PETALING JAYA, Malaysia - Moderation has been a key factor in the success of ASEAN as a regional bloc, said the group's first secretary-general.
Tan Sri Ajit Singh, who held the post from 1993 to 1997, said moderation, though not an explicit ASEAN policy, was used when trying to get member countries to trust and work with one another.
"With ASEAN's formation, member countries began to recognise the importance of agreeing on principles such as respecting each other's sovereignty, making decision by consensus and discussing problems behind closed doors," Ajit, 75, said in an interview as part of The Star's effort to promote moderation with its Brave Views and Bold Ideas campaign.
The former diplomat said such principles were extensions of musyawarah and muafakat, or getting together to seek consensus.
"It involves give-and-take from all sides, which is partly what moderation is about," he said.
"This is where Malaysia has an advantage because with our ethnic and religious diversity we better understand cultural differences and sensitivities," said Ajit, who is currently the adviser to IJM Corporation Bhd.
Ajit went to Muar High School and English College Johor Baru before going to Universiti Malaya (UM) where he graduated in 1962 with a degree in history.
His peers at UM include Tan Sri Razali Ismail and Tan Sri Ahmad Kamil Jaafar, who both served as Malaysia's Permanent Representative at the United Nations.
Ajit served as ambassador to Vietnam, Austria, Brazil and Germany before being appointed ASEAN secretary-general.
Before him, ASEAN only had a secretary-general of the ASEAN Secretariat, an ambassadorial position. That changed after the 1992 ASEAN summit, which led to the restructuring of the grouping and the creation of a ministerial-level secretary-general position.
To build trust among officials of the member countries, Ajit adopted a practise popularised by first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.
"I would arrange for golf games and we would work out a lot of issues. We came for many games," he said, laughing.
He said building trust was important not just in regional groupings like ASEAN, but also among communities.
"Strengthening trust among Malaysians is important to further promote moderation in the country because extremist views often populate spaces where there is a lack of trust," Ajit said.
"The high level of trust we used to have in each other is eroding, especially in our urban areas. It is a problem we must address."