magazine or that we have communicated already?
One thing that I’m happy to see and I hope that we will be able to continue to do more is to transform ASEAN Secretariat into a knowledge hub for all the ASEAN Member States. The ability to produce quality papers and provide forward-looking and practical recommendations to all ASEAN Member States is something that I hope we can continue to deliver.
Another way forward is for the ASCC to continue to strengthen itself in the policymaking arena to support Member States. There are 15 sectoral bodies under the ASCC and our works have direct impacts on the health and well-being of hundreds of millions of people in the region. Advancing the implementation of the SDGs is also part of our main responsibility. Thus, our analytical capability is critical to the progress we’ve achieved over the years.
I hope that the magazine becomes actually part of these objectives.
Another thing that I hope to continue is strengthen the region’s data capability. We are now looking at a possible ASCC Database Hub. Similar with the first initiative, there’s this question of not having enough budget to do certain things.
At the end of the day, what really is important here is not to do things just for the sake of doing things. We want to make sure that all the tasks that we are undertaking are really benefiting the Member States. It is a challenge and I don’t think we can achieve all of these in just one term or two terms or three terms. Let’s look at our work plans. We need to strike a balance, which means trying to make sure that the plans include as many activities as possible that will not only address the problem at the national level, but also have regional characteristics and are useful in terms of community building efforts.
The ASEAN came out during the pandemic and most of the content has been about the pandemic, its impact on the people, and the work that ASCC has done to respond to it. What do you think about the work that ASCC has done in the past year and how well did we communicate that to our readers in the magazine?
During the past year, the magazine has played an important role in informing the public about what we are doing. In times of crisis like this, it is extremely important for people to understand what we are doing because at the end of the day, there will be questions about whether they can really benefit from being part of the ASEAN Community, right? The publication continues to bring the stories to the public on what the sectoral bodies are doing to tackle the problem of the pandemic.
This is related to the earlier comment about building ASCC and the ASEAN Secretariat as a knowledge hub. Here, one aspect of our communication is to let people know that the things that we have been doing are based on evidence, based on research and comprehensive studies. In some ways, we also present that through the magazine. Again, I have to say that over the past year the magazine has played that role and it is extremely important because people come to understand more about what has been done at the regional level. It is extremely useful for them to understand how the region is operating and how they can be part of the solution. With this magazine as a way of communicating all of these activities and responses to the people, I think a lot more people can get this information and know about the many topics that ASEAN Member States or ASEAN as a regional body have been tackling over the years.
Our anniversary issue has the theme gender equality. What kind of message do we want our audience to take away about ASEAN’s efforts on gender equality?
I think it’s always our intention to walk the talk. We have been talking about gender equality for quite a long time, but in my view, we haven’t made as much progress as we want. We can still see a lot of problems that women and children are facing in our region. That’s why we have been focusing pretty much on this particular topic and trying to push some initiatives and activities.
I don’t think that we are short of policies or strategies on how we can improve the well-being of women and creating the environment where they can thrive and prosper. What we need is to start to get serious about the things that we’ve already agreed on and start to do something about it. I think that’s the lacking part, right? I mean if you’re talking about bridging to progress, we need to get serious about improving the well-being of women and children.