Shaping the Asean identity New approaches to multilateralism sought to give young people a better sense of regional community.

Shaping the Asean identity  New approaches to multilateralism sought to give young people a better sense of regional community.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has come a long way in building its identity in the 54 years since it was founded. The concept of a regional community is well developed in areas such as trade and economic cooperation, but the cultural dimension remains a challenge.

It has been 16 years since the 10 member nations adopted the Asean Charter, along with a commitment to “One Vision, One Identity, One Community”. Much of the effort has focused on government-to-government cooperation and diplomacy to promote regional and multilateral approaches.

Tapping into regional strengths is seen as a way to help members meet modern challenges such as geopolitics, trade tensions, cybersecurity, the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change. But promoting cultural literacy and youth engagement is another way to raise awareness of multilateralism while building an inclusive, people-centred community, say experts.

“Asean is a showcase of diversity, particularly culture. However, the topic of culture is marginalised and often the least funded national expenditure in many countries. Yet there’s so much that cultural diplomacy can offer when it comes to multilateralism,” said Chang Yau Hoon, director of the Centre of Advanced Research at Universiti Brunei Darussalam.

Education is a good way to start promoting the One Community initiative, he said at a recent Asean Media Forum.

Asean studies programmes are available at the university level, mainly in Indonesia and Thailand, but should also be cultivated at primary and secondary levels, he said. Meanwhile, Singapore is a successful case study of uniting a nation through education and the English language.

Shaping the Asean identity  New approaches to multilateralism sought to give young people a better sense of regional community.

“There are a lot of things we can do to harness cultural diversity and diplomacy through the energy of youth,” says Chang Yau Hoon, director of the Centre of Advanced Research at Universiti Brunei Darussalam. SUPPLIED

“It’s important to cultivate an Asean identity, to build a community for the young. … Education and languages will actually allow us to build an imagined Asean identity a lot more effectively.”

Soft power projection through music contests, drama and even cartoon characters could help Asean learn how to reach out to its young population, with Korean pop culture offering a possible model. “There are a lot of things we can do to harness cultural diversity and diplomacy through the energy of youth,” Dr Hoon said.

The existing Asean Fellowship Programme could be a good platform to expose young leaders to opportunities in the region and build a strong youth network in the public, private and civil society sectors, suggested Moe Thuzar, co-coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

“The future of Asean multilateralism lies in the hands of young people,” she said. “We should prepare and engage more with youth, whether through the fellowship programme and other activities. Raising youth awareness and engagement in One Asean Identity will enable them to perceive and internalise how they belong and what it means to be Southeast Asian.”

The Asean Foundation turned to pop culture to develop the Asean Quest video game in 2008 to provide young people with an engaging way to learn more about the regional community and its diverse make-up. The game begins with a video showing a fierce storm that has knocked out major power plants across the region. In response, Asean leaders ask the player to help solve the problem by setting up power plants and an energy grid connecting plants in different countries.

As the game progresses, the player is required to search for information about Asean and individual member countries, and to tackle other exciting missions such as storing nuclear waste in a safe place and eradicating pests in a sugarcane field.

The game was never commercialised, but as a way to promote multilateralism, it could be updated as a tool to connect with the young more effectively.

Shaping the Asean identity  New approaches to multilateralism sought to give young people a better sense of regional community.

“The future of Asean multilateralism lies in the hands of young people,” says Moe Thuzar, co-coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. SUPPLIED

Language barriers should also be taken into account, said Moe Thuzar. English is the official language of Asean but the diversity of languages, cultural and religious traditions among the region’s 675 million people has to be recognised. Providing access to information relevant to people’s lives is really important, she said, so that they could find ways to resolve emerging issues including the pandemic and climate change.

More also needs to be done to promote women’s participation in multilateralism and economic development in order to fulfil the Asean Vision 2025 of inclusive economic growth, said Ong Keng Yong, a former Asean secretary-general who is now the executive deputy chairman of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“It is obvious that the region’s economy has huge potential to grow if more women join the workforce and other available platforms. They are important part of our future,” he said.

Many studies have shown that women still cannot fully exercise their rights to decent work and full productive employment. Women’s overall labour force participation in the region is less than half, a situation that has worsened amid the pandemic.

Entrepreneurship is a key means through which women can both empower themselves and contribute to both the household and national economy. A vital part of this agenda includes the 61.3 million women who own and operate businesses within the 10 Asean nations.

Increasing women’s participation in the economy could add US$12 trillion to annual global output by 2025 following a study by the United Nations Economics and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

The revitalisation of multilateralism is one of the key initiatives under the current Asean chairmanship of Brunei, apart from the post-Covid recovery, sustainable development and seamless connectivity, said Marty Natalegawa, a former foreign minister of Indonesia. The topic will be at or near the top of the agenda in the upcoming Asean summit later this year.

Shaping the Asean identity  New approaches to multilateralism sought to give young people a better sense of regional community.

“It is obvious that the region’s economy has huge potential to grow if more women join the workforce and other available platforms,” says Ong Keng Yong, former secretary-general of Asean. SUPPLIED

“In the 21st century multilateralisim is not only interstate, not only international, it is global,” he said. “It involves civil society, the private sector and everyone.

“A mindset that recognises multilateralism is not a la carte. You cannot simply pick and choose but need to suitably adjust whenever there are difficult issues associating with not only national interest, but regional interest.”

The balancing act between the US and China is also a key challenge for Asean, said Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi. Asean views good bilateral relations on trade and investment with both the US and China as crucial, he said, but it must also look at other issues beyond major power tensions, including climate change, public health and the pandemic.

At the same time, Asean can be proactive by seeking ways to bring the two superpowers to the table for discussions — even if they agree to disagree — via existing forums including the Mekong-US partnership and Mekong-Lancang cooperation.

“Asean should continue to enhance its convening power as well as its thought leadership to manifest its centrality,” said Mr Lim. “Further, it is critical for Asean to uphold and promote its principle of resolving disputes through peaceful settlement.”

Another area where members can build solidarity and identity involves disaster response as well as mitigation efforts to reduce the growing risks of climate change in Southeast Asia, which is especially vulnerable.

In some cases, humanitarian response and action can generate awareness of multilateralism, said Moe Thuzar, who cited the Asean response when Cyclone Nargis battered Myanmar in 2008. Even in remote communities, she said, residents recognised the Asean logo.

Young people from other Asean member nations also volunteered to assist the cyclone response. Later on, the Asean Youth Volunteer Programme emerged, with a permanent secretariat at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. It creates opportunities for knowledge-driven volunteerism, supports the exchange of learning experiences, develops capacity, enhances cross-cultural understanding and forges a sense of regional identity while making a sustainable difference to communities across Asean.

At a time when the entire region is looking to find a way forward from the pandemic, she said, there’s no better time for Asean to use its youth-exchange platform. Engaged young people should be encouraged to take action and let their voices be heard by sharing their communities’ stories of loss and suffering, hope and resilience to learn from each other and get through the hard times together.

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