Disclaimer: Warwick ASEAN Conference would like to clarify that all opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ and editors’ own.
BY PENG NING TAN
For the last dozen years, ASEAN has attempted to foster a sense of identity and community amongst the citizens of ASEAN. Here, I argue two key approaches through which ASEAN may be able to achieve this.
Since 2005, ASEAN has adopted the motto: One Vision, One Identity, One Community. In line with this motto, the bloc has actively worked towards establishing the ASEAN Community through three key pillars: the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC). In the last two decades, various blueprints and master plans for a diverse, dynamic and prosperous ASEAN community have been published. Many of these plans focus on material developmental goals such as physical infrastructure development and reducing poverty. While these goals are important, more intangible aspects related to fostering a common identity amongst the peoples of ASEAN are key to establishing a resilient ASEAN community and should not be overlooked.
Recognising an influential and inclusive ASEAN
As a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual region, forging a common identity can be exceedingly challenging. If a common ASEAN identity is to be forged, it must be built on a common belief that the bloc can make everyone’s lives better. Thus, it is additionally important for Southeast Asians to be aware of ASEAN and the benefits it can bring to the region.
Although ASEAN as an institution has helped to ensure the stability that has facilitated regional growth and development over the last half-century, much of the population in the region are unaware of ASEAN’s role. Even when people do know of ASEAN’s existence, rarely do they appreciate, or even identify themselves with it. Member state governments must step up efforts in raising the profile of ASEAN within their countries, so that citizens understand the importance of the bloc even at a grassroots level in less-educated communities.
It is also imperative that ASEAN initiatives prove to be productive and inclusive. With inclusive plans, people are more likely to feel invested and interested in the bloc, and to support its initiatives. The recently published ASEAN Economic Integration Brief reiterates the need for initiatives of the AEC to be relevant to all ASEAN citizens by showing that the institution can make majority of lives in the region better. One possible way for ASEAN to achieve this is to consider diverting resources into the sustainable development of secondary cities, which can help to reduce the developmental gap not just between countries, but also within individual member states. Developing secondary cities responsibly will help reach out to more ASEAN peoples residing outside current economic centres of the bloc, generating employment and improving standards of living. While developing secondary cities will require high capital outlay, it is essential to helping ASEAN gain greater recognition as a driver of inclusive growth.
Supporting and engaging ASEAN youth networks
In order to strengthen the ASEAN community, citizens of ASEAN must be given opportunities to network and befriend those from other member states. One effective way to start paving the way for a stronger ASEAN community in the future is to support and engage ASEAN youth networks.
To date, ASEAN has implemented some programmes aimed at encouraging socio-cultural exchanges between youths. ASEAN Scholarships and the ASEAN University Network have provided opportunities for some students to spend time other universities within the region. Such experiences allow a deeper development of the region, and for friendships across Southeast Asia to be forged. Unfortunately, youths from less developed ASEAN member states have limited access to these opportunities due to financial constraints. These constraints are understandable; each country has more pressing developmental needs to attend to.
What ASEAN and its member states could work on with greater immediacy is to learn from the EU and its Erasmus Programme. The availability of student exchange programmes within ASEAN could be greatly increased by implementing a more standardised and compatible university credit transfer and accumulation systems between various ASEAN universities. Creating opportunities for ASEAN students to form friendships and networks across the region through these exchange programmes will certainly help the younger generation forge a stronger sense of belonging and identity within the greater Southeast Asian region.
Outside the Southeast Asian region, ASEAN students who have the privilege of pursuing higher education in other countries such as the U.K. should also be engaged. Many student-run ASEAN societies have been set up, attempting to bring ASEAN youths together to engage issues close to home and to raise the profile of the bloc to a wider international audience. However, these student bodies often receive little support, limiting their reach and capacity. Perhaps member states or the ASEAN Secretariat themselves can support these student networks to increase their reach and capacity. Southeast Asian start-ups and enterprises can also be encouraged to engage ASEAN youth abroad through these student organisations, helping to inspire the brightest young minds of ASEAN to return home and contribute to the region. With increased support and engagement, ASEAN student societies can become an effective platform to shape the aspirations of ASEAN youths abroad, and to bring more of us together to build networks and friendships, helping to develop a common ASEAN identity. As such, it is imperative for ASEAN to direct more attention to engaging its youth, both within and outside Southeast Asia.
ASEAN could see more success in realising its motto of fostering a common vision, sense of identity and community in the region by increasing recognition for an influential and inclusive ASEAN, and by supporting and engaging ASEAN youth networks. Should more attention and resources be devoted to these two key areas, the ideal of a strong, resilient ASEAN community built upon a common identity is more likely to be realised.
As a region consisting mainly of developing countries, initiatives focusing on forging a common identity are sometimes considered secondary, and are unlikely to be top of the agenda for many ASEAN member states. ASEAN’s lack of authority as a regional institution to enforce regulations may also result in obstacles in the implementation of various initiatives. On a more positive note, the ASCC 2025 vision sets out an aim to promote ASEAN awareness among governments, students and the youth of member states – a step in the right direction. Some of the initiatives raised here may be able to proceed in tandem with other more pressing developments in ASEAN. Ideas such as supporting and engaging ASEAN student networks do not require significant capital outlays. With sufficient concerted effort and investment, I am hopeful that ASEAN will transform from a community of nations to a community of people that share a sense of identity and belonging to the Southeast Asian region one day.