Keep ASEAN relevant to the Young


April 29, 2011

Keeping ASEAN relevant to the Young

by Dr Farish M. Noor*

DESCRIBING the colour red to a person who was born blind is perhaps a difficult, if not impossible, thing to do. The same applies to describing the value of peace to someone who has never experienced the horrors of war. That is precisely the problem we face when trying to describe the merits of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to the present-day generation of Asean citizens.

We have four years to go before 2015, when all the instruments and institutions of an ASEAN community are meant to be up and running. While the clock is ticking, we are faced with another problem altogether: how to emphasise the importance and relevance of ASEAN to present-day ASEAN citizens, particularly the post-1967 generation, for whom ASEAN — as a multilateral tool among states — has little direct relevance and impact on their lives.

This impression, however, is misleading when we consider the benefits of ASEAN and what it has managed to do, albeit silently. The present-day generation of ASEAN citizens take it as a given that we live in a region that is peaceful and where conflict is something that happens far, far away. But the historian would step in and remind us that for centuries Southeast Asia has been one of the most violent parts of the world, with clashes between states that go back to the first millennium.

The same applies for Europe, which was a theatre of war since the age of early Christendom all the way to the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, the revolutionary wars occasioned by the rise of Napoleon, the nationalist wars of the 18th and 19th centuries and the First and Second World Wars. The soil of Europe has soaked up so much blood that it is satiated.

Yet, since the formation of the European Economic Community and later the European Community and now European Union (EU), Western Europe has enjoyed the longest period of sustained peace and development.

Surveys in both regions — ASEAN and EU — have shown that support for both has been higher among the newer member states. The former Eastern European countries that were once part of the Soviet bloc welcomed entry into EU and their populations knew more about the EU than their counterparts in the United Kingdom, France or Germany.

Likewise, the highest levels of support for ASEAN have come from the populations of countries like Vietnam, who are relative newcomers. Sadly, in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore, ASEAN seems to be something taken for granted by the younger generation.

That this is the case is perhaps understandable, for people often seem less complimentary about what they take as a given. But the younger generation of ASEAN citizens ought to be reminded that they are living in an ASEAN region that is very different from the place inhabited by their parents and grandparents.

Every time I visit Java to lecture at universities there, I am struck by a new phenomenon that was absent three decades ago: young Malaysian or Singaporean backpackers travelling on holiday in Indonesia.

In the 1970s, the only backpackers across ASEAN were Westerners, but today we see the rise of new constituencies, ranging from ASEAN holiday-makers to ASEAN expatriates, travelling freely across a region that is increasingly seen as the common home to all.

As we look to 2015 and beyond, we need to constantly remind ourselves that the ASEAN community is a construct that was the result of protracted diplomacy and political agency, and not an essential or teleologically given fact.

The next (third) generation of ASEAN citizens must renew their interest and commitment to keep the ASEAN idea and ideal alive, in order for it to have continued relevance to our lives and livelihood. The challenges that ASEAN will face are many, and mostly beyond the ambit of speculation.

In the decades to come, ease of movement (with the introduction of a single ASEAN visa, etc) will mean that the circulation of peoples, commodities and ideas will intensify; bringing the region closer together.

Yet, this is a region where local national politics is occasionally prone to bouts of extreme hyper-nationalism, a centrifugal force that threatens the cohesion of ASEAN. In the same way that the EU will fall apart if countries like the UK, France or Germany decide to go their own way, ASEAN may also falter if key members decide to break from the convoy.

Then there is the question of ASEAN’s identity and cohesion as it comes under pressure from external variable agents and actors, which is bound to happen. In the coming decades, ASEAN will have to live with the evident disparity in terms of its military power vis-a-vis countries like China, whose proximity to ASEAN states like Vietnam and the Philippines means that it looms large in their foreign policy calculations.

It is imperative that ASEAN develop a consistent and coherent (though not necessarily homogenous) voice when it comes to dealing with these external factors. Furthermore, Japan, India and, of course, America and Australia will remain as powerful and influential external actors that will likewise impact on ASEAN’s development.

Such considerations may seem academic to most ASEAN citizens, but they are nonetheless important and, in the long run, relevant to us all. The onus is, therefore, upon us — the present-day generation of ASEAN leaders, bureaucrats, technocrats and scholars — to impress upon our fellow citizens the need to keep the ASEAN idea alive post-2015.

Let us not make the fatal mistake of valuing ASEAN only after it falters, for nostalgia and the longing for opportunities missed is merely a reminder of our failures in the present.

Dr Farish A. Noor is senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

3 thoughts on “Keep ASEAN relevant to the Young

  1. ASEAN community by 2015 is a typical dream of politicians! Big on the Vision thing but progress is snail slow.

    The ASEAN Secretariat based in Jakata is powerless to resolve the Myanmar problem and now Thailand and Cambodia are at each other’s throat over the Temple which belongs to that latter country. Can Surin Pitsuwan explain what is happening to the organisation he heads. Why is he allowing the border classes between the Thais and the Cambodians to continue?–Din Merican

  2. Do ASEAN countries teach their students about the member countries of ASEAN? I doubt so. ASEAN members rather pontificate about their individual greatness, rather than be more friendly to their immediate neigbours.

    Some even go further to relay the disguised interference by foreign countries in the ASEAN region. In other words, some ASEAN countries serve as surrogates for international powers.

    ASEAN to me, has been always a coffee-shop talk centre – nothing more than that. But even this coffee shop [kopi-tiam] is about to close down because of the divergence of languages, cultures and religions.

    It was not long ago, that I was in an ASEAN member country, attending a course. Going to conferences was part of the course requirements.

    I once came across a local university economics professor of an ASEAN country telling foreigners during a conference, “We are a like a nice house in a lousy neighbourhood.”

    Such dislay of arrogance! Maybe he was trying to impress the foreigners at the conference by disparaging the poor neighbours.

    Then what was this professor teaching his students at the university? Surely, he was pushing his arrogance to them too. His seething contempt for less advanced ASEAN countries may be a representative sample for the society of that ASEAN country.

    I wondered, if that country were that good, then it should have gone and help others in the neigbourhood to get better.

    The founding members of ASEAN: Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Phillippines, and Indonesia, are at the core, and at each other’s neck constantly – plenty of senseless bickering.

    Well, if they cannot enter the senior, they enter the little league – ASEAN.

    We can also see how prickly relations could be during the Asian Financial Crisis, during which blames were blatantly thrown at neighbours for the region’s problems at that time instead of offerring help and advice.

    There is constant paranoia amongst ASEAN’s leaders, and there the serious lack of collective leadership to make ASEAN move as one. Seriously, look at how often, ASEAN leaders visit each other.

    Come on, most ASEAN neighbours are only a hour’s flight away.

    For starters, schools in ASEAN countries should make their students pick one member country and do some kind of geographical, cultural and historical research on it. And perhaps, describe some ways the students’ country can contribute to the other country.

  3. Din,
    The non intervention thingy must go lah. Just wondering why Asean reacted violently when vietnam invaded Kampuchea in 1979, even Singapore troops sent up to Thailand border. Why can’t Asean pressure Myammar to be more open? Else why keep Myammar in the group? Rajaratnam would have opposed it if he’s still around

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