The recent ASEAN summit has increased the world’s attention on Southeast Asia. It’s an undeniable fact that we are entering an Asian century due to the economic meltdown of developed countries which was characterized by low interest rates and slow economic growth. A surge of capital is unavoidable due to the high liquidity and potentially higher yield offered in developing countries.
The ASEAN Free Trade Area is a shining example of successful economic integration. The reduction of trade barriers has been beneficial among ASEAN countries despite several cases where trade deficits occur. Full integration in a wider sector is expected to be achieved in 2015.
However, this integration has so far not reached the crucial component in regional integration: the people.
The benefit of the current integration process should not be targeted exclusively for economic purpose, but also to introduce a regional identity to each person in ASEAN. And education could be used to achieve this objective.
In the education sector, the culture of ASEAN should be introduced to children during the primary age. The concept of ASEAN should be introduced as early as possible and be taught simultaneously with national identity.
With ASEAN’s culture being introduced during primary school, younger generations will be familiarized with the concept of regional identity, which could play even more important roles in increasing the feeling of being ASEAN, just as in Europe where people can call themselves European, not only French, German or British.
Compared to Europe, ASEAN lacks similarity in its culture due to different cultural spheres and colonial histories.
ASEAN may not be able to achieve full regional identity integration as in Europe, but that is what makes ASEAN unique.
ASEAN people should not force themselves to be seen as a single cultural identity like Europe, but see themselves as a huge melting pot of a multicultural community.
Indonesia is an example of how tribal identity is overridden by national identity.
In a sense, there is no “Indonesian” because the country consists of diverse ethnicities and tribes that are united by Indonesian language and a territory called Indonesia.
ASEAN could use the same approach to build its regional identity: A region in Southeast Asia characterized by diverse ethnicities and cultures, a growing economic community that is part of the upcoming Asian century.
Cultural differences should not be seen as obstacles, but instead as challenges to develop a unique concept of multicultural regional identity, where ASEAN people could associate themselves as ASEAN but could also call themselves Indonesian, Malaysian, Singaporean, etc. Younger generations should be taught to comprehend ASEAN as part of their identity.
Education is a realistic approach to introduce the concept of regional identity. Governments should also increase cultural exchanges to bolster communication. In this way, people will not only know ASEAN as a regional organization and a mere free trade area.
If an ASEAN-integration concept is only limited to people such as academicians, diplomats, businessmen and governments, but alien to most civilians, will there be a real integration?
Disputes happen because people in ASEAN do not know each other, and it is a gap that could be settled easier than economic gaps among ASEAN members.
All we have to do is to start understanding our neighbors and communicating with them. We want to see a future where ASEAN is an inclusive community where the grassroots could also participate, not only elite institutions where politicians and high-profile figures make agreements in closed meeting rooms.
Originally published in Jakarta Post, 19 May 2011