As a Malaysian, ASEAN was formally introduced to me through our lower secondary History syllabus. At 16, we were taught the basics; the organisation’s initial aims, the Bangkok declaration and it’s achievements to date—all in all about 2 pages worth of facts.
That being said, it was not as if Southeast Asia was an alien concept. I was, after all living right smack in the middle of the region. Coupled by the fondness for geography and a keen interest in the biennial SEA games, I was very aware of the 10 countries that made up ASEAN and their roles in the regional economy, culture and geopolitics.
ASEAN Youth Volunteer Program
In my first year of university, I was chosen to represent Malaysia for the first ASEAN Youth Volunteer Program (AYVP). 100 ASEAN youth ‘eco-leaders’ were brought together from all member states to learn about the environment and most importantly each other. Interactions with the fellow participations provided me with a fascinating insight and a platform to learn further about ASEAN. Not so much about the organisation itself but about the myriad of people that live within its umbrella. The tendency of the Filipinos to sing at any given chance, the friendliness of the Thais, the thanaka on Burmese faces and the Bruneians’ obsession with ambuyat, just to name a few.
Despite our differences in almost every aspect, I felt a common bond with all of them. How could I not after spending 5 weeks doing everything together? It is something that I struggle to put into words, even today. It is as if the same amount of sunshine we get annually has given us the ability to be warm to one another, regardless of where we came from. Or maybe it’s because we all eat rice as our staple food? Nonetheless, the first hand experience with youths from across the region was a godsend towards my understanding of Southeast Asia and ASEAN. We were uncomfortable with each other at first but broke, no smashed the ice, once we saw how similar our cultures were.
Regional Unity in ASEAN?
This experience enhanced my understanding towards the people of ASEAN, but it lent way to one puzzling thought: whatever else the ASEAN secretariat did has never really been tangible to us Malaysians. In other words, the whole concept of regional unity was not felt on the ground. If one went to a national stream school in Malaysia, he or she will notice that our government strongly promotes patriotism through its school syllabus and various events throughout the year. However, this is not replicated for the purposes of regional integration and unity in ASEAN.
If we are to truly form a mutually beneficial integrated community in Southeast Asia, we need to be intensifying such efforts not just at the ministerial level but also at the grassroots. One could look west for a good example of regional identity: the European Union (EU). I was lucky to have been given the privilege to study in the United Kingdom, still part of the EU for now. Like most students, the holidays meant an opportunity to explore the neighbouring continent.
Despite the sweeping wave of anti-EU sentiments in national politics in major EU member states, the people across these countries share similar cultures, religions and history. For all its flaws, the EU remains the model for all regional blocs as it is the most advanced of its kind. 28 member states share a parliament, a judiciary and some are part of the Schengen Area, where EU nationalities can travel within the area without a passport. ASEAN may have been established 17 years after the EU, but it still lags far behind it in many respects, especially on integration and unity. Even the EU can make decisions without needing a full consensus from every member states, whereas ASEAN continues to require this on every issue through the ASEAN Way.
As Malaysia approach 60 years of independence, it still struggles to find a common identity in the face of diversity of races, religions and cultures. ASEAN is at a similar stage, celebrating 50 years of its inception on 8th August this year. Imagine the enormous challenges that ASEAN face when Malaysia continues to search and yearn for a common cause, purpose and unity.
Without focused efforts to propel ASEAN to the forefront or better yet compromise some form of national sovereignty for a common goal, I am sure ASEAN will remain relegated to only a few pages in our Malaysian history textbooks and in the minds of the interested few. Perhaps rightly so, since such rhetoric should only warrants two pages of our attention.
Yew Aun recently graduated and is currently a conservation officer at the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT). Although a biologist/conservationist by profession, he is generally interested in a wide range of topics including politics, economics and sports. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets at @yewaun92.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.