Part II: ASEAN – Is there an ASEAN identity?

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The ASEAN way. Photo courtesy of the ASEAN Secretariat.

IO – In 2021 ASEAN exported nearly €136 billion worth of goods to the EU whereas the EU exported about €80 billion worth of goods to ASEAN. During pre-pandemic times nearly 10 million people travelled between the EU and ASEAN every year. The two organisations have shared values and principles which include a rules-based international order, effective and sustainable multilateralism and free and fair trade. In 2020 the EU and ASEAN became Strategic Partners whereby they cooperate closely on economic and security matters.

Part I of this series discussed the EU’s efforts at asking its citizens through a process of deliberative democracy what sort of an EU they want and what sort of a future they envisage for Europe through the Conference on the Future of Europe. The answers that European citizens provided to these two questions were determined by their values and so in a sense the Conference was closely connected to creating a European identity.

Indonesia is one of the few countries in the world that deliberately created its own national language and national culture which were instrumental in creating an Indonesian identity. From the start, Indonesia was very much concerned about identity. During the Cultural Polemics of the 1930s what was basically being discussed was, ‘What is Indonesian culture?’ ‘What do we want it to be?’ ‘What do we want it to mean to be Indonesian?’ (See: https://observerid.com/the-role-of-language-and-culture-in-the-formation-of-an-indonesian-national-identity/ ). 

So, the question now arises: what about ASEAN identity? Is ASEAN concerned about creating one?  Does it have any plans to also ask its citizens what sort of an ASEAN they want and what sort of a future they would like to see for Southeast Asia?

Louis Damais and his wife Krittayawan Boonto. Photo courtesy of Louis Damais.

Louis Damais is a 47-year-old Indonesian architect who is married to a Thai lady named Krittayawan Boonto, and has lived in Myanmar and Thailand for several years. He says, “I am confused about ASEAN identity because no one ever talks about it. We just know ASEAN as a group of nations. Ordinary people wonder if ASEAN is only about politics and economics, or if it also encompasses the arts and culture.”

Shanti Shamdasani is a consultant for ASEAN and says that ASEAN has not held the large scale sort of deliberative process that the EU has for citizens of its member states, although it has asked similar questions to such stakeholders as members of industry, banking centres, chambers of commerce and academicians when creating the ASEAN Economic Community. She also does not see ASEAN focusing on issues such as an ASEAN identity for at least the next 5 years because the pandemic has caused states to become more individualistic as the gap between developed, more developed and underdeveloped states has widened. Consequently, nations have become more inward looking and focused on relief. At the moment ASEAN’s main focus has had to be on health care, digital transformation which heavily involves financial transactions and geo-political issues.

Yoong Yoong Lee who is director of the ASEAN Community Affairs Directorate explained that the EU and ASEAN are at different points in their development. Compared to the EU, ASEAN is a far younger organization. The EU’s origins go back to the aftermath of the Second World War when European nations wanted to come together not only for economic reasons but also as a way of avoiding wars amongst each other.  ASEAN was formed in 1967 but the last of its current membership joined only in 1999.  In this regard, the EU has been through a lot more history and had longer to develop an EU identity. They have for example a common parliamentary system, a common currency and a common Schengen visa system. Also, there is a lot more disparity amongst ASEAN member states be it economically, geographically or politically which makes creating an ASEAN identity more challenging. The ASEAN Community was only formally established on the 31st of December 2015.

ASEAN’s population is over 680 million people and one of its outstanding achievements is that in the 55 years of its existence there have been no wars between member states as ASEAN believes in dialogue and consultation mechanisms to resolve disputes. Lee stresses that any regional integration efforts by ASEAN is always for the benefit of the peoples of ASEAN and that ASEAN identity is a relatively evolving concept.  

Yoong Yoong Lee, director of ASEAN Community Affairs Directorate. Photo credit: ASEAN Secretariat.

However, this does not mean that ASEAN identity is completely ignored. At the official level it is mentioned in several key ASEAN documents, including the ASEAN Charter which gives ASEAN its legal personality as well as in the ASEAN motto of ‘One Vision, One Identity, One Community’. To provide a basis for that ASEAN identity, a Narrative of ASEAN Identity was adopted in 2020 which broadly describes ASEAN identity as a set of shared values on two levels namely, constructed and inherited values. It also provides the parameters to measure the success of an ASEAN identity which includes awareness, relevance or the understanding of how ASEAN benefits its citizens, and appreciation.

To promote and amplify such ASEAN awareness, the ASEAN Communication Master Plan II (2018 – 2025) provides a framework to communicate messages about the organisation, development and vision of ASEAN and the ASEAN Community to key audiences, including local communities of member states, women and children, youth, governments, businesses, civil society organisations, influencers, the media and global audiences.

Former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa would like to see ASEAN go even further. He has always been deeply interested in ASEAN and during his time as foreign minister was very much involved in developing ASEAN in a way most beneficial to the citizens of ASEAN member states. He says, “It would seem to me that efforts and attention have centered around ‘ASEAN awareness’. These are essentially about raising awareness of the existence, workings and contributions of ASEAN as a regional entity and organization. Without doubt they are important efforts that must continue.

However, they are quite distinct from what could be called ‘ASEAN identity’; a sense of collective or common values, principles and vision shared by the peoples of ASEAN that bind them together as a community. These cannot simply be promulgated or created by the adoption of lofty declarations by its member states.

Instead ASEAN identity would be the result of a process, carefully and persistently nurtured to get to know one another’s societies, our respective past, hopes, fears even and aspirations for the future. Do ASEAN peoples truly know one another?

Marty Natalegawa, former Indonesian foreign minister. Photo credit: UNCTAD, CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

What values bind the peoples of ASEAN? Can we cite values such as celebration, not mere tolerance of our diversity, respect and protection of human rights, of our fragile environment, consensus decision making (musyawarah/mufakat), mutual assistance and solidarity (gotong royong) as some of the common identity we all share? In the past I would answer with a resounding yes. Today, there can be no complacency.”

Louis Damais echoes this to a certain extent when he states, “A common identity is created when nations find common values. These often become apparent through shared art and culture.  ASEAN nations have a lot of shared history and culture, especially in the arts. We understand Thai identity by looking at Thai culture. I would like to see an ASEAN identity being developed especially through culture because there we can see our similarities and that stimulates empathy and lasting friendships. That way we view other ASEAN peoples through our similarities rather than our differences which will help to create a more united ASEAN. In doing this we are also creating a joint ASEAN identity.”

Such cultural similarities may be found in language, dance, literature, paintings, music and other arts. Damais cites the example of language, “In Indonesian the word for a gecko is tokek whereas in Thai it is tuke. In Indonesian a lizard is cicak whereas in Thailand it is cincuk. ASEAN nations share so many similarities. The stories of the Mahabharata and Ramayana have influenced the arts and cultures of all ASEAN nations.

One way of finding similar values is by looking at similar cultural products and batik is one such product. Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei Darussalam and the Philippines all use batik. In Vietnam and Laos, the Hmong tribes produce batik fabric for their traditional clothing. In Cambodia, Khmer sarong prints have similarities to Indonesian batik and the Thais have a traditional fabric known as Southern batik. An exhibition at the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum in Bangkok of King Chulalongkorn’s batik collection and the story of his travels to Java and his fondness for it, would not only be of interest to other ASEAN states but remind them of a common cultural icon: batik.

Dr Yang Mee Eng is the executive director of the ASEAN Foundation which is an ASEAN entity that supports ASEAN mainly by promoting awareness, identity, interaction and development of the peoples of ASEAN. She explains that building ASEAN awareness and identity is done through various ASEAN entities such as for example, a program called eMpowering Youths Across ASEAN (EYAA) that the ASEAN Foundation is currently implementing and which aims to provide a platform for youth volunteers from ten ASEAN countries to not only do community empowerment projects but also build better understanding about each other’s cultures. She describes it as a platform to dream about the ideal ASEAN. Another such program is called ASEAN Foundation Model ASEAN Meeting where ASEAN youth meet to discuss pressing issues and role play to understand each other’s countries better. An ASEAN entity that also helps promote awareness and identity amongst adults is the ASEAN Community Forum which focuses on community building programs. Dr Yang remarks, “The current focus of ASEAN is building ASEAN identity and awareness which we nurture through our projects and programs.”

Dr Yang Mee Eng, executive director of the ASEAN Foundation. Photo courtesy of the ASEAN Foundation.

In building an ASEAN identity education plays a very important role. In the EU there is an EU curriculum used by member states so that pupils not only learn the history and culture of their own country but also that of Europe. Dr Yang of the ASEAN Foundation explains that there is an ASEAN syllabus but the depth with which it is applied differs amongst member states. In Thailand which would like to see itself becoming an ASEAN hub for example, the ASEAN syllabus is very integrated into the curriculum at all levels of its school system whereas in other ASEAN countries the ASEAN syllabus might only be integrated into the curriculum of elementary schools. For example, in Malaysia the ASEAN element is injected into the school syllabus for 17 and 18 year olds in the arts stream, in a subject called Sejarah Asia Tenggara or Southeast Asian History.  Dr Yang Mee Eng confides, “I would like to see a standardized ASEAN education and curriculum that touches the history and social cultural aspects of ASEAN which are so rich and diverse.”

So, what about ASEAN art and culture programs?

Dr Yang describes an ASEAN art and culture program called KONNECT ASEAN made possible by the Republic of Korea through the ASEAN Korea Cooperation Fund which has brought together the artists of 10 ASEAN states with Korean artists. The program involves webinars, exhibitions, and workshops. However, it must always involve Korean artists as well.

ASEAN gets help for its cultural projects by partnering with its member states and dialogue partners, such as the Republic of Korea and India but here the projects or programs must include the countries involved. ASEAN itself has a sectoral body focusing on arts and culture called ASEAN Ministers Responsible for Culture and Arts, which is committed to, among others, strengthening cooperation in pursuit of the ‘ASEAN Strategic Plan for Culture and Arts 2016-2025’ but in these programs all ASEAN member states need to be involved causing the projects to become very large scale. King Chulalongkorn’s exhibition which only involves two ASEAN nations would not fit in with this type of funding although it might be of interest to people from many ASEAN countries. It appears that the only possibility would be to try to find funding from the private sector.

It seems strange that ASEAN does not have a special budget for such cultural programs. In the five decades of its existence ASEAN has become the world’s fifth largest economic block. Surely, it could afford to set aside some special funds for more cultural programs between member states for joint exhibitions, films, books, dances, music and other endeavors – not necessarily always involving all ASEAN nations. Dr Yang comments, “We would love one program (with funding) specifically for nurturing an ASEAN identity.”

Creating a common ASEAN identity may not be straightforward and easy. Yoong Yoong Lee believes it will take generations to achieve but for the people of ASEAN, it is one well worth pursuing. As Marty Natalegawa comments, “Ultimately, the peoples of ASEAN must take ownership; ASEAN identity can only be forged by the peoples of ASEAN themselves.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

The ASEAN flag. Photo credit: courtesy of the ASEAN Secretariat.

If you enjoyed reading this article you may also like to read Part 1:
https://observerid.com/conference-on-the-future-of-europe-part-i-europeans-tell-the-eu-what-type-of-an-eu-and-future-they-want-/