From ‘Konfrontasi’ to Bowls of Kway Teow: The Flavorful Tale of How ASEAN Came to Be 3 December 2023 – Posted in: Book Excerpts

The story of ASEAN begins this way. The formation of Malaysia had, for whatever reasons, received the disapprobation of the late President Sukarno of Indonesia. From September 1963, Sukarno had declared a state of confrontation or “konfrontasi” as he called it against Malaysia. There were armed attacks on Malaysia but of little consequence. The propaganda war, however, was raging and the people of Indonesia and Malaysia were thoroughly confused.

I was entrusted by the late Tun Abdul Razak who was then Deputy Prime Minister to seek ways and means of ending “konfrontasi”. Special political action was initiated and credible contact was firmly established.

The Indonesian side was led by the late General (Tan Sri) Ali Moertopo assisted most ably by General (Tan Sri) Benny Moerdani, the present Minister of Defence. He, with a cover job in Bangkok, played a very important role as the communication and operational link since “konfrontasi” had ruptured diplomatic ties. Ali Moertopo’s team was responsible and answerable to no one else, none other than the present President of Indonesia, General Suharto.

Both Tun Abdul Razak and General Suharto were of one mind that “konfrontasi” must cease and never be allowed to happen again nor must it happen between neighbouring countries of South East Asia. Accordingly, these objectives became the terms of reference for our mission.

Ali Moertopo and I dug deeply into our common cultural heritage and we found that instinctively whenever there was a sense of insecurity the tendency was to get together—”BERKAMPUNG” from which the word “village” was derived. I had a secret meeting with the late Tun Adam Malik in Bangkok. Pak Adam also concluded that the fear he had was not the communist expansion but that which both Tun Razak and General Suharto were concerned with namely that countries of South East Asia would be at loggerheads and “konfrontasi” would become the order of the day. The possibility was real since the East-West rivalry was pulling and pushing nations to take sides. The element of fear was present but not the fear of communism. It was the fear that countries of South East Asia would be split asunder in chaos and used as pawns in the Cold War.

After several meetings in Bangkok and other capitals, Ali Moertopo and I agreed that in presenting the concept of reconciliation and the idea of a regional cooperative organisation to our respective masters, emphasis should be made that for political problems to be effectively managed, leaders at all levels and in all sectors should constantly be exposed through personal meetings with each other. It should then be possible without inhibition with the objective of checking or making a point, for instance, for a minister or an official of Indonesia to pick up the phone and speak to his Malaysian counterpart.

We recommended that inter-state problems should not be aired openly no matter how small. If they were border problems they should be dealt with locally through mechanisms or an apparatus which would serve to obviate the matter from becoming a diplomatic boil due to undue publicity. If there were border uncertainties they were to be surveyed together or together developed for mutual benefit. If the areas defied survey or development like gullies and gorges they should be left alone for the time being.

We were recommending a special kind of relationship conscious of the fact that the modern separate state entities were the product of colonial designs which had left a number of thorny residues particularly in relation to borders. Ali Moertopo and I stressed that streams, seas and straits were not borders that separated peoples rather they were bridges that united them. This was self-evident in the South East Asian region in which relatives were found on each side of the border be it a stream, a strait or the sea. This unity and togetherness must never be governed by a sense of exclusiveness. (This concept of ASEAN entente was well demonstrated by Thailand and Malaysia when there was an overlapping claim in an area in the EEZ; the difficulty was overcome by both sides agreeing to the creation of a Joint Development Authority for the area concerned on the principle of “drinking water from the same well”. Incidentally, the Agreement was signed by the Prime Ministers of Thailand and Malaysia, two friends, during a meal at a kway teow (noodle) shop in front of the University of Chiang Mai, Thailand, without the fuss and pomp which usually accompanied such an occasion).

In order that words did not become enshrined and ossified in written agreement, Ali Moertopo and I strongly suggested that a regional organisation should be established but it should not be a creature of a formal treaty, rather a solemn Declaration of a commitment based on the indigenous spirit of faith in “togetherness” (BERKAMPUNG). And we proposed that the regional organization should be established only after the brotherly relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia had been resumed so that together Indonesia and Malaysia would serve as the mainstay of ASEAN.

We also suggested that for the organisation to have a chance of success, its political function should be low-profiled. Stress should be put on its economic character to avoid burdening the organization with having to deal with political issues in the press which very often were grave diggers for good efforts.

Malaysia and Indonesia were reconciled. Sukarno had died and was succeeded by Suharto. It was in 1967 two years after the end of “konfrontasi”, and with a great deal of behind the scene diplomatic activities and arguments on the wording of the Declaration, including the nomenclature of the organisation which was resolved by Pak Adam. ASEAN rose from the ashes of “konfrontasi” on August 8 in Bangkok.

This excerpt is taken from the article ‘ASEAN: Shortfalls of the Past and Pitfalls of the Future,’ written by Ghazali Shafie in his book Malaysia, ASEAN and the New World Order, published by Penerbit UKM (2000).

Ghazali Shafie (1922 – 2010) was a prominent Malaysian politician and diplomat who served under the administrations of four Prime Ministers. Notably, he held the position of Minister of Home and Foreign Affairs from 1973 to 1984.