ASEAN: Building a sense of community

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How do we fit the concept of ASEAN identity in our warped sense of nationalism?

We Pinoys have the strangest sense of nationalism there is. It’s quite a study, really. We display pride over our history, heroes, resources, food, culture and even talented individuals with even the slightest pint of Filipino blood in them. Our sense of tribalism (or regionalism) is so great that when a foreigner shows even a slightest sign of disdain over our glorious land or to even one of us, we grew collectively angered as if we are the ones who are offended in the first place. It’s literally us against them.

That was my prevailing mindset too, minus the whole bordering-to-stupid Pinoy pride thing. I love my country, I recognize its milestones in history as well as its failures. Needless to say, I relate more to my fellow Filipinos. I dreamed of becoming part of a change to help my less-privileged countrymen. It’s like I live in this dilapidated house filled with different kinds of people – though some of them I can’t stand, but they still remain as part of a family – and I dreamed of a mansion for all of us.

But when you open the windows of your house and sneak a peek outside, you’d realize that you are surrounded with other houses, all roughly the same size, its occupants as boisterous and vigorous as your own.Though strong fences were erected throughout the years, there is a subtle sense of community – a fact that you belong in the same neighborhood battling the same elements. Suddenly, it’s not about just your house anymore. Whatever happens in the neighborhood will affect you in some extent, whether you like it or not.

Back in 2012, I joined the ASEAN Community Facebook page, the largest Facebook community for ASEAN back then. Because I don’t have resources for travel back then, I gained knowledge and perspective about my southeast Asian neighbors only from snippets of trivia and photos shared by the moderators who took turns on posting information each day. (Monday is Malaysian-related info and photos, Thursday is Philippines). As a student who had nothing better to do that time, I spent countless hours scrolling the page, reading the comments and conversations (sometimes, flame wars), and noting with great amusement how similar we are. Joining the community expanded my view of what ASEAN really is and like many others, I look forward on the future where we can form a sustainable economic community.

But we all have to open our eyes to the reality. The Facebook page celebrates the idea of oneness and shared culture, but it also highlights the overwhelming differences. There’s still some degree of distrust and suspicion hinted between countries (or governments of that countries) and many even resort to racist remarks. I have seen my fellow Filipinos commenting about our ‘superiority’, like how we are the only Christian country in the whole region, or how we stand as a landmark of democracy, or even how ‘blessed’ with talent and diligence our race is. Some of us don’t mean it at all or are expressed in jest, but our remarks are on a public site, free to be interpreted by anyone with a smartphone and a high-speed internet connection (one thing most of our Southeast Asian counterparts enjoy now but one we don’t presently have)

In addition to that, we are focused in our own tracks of growth and development. We view the future from our side and we are only concerned of our own statistics and figures – what is our latest GDP, how are we faring versus the dollar, are we receiving more tourists per year, etc. Of course, it’s only natural to be happy for your own progress but if we only focus in that aspect, we’re missing the big picture. Competition with each other is healthy but our myopic sense of nationalism would never prepare us to handle future problems in the long run, much less, help us recognize opportunities along the way.

So far, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are currently doubling its efforts to increase the awareness of a southeast Asian community. Conferences are organized, various international exchange programs are amplified, and even the country’s respective governments are providing their support. Youth leaders and youth organizations were also quite involved and with the social media as a powerful tool, the call for an integrated regional cooperation would spread like wildfire.

Having spent the last two years working for a non-government organization, I would always imagine how an ordinary Filipino from a farming village could receive the idea of an integrated regional community. No doubt, the information will reach him. Someone would enlighten him about the other countries. He would be informed of how the integration can affect agriculture, in particular, and the opportunities he may get as a farmer. The farmer would be pleased of this, but at the end of the day, he knew words from actions. Until tangible efforts were made, he would just return to the field and focus on more important matters of his work. Life goes on.

The monumental shift of ASEAN from a body of policy-makers discussing issues behind locked doors to an acting, living organism of concrete actions and plans recognized by all its member-states is an important factor in instilling a sense of community. Civic organizations, community leaders, youth organizations, the local government, schools and the media can make ASEAN relevant, but not for a long time. ASEAN is founded in the principle of non-interference and this allowed its member-states to focus on its own national growth and development, but if it can implement action plans that would encompass every sector – from an ordinary farmer, student, historian, academician or doctor –  regardless of which country he/she is from, then you would be exploiting one thing these people have in common with for good use. You are enticing them to be part of a community that transcends beyond cultural and historical differences. If you present a unifying goal shared by all, people would look beyond their own differences and hopefully work together for that goal.

And what goals are those? Plenty to choose from.

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You can only build a sense of community if you involve everyone, every country and sector, to a cause that would benefit all, not just for a specific few. The concept of ASEAN identity may be too hard to grasp for others now, but if you utilize a Goal, a vision, and share it with others who care enough for it, you are off to a good start.

And slowly, over the passage of time, you’d realize that the fences separating you from your neighbor’s weren’t that high anymore.

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Last December, I joined the Association of ASEAN Youth Leaders – a band of bright-eyed folks, students and young professionals, movers and dreamers, who envisioned a future of regional integration for sustainable development. It was one of my highlights for 2015. I learned so much from my fellow youth and felt so inspired to join the movement for regional collaboration. You can find more information in our Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/AYLA.Philippines

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