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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on May 1, 2017 - May 7, 2017

Although one may forgive those who laugh off the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) developed by the United Nations in 2015 as a vain exercise to create heaven on earth, it is nevertheless vital as the goals seek to change the direction of world development to make it more comprehensive, embracing all aspects of human existence and endeavour (See

These are not “vanity goals” but are a measure of the seriousness of the interlinked problems our planet faces today.

It is also in the nature of the concept of “sustainability” that no important dynamics are left out of the picture. For sustainability to be sincere and serious, it needs to be understood in so broad and long-term a manner that “a sustainable policy” contributes to sustainable development at the all-encompassing global level, and does not contradict it.

Why we are talking about SDGs at all is largely in reaction to the specific sense of global crisis that we have been feeling more and more after the ending of the Cold War made us realise how unchecked human development in the last two centuries had brought upon us a situation of imminent doom.

In answering the question, “What to do about it?”, the governments of the world came up with the SDGs. That is a good start, but sadly, that is also the easy part.

The hard part takes us into a discussion about agency and motivation. Who is to turn things around? The SDGs provide the glib answer in its 17th goal, which is “partnerships”. Of course, the problems are so huge and the goals so high that we do need participation from as many parties as possible, and not only the United Nations Development Programme or national governments.

While forming partnerships to turn things around, it is of course vital that the forces that brought us to this point are at least lessened. For this to happen, people need to be convinced that the situation is dire, and they need to be provided with alternative directions and choices.

Motivation at the individual and at the civil society level, I think, depends much on publicity and education. The key still lies in transforming structural dynamics and institutional logic in ways that make it self-serving for the actors involved to embrace the SDGs in their planning. Creating a discerning and conscious consumer culture is one such way, of course, as is the monetising of environmental damage.

At this point, it is important to consider the stability of national political systems, especially new ones, as are all those found in the Asean region. The government of a new nation takes on the task of building a state, a nation, and a national economy — all at the same time. Central to all these is the challenge of stability.

And in a region such as Southeast Asia, whose regionalism grew in tandem with the retreat of global powers, national interests dictated over regional interests. Where regional cooperation is clearly good for the country concerned, or where it at least does not contradict the national good, then Asean will develop.

One can therefore discern possible patterns of regionalist development by identifying the overlaps of national and regional interests.

Internally, the development gap, necessarily accompanied by the national and regional income gaps, encourages cooperation to a certain degree, and the rich economies do spread their wealth and services to some extent to their poorer neighbours. However, the labour mobility stimulated by the intra-regional development gap tends to leave the poorer nations at an increasing disadvantage.

Most political systems in the region have experienced deep changes since national independence, and the fear of political and social instability is high. This makes national-level consideration of SDGs and such-like ambitions a luxury that can be given lip service when they do not counteract national concerns about social and political stability.

Social mobility, or the belief in it, is an important factor affecting political stability, but when this involves mass crossings of borders, social stability is affected.

Where the international private sector is concerned, market consciousness about environmental and labour issues can make a difference as to how multinational corporations construct their production process. However, in poorer economies, consumers are more concerned about prices than about how the products got into their shop.

To summarise:

1. The SDGs are a list of concerns that should not be controversial each in itself. Taken together, they express the deep problems accumulated over a couple of centuries that the world faces.

2. The key lies in convincing major institutions and actors that the SDGs do not contradict their long-term interests, and may in fact enhance them.

3. For states, SDGs need to be verbalised in national interest terms; for private sector players, these need to be expressed in terms of long-term economic benefits and company sustainability; for NGO activists, they need to be framed in as non-confrontational terms as possible; and for consumers, raising consciousness about ethical consumption has proven to be a doable project in many cases.

4. For Asean, governments are clearly the most important players. What plagues the region is that most of these governments are concerned more with regime sustainability than rounded national development. Bridging that gap is the imperative for the near future.

5. In the end, what an initiative like the SDGs aims at is to inculcate in as many people as possible the habit of thinking in global terms, and to realise the global context and consequences of their actions and to consider the finiteness of the earth.


Ooi Kee Beng is deputy director of ISEAS-Yusof Institute in Singapore. This article is based on a speech given at the ASEAN Ministers Workshop 2017 held at Sunway Resort Hotel and Spa on April 25.

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