This year marks a significant time for ASEAN in celebrating its 50th anniversary. There are many agendas to look forward in the region and it could not be any more curious given the global happenings such as Trump’s presidency. Closer to ground, countries like Vietnam are making substantial progress on the technology front with major collaborations with Google and the creation of Silicon Valley-like hubs in Southeast Asia. Similarly, 2017 appears to be the year of start-up revolutions throughout Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam with investments pouring in by the billions of dollars.

Nonetheless, as ASEAN turns 50, there is a fundamental need to reflect on our progress over the years and revisit the true ASEAN identity. A common and unified front for ASEAN and as such, its identity, is almost non-existent. Notwithstanding that, it is difficult to reconcile what truly defines the ASEAN identity.  There have been several attempts to bridge that gap through the slogan of “One Vision, One Identity and One Community” and the tagline of People Centred ASEAN and People Centric ASEAN. The success of those efforts remains disputable and often does not reflect realities on the ground.

The common people who serve as the foundation of ASEAN need to have a better realisation of ASEAN. Yet through recent surveys, it is evident that many citizens in member states have very little awareness of ASEAN and its overarching role in the region. The disengagement with the public is a real concern, which is evident through a range of areas including issues concerning low-skilled workers and disregard of their rights.

In the midst of this, the creation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), one of the three pillars of the ASEAN Community, stands as the grandest aspiration of ASEAN yet and perhaps a beacon of hope for our long standing problems. It is envisioned to promote free movement of people across national borders, human rights protection, equitable access to job opportunities and a people-centred community forming roadmap for future growth. Post-December 2015, the pace of progress for AEC has been excruciatingly slow propounded further by regional issues and domestic issues of member states. And, the questions linger on whether the fragile connection to the common people is increasingly broken through the conception of AEC.

Perhaps it’s best for us to strongly consider and understand, how ASEAN operates and makes decisions. The relevance of the ASEAN Way of operating through consensus-based and non-interference principles, which are rooted to our region’s history of colonization, should be revisited. The ASEAN Way has prevented member states from taking stronger, more assertive measures in dealing with pertinent matters such as the Rohingya refugee crisis, transboundary haze, human rights abuses in the Philippines, and many more. Perhaps moving away completely from the current approach is not a solution considering due regard for each member state’s sensitivities but experimenting different approaches would hopefully create the momentum for the much-needed change.

It is also worth looking at the greater role of business organizations in reaching out to more diverse markets in Southeast Asia and tapping into their potential to create a better understanding among its end users. The removal of roaming charges by Viettel, the largest mobile network operator in Vietnam, which operates in nine other countries, enables greater, seamless connection between citizens and member states. The existence of regional entities in banking and telecommunication sectors as well as their expansions throughout the region also remains as an important impetus in the advancement for a stronger ASEAN economy and brand. AirAsia for instance has made tremendous contribution in advancing the ASEAN agenda. Evidently, these entities could assist in creating a more cohesive ASEAN identity whereby the relatability of such brands could foster greater understanding of ASEAN’s identity and potential.

Multi-layered efforts at the intergovernmental level, civil society organizations (CSOs) and others in creating grassroots movements to push the governments of the ASEAN member states are equally necessary. Participation of student movements as well as youth summits remains as imperative as ever as it creates the network and platform for continuous collaborations on ASEAN-related matters. It is also crucial to provide the region’s biggest set of population ways to communicate their ideas to governments and institutions, in the hope that they cater to their needs too moving forward. This is perhaps done best through a more focused approach to the other two pillars of the ASEAN community especially the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community pillar. This focus could provide a stronger foundation through a more enriched and unified ASEAN community that could further our progress in the other two pillars.

Ultimately, as ASEAN hits the 50 years mark on the 8th August, more questions will be asked of us, as to whether we could relate to the “One Vision, One Identity and One Community” slogan any better than before; or where do we move forward from this point on. These questions become more pressing than ever as ASEAN reaches a historic juncture in its existence. Perhaps it is best done by asking ourselves as to what ASEAN means to us and whether we would be able to realise the true identity and spirit of ASEAN in each of us.

 


Ashuvynni is a law graduate and a member of the Perdana Fellows Alumni movement. She previously interned in Southeast Asia Network for Development (SEANET) under IDEAS Malaysia. She is a budding writer and can be contacted at ashuvynni.s.r@gmail.com.

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.