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Looking For An Asean Identity

  • (Photo courtesy: Asean Foundation)
  • (Photo courtesy: Asean Foundation)
  • (Photo courtesy: Asean Foundation)
  • (Photo courtesy: Asean Foundation)
  • (Photo courtesy: Asean Foundation)
  • (Photo courtesy: Asean Foundation)
  • (Photo courtesy: Asean Foundation)
  • (Photo courtesy: Asean Foundation)
  • (Photo courtesy: Asean Foundation)

Asean wants to move towards closer integration by 2015 and is hoping to make itself more relevant to the people living in Southeast Asia.

A strong typhoon has hit the Philippines and shut down power lines across Southeast Asia. In order to restore power, your mission is to fix power plant connections and in the process explore a warehouse, assemble nuclear and biofuel power plants, and neutralise pests in sugarcane fields. Sounds like a tall order, especially when you have to learn how to say ‘welcome’ in at least 10 mother tongues before you can proceed to the next mission.

Thankfully, this is just a video game called Asean Quest that is meant to promote Asean awareness among Southeast Asians, the latest in efforts to bring the grouping of 10 countries closer to its 500 million plus people.

In his speech at Asean’s 41st anniversary celebration in Jakarta on August 8, Dr Surin Pitsuwan, Asean secretary general, noted how far the grouping has come from the ‘five dreamers’ who gathered in Bangkok 41 years ago. Today, he said, Asean has a charter—still to be ratified by three of its founding members—that will serve as the foundation in building an economic community by 2015.

“Everyone is engaged in creating Asean into a robust architecture that reflects the hope for a better region... inscribed, enshrined in the hearts of the 567 million people in Southeast Asia,” Surin said.

"We believe every political system will evolve with time, the aspirations of the people and globalisation."

Such rhetoric, however, has been a stumbling block in making Asean relevant to the people who live in a region that has diverse cultures, religions and languages, not to mention varying political systems from the left to the right and the middle. There have been criticisms that since its inception, Asean has been all about the annual Summit, where leaders of the 10 countries meet, and never about its people.

But Surin insists that the Asean spirit has been revitalised, especially with the charter that carves its vision in stone.

In a briefing with journalists from Asean countries, Surin enumerated initiatives that are meant to bring Asean to the consciousness of the grassroots, including having Asean products in local supermarkets.

“In the field of health, there have been many initiatives to combat pandemics and put up an alert system. For instance, there are 500,000 doses of Tamiflu in stock in Singapore ready to be delivered in any outbreak of bird flu in Asean countries,” he said. “It may not be used but it gives you security and comfort of what being part of Asean is all about.”

He admitted that most of the initiatives may be beyond the understanding of the grassroots such as the establishment of an US$82-billion financial mechanism aid that is readily available to countries whose currencies are under attack from speculators. This was set up by Asean’s economic ministers and the Asian Development Bank to avoid a financial crash similar to 1997.

“These things are difficult to explain to the grassroots but such mechanisms keep our economies functioning and our governments are managing them at a regional level so you can enjoy stability,” Surin said.

If there is one thing that is within comprehension of ordinary Asean citizens, it would be the visa-free travel within member countries, except Burma.

Rouen Saron, a 22-year-old Cambodian, travelled for the first time outside of his country in July. When asked if there was an advantage to being an Asean member, he readily pointed to the visa-free arrangement that allowed him to travel to Thailand without any hassle.

There is in fact a growing awareness among Southeast Asians to discover their neighbouring countries. With budget airlines offering cheap air fares, more and more Asean tourists have been moving about the region, instead of going to the usual popular destinations like Japan, the United States and Europe.

In a survey conducted by the Asia News Network in 2005, Thailand was the top destination of choice among those polled from the 10 member countries, followed by Singapore. Still, Southeast Asia has a long way to go in providing hassle-free travel within the region, unlike in Europe where there is a dependable rail link. There is also a strong presence of the European Union in Europe, unlike Asean in Southeast Asia.

While talking about Asean vis-a-vis the EU is inevitable, many are however cautious in drawing comparisons.

Pierre Philippe, charges d’affaires of the EU’s Asean mission in Jakarta, said it would be very difficult to draw lessons from the EU in moving Asean forward. “The European Union has a high level of integration and there has been a transfer of sovereignty from member states to the EU. This is not what’s happening in Asean,” Philippe said.

He added that the EU has a clear decision-making process and there is no need for a concensus unlike in Asean.Another complication, Philippe pointed out, is the differences in political systems across Asean’s 10-member states, adding that certain states will not even make it to the EU for failing to meet certain requirements.

Termsak Chalermpalanupap, special assistant to the Asean secretary-general, cited political diversity as the foremost problem in Asean. But he was quick to say that Asean is not out to change its member states’ political systems.

“We believe every political system will evolve with time, the aspirations of the people and globalisation,” Termsak said, adding that Asean does not want to force changes in its member states in order to be homogeneous. “In theory, by practicing liberalisation, people will become more active in the political system.”

Asean’s non-interference policy has also been criticised, especially with the recent tension between Thailand and Cambodia over two temples, including the Unesco heritage site Preah Vihear. Many believe that Cambodia’s request to the United Nations to intervene in the problem has undermined Asean as a venue for dialogue for its members.

“Asean has no mechanism to settle territorial dispute,” Termsak explained. What it can do, he noted, is to provide “additional stage or opportunity to come together and do something at a regional level”.
“The Asean community will not replace your country. What it can do is supplement what the countries are doing at home,” he said.

Another problem, Termsak said, is the lack of funds to support Asean noting that it has enough money only to support the secretariat in Jakarta. “How can you build something when Asean itself has no resources?” he asked. “Our imagination has exceeded our capacity to deliver. We need to build up the capacity to make us deliver what we can imagine.”

But Asean also possesses a very Asian character, resilience, and is pushing through small-scale projects that are aimed at raising awareness about the grouping among young people. Dr Filemon Uriarte, executive director of the Jakarta-based Asean Foundation, has been active in promoting Asean Quest across the region.

The foundation, established under the charter, has launched a region-wide competition for Asean Quest using a popular medium that it hopes to capture the interest of young people.

So while solving missions with the aid of an Asean diplomat, economist and social scientist, ‘questors’ learn some trivia about Asean countries. The game is packed with moving interfaces and there is a control room where the Asean countries’ 10 flags are found. Once a flag is clicked, the country’s national anthem will play.

Uriarte believes that the tool is an effective way for students to get to know Asean more.

But Termsak has another idea on how to make Asean more relevant.

“Make August 8 (Asean’s founding day) a public holiday,” he quipped. (By YASMIN LEE ARPON In Jakarta/ ANN/ AsiaNews)

MySinchew 2008.08.24

 

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