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The human challenges of an ASEAN Community

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In Brief

As 2015 drew to a close, members of ASEAN announced the realisation of the ASEAN Community, although it shall remain a ‘work in progress’. The ASEAN Community idea sets a roadmap for continuing the work of regional integration over the next decade.


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The political, economic and social diversity of ASEAN member states acts as both boon and bane for regional integration. The flexibility built into ASEAN processes to accommodate this diversity has arguably given ASEAN a broader scope to assert its regional role. But the nature of this flexibility also limits the extent to which ASEAN can effectively deal with external influences.

All this contributes to perceptions of what ASEAN can or cannot do regionally and nationally. ASEAN’s quest to deliver a ‘people-centred ASEAN’ in the next decade will require greater engagement with the concerns of national populations.

At the regional level ASEAN’s people-related indicators paint a rather impressive picture. ASEAN members have curbed the spread of communicable diseases. Regional poverty has dropped to 15 per cent. The region’s unemployment rate is less than 10 per cent and literacy is nearing 100 per cent in most member states. The internet and smartphone revolutions have helped broaden and flatten access to information.

This is the ASEAN that is described as a single entity. But ASEAN members still face the diversity of Southeast Asia as a daily reality.

Breaking down these regional aggregates, a stratified ASEAN emerges, with high-achieving Singapore at the top and countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar clustered at the bottom of most regional indices.

There is a thin sense of belonging to the region despite largely positive attitudes among the region’s young people. A recent survey found that over 80 per cent of young people surveyed view themselves as ‘citizens of ASEAN’ but attitudes towards ASEAN, and towards other ASEAN countries, differed at national levels with people from newer member states being the most enthusiastic.

Singapore is persistently ambivalent towards ASEAN and this attitude is emerging in Thailand. Young people view ASEAN members as culturally similar but economically and politically different. Singapore views countries as more dissimilar but Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar see more similarities. And while many identify ASEAN positively with regionalism and cooperation, they still view cooperation through a national lens.

This is probably due to how ASEAN is discussed in each national context, as well as the mainly urban, English-speaking focus of ASEAN initiatives. Young people obtain information on ASEAN primarily through newspapers, books and the internet. This indicates a somewhat limited reach to wider audiences.

ASEAN has been able to organise both youth and civil society around topical themes and priorities on the regional agenda. But the translation of these discussions into impactful initiatives has seen slower progress.

ASEAN must identify areas where regional actions could resonate nationally.

Common concerns for citizens of ASEAN member states include mobility in education, employment and travel. These are issues that could be exacerbated by the internal pressures of rapidly urbanising societies as well as the impact of climate change and natural disasters.

ASEAN’s connectivity efforts will link countries and peoples together like never before: physically through road, rail and air; virtually through the internet and mobile networks; and culturally when people move across borders to live, work, study and holiday in other ASEAN countries. Improving communications networks will in turn improve education and employment prospects in the less developed ASEAN countries.

But even with young populations raring to enter the workforce, ageing societies and job–skills mismatches will place additional stress on social mobility and the need for social welfare.

The region is also vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters. ASEAN countries feature extensive and heavily populated coastlines, large agricultural sectors and large sections of populations living below the poverty line.

But the most commonly shared concern among ASEAN states is the insidious rise of radical extremism and terror led by the so-called Islamic State. Responding to this threat collectively can help link regional and national efforts as well as engage external partners and major powers.

The co-existence of multiple ethnic and religious communities in Southeast Asia requires a delicate calibration of responses that take care not to conflate religion with extremism. Regional collaboration in countering this threat has already led to the breaking down of barriers in the sharing of intelligence and sensitive information. And initiatives addressing de-radicalisation, religious rehabilitation and social reintegration are being discussed and shared among not just the ASEAN countries but also with ASEAN’s partners in the East Asia Summit.

ASEAN’s socio-cultural challenges affect and are affected by political and economic developments in each of its member countries. They illustrate the ‘messiness’ of real life, where many competing and conflicting priorities influence responses. They also highlight the need for coordinated efforts in community-building as national issues bring their own political, economic and social consequences to regional efforts.

Moe Thuzar is Lead Researcher in Socio-Cultural Affairs at  ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore. She was formerly the head of the ASEAN Secretariat’s Human Development Unit.

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