Rebranding will boost Asean's image

NST, April 22, 2013
By Farish A. Noor

INTEGRATION: We need to revive the spirit of Asean and inject new life into it to make it relevant to more than 500 million citizens IN all my years as an academic, I have to sadly report that I have managed to persuade only two young scholars from Southeast Asia to do Asean studies. That Asean students are not interested in the region they inhabit baffles me still, and I often wonder why most of my students who take my courses on Asean history happen to be non-Asian students from America, Europe or Australia. It has been a long slog for me, trying to change the mindset of young Southeast Asians who can look only to the West for their future. This week sees the Asean summit held in Brunei, and I hope that some of these concerns will be raised there as well.

My concern as an academic is naturally a scholarly one, for it boils down to the simple observation that while we live in Southeast Asia, most Asean citizens have not the faintest idea of what Asean is, what it has done and what it offers for the future. The time has come to change this popular mindset decisively, for we are on the brink of closer Asean integration (by 2015) and that would be useless unless and until we can persuade our fellow citizens to think of themselves as Asean citizens, too. The problem, perhaps lies, in the education system of many Asean countries. In some countries I have visited (like Vietnam and Myanmar), Asean is given greater emphasis from the school level.

Schools there promote Asean awareness by having special "Asean days" and events that talk about why Asean is necessary and important. Yet, in a development somewhat parallel to what we see in the case of the European Union (EU), in the founding states of Asean, the concept of Asean itself is taken for granted. Young citizens of countries like Malaysia may not even know what the Asean symbol looks like. (Once, in the course of one of my simple surveys, I asked a young person what the Asean symbol represented, and was shocked to hear her reply: "The Union Jack"). In this day and age that is configured and shaped by mass consumerism, pop culture and popular icons, there is a glaring deficiency or memory gap among the younger citizens among us who take it for granted that they will live and prosper in peace.

Most of those from the "Y generation" have failed to appreciate the fact that their comfortable lives were rendered so thanks to almost five decades of inter-Asean diplomacy and conflict prevention, and they ought to appreciate the fact that if they have never experienced even a single day of war and bloodshed, it is thanks to the efforts of countless bureaucrats and diplomats who have been working behind the scenes to keep the region free of war. But it is understandable that the young are less inclined to hark on the past for theirs is a generation that was weaned on TV snippets, pop videos and movie blockbusters. It is incumbent, instead, on the older generation to revive the spirit of Asean and to inject into it new life that would make it relevant for more than 500 million Asean citizens today. But how?

Though I may be a historian by default, I feel that what is needed more than ever now is to awaken the idea and belief that Asean has not only been the peacemaker and bridge-builder of the past, but also the new opportunity structure for the future. In other words, Asean becomes relevant to the young when they can identify with its promises and goals, and when they see in Asean a vehicle through which they can also expand their horizon of opportunities in the future. Gone are the days of old-style parochialism when a person born in one Asean country will grow up, work, live and die in that country. Asean's youth boom means that the region is both blessed and cursed by a growing number of educated, socially mobile and socially ambitious youth who seek greater pastures to prosper.

Asean is that new frontier that will expand their worldviews and occupational opportunities. How can we go about doing this? For a start, we can begin with our own school books and look at how much information is given about our neighbouring countries. (I was surprised when I looked at the history textbooks of a neighbouring country and noted that the amount of information on Malaysia was only four pages. Other countries fared even worse, being given only two pages each.) This myopia has unfortunately become the norm across many parts of the Asean region, yet it is a lacuna that can be addressed easily.

Secondly, we can continue to inject the word "Asean" in our own work as teachers, policymakers, businessmen and diplomats, and to emphasise the fact that no Asean country exists in isolation from the rest of the region. This is only to remind ourselves that whatever challenges we will face in the near future will be faced by Asean as a whole. This should also translate into more Asean-focused policies and joint cooperation for the same reason. But, perhaps, the most important change that has to be made in the short term is the rebranding of Asean itself, and the popularisation of the Asean logo or symbol.

As a host of new and unpredicted variables impact upon our region, it is vital that Asean faces them together. This, however, will not happen unless Asean becomes something real, tangible and meaningful in our lives. And this cannot possibly happen if the youth of Asean do not even recognise the Asean symbol, and are more familiar with the brands of fast food, sports shoes and pop icons. Re-branding Asean today and linking it to the future of Asean citizens is something that involves both marketing and long-term policy planning, but the final result ought to be the view that the Asean symbol stands for not only the past, but the future as well.