What Gives Us That ASEAN Identity? – World Economic Forum 2015, Jakarta
The Association of South East Asian Nations, or better known as ASEAN, was formed in 1967 with the objective of becoming the zone of peace, freedom and neutrality or ZOPFAN.
After 48 years of rising economic and political importance, ASEAN– which started as a five member grouping from the Bangkok Declaration– has today grown to become a strong 10-nation community in pursuit of prosperity and resolving territorial disputes.
ASEAN has served as a voice through which Southeast Asian Nations address and manage regional concerns, Talks of unifying ASEAN or creating an identity is, at present, gaining momentum. If ASEAN is to remain relevant in the coming years, it must change to reflect the times.
At the 21st ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh in 2012, the grouping‘s leaders declared that the date for the realization of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) will be 31 December, 2015. After more than four decades, its leaders have resolved to work toward achieving a closer and mutually beneficial integration among its member states and among their people, in efforts to promote regional peace, and stability, security, development, and prosperity.
For the ASEAN Community to be a success, it will take more than free trade agreements and lowered tariff barriers. It is crucial for the people of Southeast Asia to develop a strong sense of an ASEAN identity. In the words of Surin Pitsuwan, the former ASEAN secretary general, the region’s 625 million people need to “feel ASEAN”.
In this regard, ASEAN countries must deepen regional connectivity and integration revolving around people centric initiatives. Otherwise, the 10-member grouping might just remain a club for the elite, political leaders and businessmen as criticized by some quarters rather than the people for which the ASEAN Community is targeted at.
ASEAN leaders must show greater political will and push for an open sky policy to enhance connectivity between secondary destinations and not just capital cities. A lack of interconnectivity may result in disadvantages in building ASEAN as a single market and an economic powerhouse with far-reaching benefits to its more than 625 million populace.
ASEAN was also not exploiting the potential of the region’s fast-growing middle class. There is a lack of flights between secondary destinations such as Bali to Langkawi or Langkawi to Phuket, although ASEAN is arguably the world’s third largest economic bloc. For instance, Palawan to Kota Kinabalu takes only about four hours by boat, but by flight, it might take about one to two days flying from Palawan via Manila, Singapore and lastly Sandakan.
Ultimately, it is the people – not the chief Executive Officers and trade ministers, who can verify what is happening on the ground and regional integration is actually working. ASEAN has overlooked the ties potentials member countries have with each other and focused more in penetrating western markets, saying that the “trade pattern has changed”.
In the process, ASEAN countries have neglected the Asian market which is the cutting edge of the world at present and in the next millennium.
We must consider ASEAN as one nation and exploit our regional strengths to penetrate more deeply into China and India and the world at large, and for Malaysia to be a bridge for these countries.
We have to first leverage ASEAN in order to survive. It is crucial for ASEAN to shrug off the yoke of colonialism which has resulted in different systems of governments and concentrate on establishing a single ASEAN identity.
Before ASEAN even talks about digital citizens, there must be an integral sense of ASEAN unity rather than member countries propagating the interests of their colonial masters or superpowers.
Besides trade and investment, ASEAN countries still look at their former colonial masters for education, legal system, tourism etc; which impedes the people in this region to look inwards.
Polarisation should be stamped out in ASEAN and notably for Indonesia and the Philippines – two major ASEAN countries with the largest populations, to work more closely together.
The sad reality is that there are more barriers than bridges between these countries, for which Malaysia can play a far more effective role in bringing them closer together.
ASEAN must grow to be more than an organization; more than a forum for discussion. It must seek to establish and grow an identity.