[This article was first published in Rappler. See: ASEAN Economic Community: Are we ready for 2015? It was a winning article in the Asian Development Bank Institute’s Developing Asia Journalism Awards 2013, in which David Lozada was named Young Development Journalist of the Year.]
Last November 2012, I attended the ASEAN Student Forum hosted by Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand. The goal of the conference was to create an ASEAN mindset among student leaders in the region in preparation for the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015.
To the surprise of the delegates and organizers, one of the speakers said there is no such thing as an ASEAN mindset. He noted that there are still many issues to be reconciled in the region and that Southeast Asians do not yet have a shared identity.
I, along with many of my co-delegates, agreed with him. Most Southeast Asians’ perspectives are not set in our region but in countries outside it. Frankly speaking, very few Filipinos have a sense of an ASEAN identity. We relate more with Americans than with Indonesians or Vietnamese and this is prevalent in most countries in the region.
During my recent trip to Viet Nam and Cambodia last April, I was also saddened (though not surprised) by the fact that most of the Vietnamese and Khmer locals preferred entertaining and serving Westerners, Japanese, or Europeans instead of Filipinos, Malaysians, or Indonesians. I experienced this in restaurants, shops, travel agencies and even in the airport.
Now, why is this problematic?
ASEAN Economic Community
The leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) recently concluded the 22ndASEAN Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam. On top of this meeting are preparations for 2015.
2015 marks the birth of the ASEAN Economic Community. It will mark the start of free trade between the 10 member-countries. Products and services, among other things, will have a single market and production base. Labor, investments and capital will have a freer flow.
Economically speaking, some experts say that the region, more so the Philippines, is not yet ready foreconomic integration. Aside from the fact that the member-countries are not on the same level in terms of economic growth, some countries also have unstable economies due to their political contexts (i.e. Myanmar).
National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) Former Secretary-General Romulo Virola in 2012 even said that the Philippines is not yet ready to benefit from the economic integration in 2015 given that we still have to focus on the problems of our local economy.
More than economics, however, the issues that were earlier raised, I think, is of equal importance. The many unresolved differences in the region and the lack of ASEAN identity might become stumbling blocks for the envisioned economic integration. I believe that more focus should be given to such issues to have a successful AEC.
Unresolved historical, cultural issues
Last year, I was able to go around 7 countries in Southeast Asia. I would argue that the region is home to the most diverse and beautiful cultures in the world. From the Wats of Bangkok to the shrines of Bali, the different cultures of the peoples of ASEAN are reflected not only in infrastructure but in every aspect of their lives. Indonesia and the Philippines alone are home to hundreds of cultural groups and ethnicities.
As beautiful as it is, cultural diversity, however, can be a stumbling block for the AEC, given that it also reflects the historically unsolved issues of the countries that eventually erupt into territorial disputes.
A good example would be the century-old tension between Thailand and Cambodia over the claims on Preah Vihear temple and surrounding territories. From 2008-2011, Thai and Khmer military forces had been clashing over the ownership of the temple grounds which are found near the border. Both countries had historical claims on the area and would not let go of the territory. The temple is currently part of the Kingdom of Cambodia but Thailand has not given up its claim.
Looking at more recent events, of course, there’s the conflict involving the Sultanate of Sulu’s ancestral claims to parts of Sabah. The incident eventually led to a bloody stand-off between the Malaysian and Sulu forces and has put bilateral relations between Malaysia and the Philippines in jeopardy.
I think the reason for such disputes in the region is that we have not yet solved issues involving our historical differences. We have kept the issues in our history books hoping that they will not be tackled. The truth, however, is that such issues still affect how ASEAN peoples interact with each other.
Openness to other cultures, ironically, is not so widespread in most parts of Southeast Asia. This problem even starts at the local levels. In Malaysia, for example, there’s the hidden tension between Malays, Chinese-Malaysians and Hindus.
Some of my friends in Malaysia emphasize they should be seen as Chinese-Malaysians and that they rarely speak Bahasa. On the other hand, my Malay friends often see themselves as the majority and the original inhabitants of the land.
We do not even have to look far. In the Philippines, the peace process between the government and the Muslim groups in Mindanao is still a struggle. Even with the Bangsamoro entity, there is still tension with other Muslim groups in the island.
Awareness and identity
When I was in Viet Nam, I was approached by 3 college students who wanted to converse with me to practice their English. I agreed and our conversation started. I observed that many other students in the park were doing the same thing but only with Caucasian foreigners. I asked why this is so and one of them pointed out that most students do not want to converse with ASEAN foreigners since they think they are uneducated.
This experience shocked me. I think that a prerequisite to having a community is to first have the awareness that we have one. Based on my experiences and that of my friends in Southeast Asia, I think that ASEAN remains only a regional grouping. I will not even call us a community yet.
The speaker in the forum I attended was right. We do not have an ASEAN mindset to begin with. People from Southeast Asia relate more with Europeans, Americans, Koreans and Japanese rather than with people from their own region. We do not think ASEAN. We think outside of it.
Aside from being a Filipino, the next bigger picture is being Asian, not even Southeast Asian.
So are we ready?
If we talk about economics, some would argue that, perhaps we are. If we talk about culture, awareness and identity, I would say no. How can we, after all, be ready for something that very few people know of?
Creating an economic community with citizens who are almost indifferent to each other would be problematic. If there’s no sense of identifying with people from our region, how can we have interconnected trading networks and businesses? Without focusing on making people aware they are part of ASEAN, how can we expect them to work together smoothly?
One of the strongest criticisms of ASEAN is that it is exclusive to leaders, and that awareness does not trickle down to ordinary citizens. This is, perhaps, partially true. There is a need for greater awareness and knowledge in the region about the region. I think this is a prerequisite to a successful ASEAN Economic Community.
Southeast Asia has great potential and so does economic integration in 2015. It must, however, follow the right preparatory steps. Perhaps, there should be equal focus on strengthening the economic and the community aspects of the AEC.