Sri Lanka: Fresh Insights On Attempts To Join ASEAN – Analysis


By V. Suryanarayan

S R Nathan has served the Republic of Singapore with great distinction in several capacities. When Singapore became independent suddenly on August 9, 1965 Nathan joined the fledgling Ministry of Foreign Affairs and rose very high in the organization. He became the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry, served as Ambassador to the United States and High Commissioner in Malaysia, in addition to heading the Department of Intelligence. Nathan later became the President of Singapore and served the Republic for two terms.

After his retirement, SR Nathan has brought out his memoirs entitled An Unexpected Journey: Path to the Presidency (Singapore, 2011). The book came out few months ago. Published after he left the corridors of power, the book is not only fascinating reading; it also provides rare insights into Singapore’s turbulent history after the Second World War.

From the point of view of students of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, the book is invaluable because it provides fresh insights into Ceylon’s attempts to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which came into existence in August 1967. The founding fathers of ASEAN were Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. SR Nathan was an important member of the Singapore delegation, which was led by S. Rajaratnam, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and which finalized the aims and objectives of the regional organization. The Memoirs contains references to Ceylon’s efforts to join ASEAN in 1967 and spells out the reasons why Colombo’s attempts did not succeed.

In order to understand the subject in proper perspective, it is necessary to highlight the foreign policy objectives of Ceylon in the post-independent era. The foreign policy makers of Colombo were, and are obsessed with the colossus in the north. India was looked upon, to quote Ivor Jennings, as a “mountain, which might, at any time, send down destructive avalanches”. As a result, the Sri Lankan, especially Sinhalese, leaders resented any mention of special relations with India. According to Sir John Kotelawala, former Prime Minister of Ceylon, “The day Ceylon dispensed with Englishmen completely, the island would go under India”. He regarded membership of the Commonwealth “as the first insurance against any possibility of aggression from quarters closer home”. What is more, Colombo entered into a Defence Agreement with United Kingdom under which the British had their bases and stationed their troops in Ceylon.

Given the Western orientation of important Sri Lankan leaders and their deep seated suspicion of India’s foreign policy objectives, it is not surprising that Colombo evinced interest in joining ASEAN. The member states of ASEAN were anti-communist to the core and were pro-Western in foreign policy outlook. Malaysia and Singapore had Defence Agreements with United Kingdom; Thailand and the Philippines were aligned to the United States by treaty obligations and, what is more, Indonesia, after the downfall of Sukarno and the decimation of the Partai Communis Indonesia (PKI), had become pro-American in foreign policy orientation. Anti-communist to the core and pro-Western in outlook, the member states shared an identity of interests regarding threats to their independence, security and stability, both internal and external. Jakarta’s eagerness to settle bilateral disputes and occasionally even “bending backwards” to achieve consensus contributed to the unity and cohesion of ASEAN.

The initiative for the formation of ASEAN came from Adam Malik, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Indonesia. In addition to Federation of Malaya, Thailand and the Philippines, Adam Malik was keen that Burma and Cambodia should also join the organization. Sihanouk of Cambodia expressed his reservation and in a letter to General Suharto expressed his apprehension about the “complications that could result” from the war in Vietnam and the danger of increasing American influence in Southeast Asia. Rangoon, which was adhering to a policy of monastic seclusion, rejected the idea “outright”. The Republic of Singapore was also not initially consulted because of “its ongoing spats with Malaysia”. However, Thailand sounded Singapore about its views on the proposed regional organization and after confirming that Singapore had “no objection” it was invited to join the preliminary talks.

The first problem which confronted was to define the “region”. Indonesia felt that it should be restricted to countries east of India and Pakistan and south of China. Singapore felt that the group should seek the support of friendly countries outside the region, who were prepared to help economically such as India, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Singapore also felt that Australia and New Zealand should be involved, but the idea was not pursued.

The other sensitive issue was “foreign bases”. The British had their bases in Singapore, they also had a naval base in Sembawang and the Australians had an air base in Butterworth. Thailand and the Philippines had their treaty links with the United States and were close allies in the pursuit of the Vietnam War. From the very beginning Singapore was keen that ASEAN should not take over the “role of SEATO”, as Nathan puts it, “we did not want to be seen as an American lackey”. The issue of foreign bases turned out to be a ticklish issue, on one occasion, Rajaratnam threatened to stage a walk out. The dilemma which faced Singapore was explained by Rajaratnam as follows: Singapore was non-aligned, but “we were not in a position to defend ourselves”. Finally the issue was resolved and the Preamble to the ASEAN Declaration read, “Affirming that all foreign bases are temporary and remain only with the expressed concurrence of the countries concerned and are not intended to be used directly or indirectly to subvert the national independence and freedom of States in the area or prejudice the orderly processes of their national development”.

Suddenly the issue of Ceylon’s efforts to join ASEAN came up. Tun Abdul Razak, who led the Malaysian delegation, announced that the Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman “had made a promise” to the Prime Minister of Ceylon “regarding Ceylon’s admission to the group”. An “undertaking had been made and he, Razak, could not retract it”. The other delegates were “stunned”. The geographical limits proposed for the organization did not extend beyond Burma. Reluctantly every body “decided to wait for the arrival of application from Ceylon. Nothing happened. The clock was ticking and the Thais wanted the birth of the organization to take place within an auspicious time. Before that deadline, the meeting was called to order”.

Nathan has mentioned in his book that few years later Gunasingham, Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Singapore, explained why Colombo “failed to take its application forward”. Gunasingham had sent an analysis of the emerging geo-political situation in Southeast Asia. In that note he had explained how the Southeast Asian countries wanted to “shore up the strategic environment …than the protective shield offered by the American presence and by the umbrella of Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation”. Gunasingham was of the view that the “dominoes will continue to fall” as things stood “at present”. There will be no “stopping the process”, unless the Southeast Asian States associate themselves in a regional organization, which will usher in “unity of will and purpose and co-operative setting”. Gunasingham discussed the subject with Thanat Khoman, the Thai Foreign Minister, who “seemed to welcome the idea” of Ceylon’s membership. Gunasingham also felt that other member states were sympathetic to the idea.

Gunasingham got no reply from Colombo. His analysis was that the Government came under pressure from the left parties and also from India “which feared that its sphere of influence might be eroded” China and Soviet Union also opposed the move. Some non-aligned countries also felt that Sri Lanka would be giving up its policy of non-alignment. Gunasingham concluded, “Sri Lanka’s hope of breaking away from its moorings in South Asia and becoming a trading nation with links to Southeast and East Asian nations as well as to all of littoral Asia was lost”. The application was shelved, and as Nathan concludes, in later years, Sri Lanka’s “internal security situation deteriorated”.

Dr. V. Suryanarayan was former Director and Senior Professor, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. He is currently associated with two think tanks, the Center for Asia Studies and Chennai Centre for China Studies. His e mail address: suryageeth@sify. com


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *