Time to have deeper Asean identity | Inquirer Opinion

Time to have deeper Asean identity

/ 02:26 PM November 13, 2017

Asean leaders will gather in Manila this evening to mark the regional grouping’s 50th anniversary, and they have much to celebrate.

The organisation founded at the height of the Cold War, driven by fear that a rising communist tide would overwhelm the region, has come a long way from its early years. As its logo of 10 rice stalks bound together suggests, staying together is better than standing apart, and offers the best chance of realising the region’s promise.


By 2030, Asean is tipped to become the world’s fourth-largest economy, after China, India and the European Union. Today, it is making slow but steady progress towards becoming an economic community and, collectively, is already the world’s sixth-largest economy, with a combined gross domestic product of US$2.55 trillion (S$3.5 trillion).

Companies are keen to invest across its member countries, given their rising middle class, growing consumer base, and young and increasingly skilled workforce.


Poverty has fallen sharply as incomes and purchasing power rise.

Despite these favourable indicators, Asean somehow fails to generate excitement or interest among many.

Instead, it appears to be an elite construct for many – something deeply familiar to the bureaucrats and a segment of professionals who fly around the region regularly for meetings, yet seemingly distant to the vast majority of its people.

Even among those who are aware of Asean’s strategic significance as a collective counterweight to pressure from larger powers to influence events in South-east Asia, there is a sense of disappointment at the grouping’s seeming inability to adopt common positions on various issues that confront its members, from managing maritime disputes in the South China Sea to resolving humanitarian incidents such as the forced displacement of the Rohingya from Myanmar.

For all its shortcomings, Asean and its hundreds of meetings every year have played a key role in improving the incomes and livelihoods of millions in South-east Asia. Take, as an example, how visa-free and open skies agreements among members have substantially eased the movement of people and goods across the region. Numerous flights link its members’ capitals, citizens of one country can travel relatively freely to another, and the potential for growth in transport connectivity as well as tourism is significant.

Growth prospects in the travel and tourism sector are just one example of how closer cooperation and greater economic integration across the region can help lift incomes. Over 30 million jobs in the region are supported directly or indirectly by the sector, which contributes a large proportion of the GDP of several Asean members – nearly 20 per cent in Thailand and 30 per cent in Cambodia.

However, there appears to be limited public awareness of why Asean matters, how it operates and what role it plays in ensuring the region’s growth, prosperity and stability – in the past as well as in the decades to come. More can be done to raise such awareness, especially as countries – in declaring the formation of an Asean Community in Kuala Lumpur two years ago – had committed to establishing a people-oriented, people-centred Asean.


In the past six years, I had the opportunity to report on Asean meetings in five countries – Indonesia, Cambodia, Brunei, Myanmar and Malaysia. Revisiting the reports of these annual summits and the issues that surface, one key thread has been making sure the grouping, in whatever it does, helps lift the lot of its citizens.

This should be the main outcome of greater security and economic cooperation, which can help create the necessary conditions and stability for equitable and inclusive growth.

Journalists in Southeast Asia are probably among the most well-informed about the grouping and its work. And colleagues from across the region regularly make the effort to explain Asean and its significance to readers and viewers.

There is always room to do more – in creative ways from musicals to short videos – to strengthen a sense of belonging among people in Asean and sustain their awareness and interest in its work.

In other words, how can we foster and strengthen an Asean identity, a sense that our fortunes are intertwined with those of our neighbours in South-east Asia?

Keeping up with what Asean does is not easy. Well over 1,000 meetings take place across its 10 countries in a year, on issues ranging from broadcasting and cyber security and defence, to education and labour.

Looking ahead, Singapore will take over the rotating chairmanship at the end of this week’s summit, although its formal term begins in January next year.

This could be a golden opportunity to deepen awareness of Asean among Singaporeans.

More can be done on this front.

A survey of undergraduates across Asean in 2007, when Singapore last held the chair, found that attitudes toward Asean tended to be ambivalent here.

Not only were Singaporeans the least likely to identify themselves as citizens of Asean, they also had below-average knowledge of the region. An update of the survey in 2014 found that ambivalence towards Asean continued to be prevalent in Singapore.

On the other hand, Singapore was ranked the top destination for travel and work among fellow Asean undergraduates. The growth of low-cost carriers has made this a reality for many.

Persuading young Singaporeans of the value of deepening their knowledge of Asean is one way to nudge people to be more familiar with the grouping. The Committee on the Future Economy had suggested strengthening such know-how last year, as the region offers opportunities in consumption and infrastructure demand, among several areas.

Quite a number of Singapore businesses have a presence in Asean, and a variety of Asean enterprises have likewise set up shop here, just as students and entrepreneurs from Asean have sunk roots here. Might highlighting their successes and thoughts on being part of a regional community, such as through advertisements, contribute to a wider sense of belonging to the region?

Requiring students from an early age to pick up an Asean language or go on study trips to neighbouring countries is another way to strengthen people’s affinity with the region.

Strengthening the public’s understanding of Asean and the very many things it does has to be a key thrust of this effort to raise awareness of Asean.

This could be done at the community level, from Asean fairs to encouraging the display of items – like books, crafts, food and fresh produce – from across the region.

Taking a leaf from the book of what others have done to inculcate an awareness of Asean among students and the public can help, be it through songs or videos.

And even though Asean is a long way from – and does not aspire to – being like the EU, some of the EU’s educational efforts could be repurposed for this region.

Understanding Asean better will, hopefully, create greater familiarity with the grouping. It should also strengthen awareness of the fact that our destinies are intertwined with that of this region.

Various efforts at the government-to-government level are already under way to make it easier to build this familiarity, from stepped-up student exchanges to high-speed rail projects.

The private and people sectors have a role too. At a time when disruptive technology is radically reshaping the nature of work as we know it, some Asean unicorns – bold start-ups – are blazing a trail in showing how people can tackle challenges and find new paths to prosperity. Building on these initiatives and helping others in the region benefit from them could well be one way to foster a deeper sense of regional identity.

When Asean marks its next milestone, be it in 10, 25, or 50 years’ time, I hope more citizens across the region, and especially in Singapore, identify with it.

And just as many around the region today take stock of what it means to them, another cycle of rediscovery may well strengthen this Asean identity.

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