Warwick ASEAN Conference

Building an ASEAN Identity: Our past, present and future

Disclaimer: Warwick ASEAN Conference would like to clarify that all opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ and editors’ own.


“The ASEAN Community is like a group of 10 friends helping each other become richer and better, even if they are 10 very different people.”

-Joseph Goh, 19, student at Brickfield Asia College, Kuala Lumpur

Can there really be an ASEAN identity? Right now, it seems the answer is no: for all we say about the ASEAN Community, it has remained difficult for people living in Southeast Asian countries to see the value of ASEAN in their lives. We remain far from our goal of being a community that has a distinct sense of identity: few of us would consider ourselves “Southeast Asian” as deeply as we consider ourselves Singaporean, Thai, or Cambodian. Regional identity is an elusive concept, and inevitably uneven across and within countries.

Southeast Asia is a tricky region. If there was one thing that defined this area, it would be our diversity: of religions, languages, political systems… The challenge then, is to explore how such a disparate group of countries can create something in common that transcends these other identities we hold without erasing them. To do this, I believe that we need to move towards a more radical way of looking at Southeast Asia as a collective, in our past, present, and future.

The Past

Southeast Asia is a postcolonial region, and I would argue that we have yet to move beyond the scars colonialism has left on us. In particular, our national narratives are much more closely tied to the experience of decolonisation than the long and interconnected histories that cross today’s national borders. Today’s national boundaries are visceral remnants of colonialism, and are often taken for granted when we talk about our countries, and of relations between neighbouring countries.

What is ignored is that Southeast Asia had long and illustrious histories before the Europeans arrived – the Khmer Empire, covering much of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and the Majapahit Empire, extending from Java up to Thailand and the Philippines, to name just two. Our past transcends today’s national boundaries, and is as much a part of our histories as nationalist struggles for independence are. A greater focus on these aspects may well play a part in getting Southeast Asians to see each other as part of a collective, just like how the basis of the European identity is often traced back to the Roman Empire.

The Present

A large part of the lack of Southeast Asian consciousness is because of the lack of ASEAN’s presence on the everyday lives of its people. With the rolling out of the ASEAN Community, a strong focus is placed on the fluidity of our borders for trade and people within the region. However, this is currently limited to the elite – the eight occupations covering the current MRAs that allow for free movement of skilled labour are just 1.5% of ASEAN’s population, while 87% of the population counts as unskilled labour. Clearly, for Southeast Asia to have a stronger identity, this needs to change.

Instead of radical changes like allowing complete free movement of labour across countries, governments could put into place more subtle signalling measures. This could include flying the ASEAN flag alongside national flags at important events and outside government buildings, placing a stronger focus on Southeast Asia in primary/elementary school syllabus’, and giving organisations such as the ASEAN Foundation a more prominent role in social programmes within and across countries. This would increase the presence of ASEAN and Southeast Asia in the lives of more citizens across the ten countries, fostering a stronger awareness, if not common identity.

The Future

In the long run, the goal is of course to foster a true sense of community within the people in ASEAN. Yet, we must avoid the dangers of trying to transpose European norms onto ASEAN: its success is because of its consensus-based nature, and cannot afford to become prescriptive in terms of politics or economics. This may also mean that we may not be able to achieve the level of freedom of movement that the EU has – but we may not need to if the focus is on identity.

Instead, we could take a leaf out of the book of the EU and have more inter-country study programmes, similar to the Erasmus programmes. More economic collaboration should be encouraged through ASEAN-wide grants for SMEs to hire and expand across countries, allowing a greater range of people to travel and understand the different cultures in the area: currently, 90% of people in Southeast Asia are employed by SMEs. More importantly, a strong sense of collaboration and mutual support should be encouraged both at the state and individual levels through facilitating cross-cultural initiatives that are accessible for the majority of Southeast Asians.

A Southeast Asian identity may be one that is difficult to envision today, but identities are ultimately about building ‘imagined communities’. To consider ourselves Southeast Asian, I believe that ASEAN should place a stronger focus on inclusivity both in name and in action – to extend cross-country collaboration to the rich and poor alike, and to place a stronger emphasis on the role of social ties and community-building.

This will not be as easy as this op-ed makes it sound, but a more radical imagining of ASEAN can and should be the way forward to make Southeast Asia matter to its 600 million people.

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