What really connects the people of ASEAN?

What really connects the people of ASEAN?
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Next year marks the 49th anniversary of a historical turning point for this region. On August 8, 1967, the leaders of five nations - Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand - sat down together and signed what was to become known as the ASEAN Declaration, the founding document of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The five countries envisaged a co-operation that would span the economic, social, cultural, technical, educational and other fields, while also forging regional peace and stability. Over the past 48 years, the number of member states has increased to 10 and much progress has been achieved. Despite domestic challenges, every member country has managed to attend annual meetings, where they could boast of having embarked on action to further regional co-operation. Most have joined the single visa scheme, to allow citizens of other member states to make short trips to their countries visa-free. Universities in Singapore have seen a continuous of flow of students from other ASEAN member countries, while hospitals in Thailand have welcomed patients from our regional neighbours. Migrant workers have become an integral part of Thai society, working as housemaids or as workers in factories, construction sites and food shops.

Rather than fighting for unilateral rights over a large gas field in the south of Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have reached an agreement to jointly develop the reserves. A similar agreement is in the works for an offshore gas field bordering Thailand and Cambodia.

Excitement in the region, including Thailand, is growing over preparations for the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), slated for launch at the end of this year. The advent of the AEC will give workers in eight professions freedom of movement across the region. Financial authorities across Southeast Asia are busy forging rules to facilitate cross-border securities offerings. With ASEAN member states looking for new investment opportunities, central banks are working to improve the cross-border payment system. Banks are establishing branches to accommodate greater investment by ASEAN companies within the region.

With the 50th anniversary of ASEAN approaching, it's worth asking what really connects people in the region, amid all the past achievements.

The physical aspect of regional connectivity is obvious. A network of highways now link several countries in the region, with roads designated "AH" affording unbroken travel from the north of Thailand to Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. Train projects in the pipeline will boost that connectivity.

Business linkages are increasing as the AEC looms into sight.

But it will be cultural links that form the strongest bonds between citizens of the region's countries.

Despite shared historical roots that can be traced back to the heyday of the Chinese and Indian empires, it seems that people of our region do not yet feel a strong sense of cultural connection. The exception would be the ethnic Chinese, who have migrated to Southeast Asia over the past two centuries and are still bound by old beliefs and traditions. Hindu roots still rise to the surface in Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia - most obvious in water festivals such as Songkran and mythological figures like Rama.

But differences are obvious in the area of popular entertainment. I have to admit that I had never heard of Indonesian star Anggun before she appeared on TV as one of the judges of "Asia's Got Talent". And how many Indonesian know about Nadech Kugimiya, the Thai model and actor?

Differences are also obvious in the area of food, some of which can be out down to changes in climate and soil from country to country, giving rise to different types and quality of agricultural products. Take stir fried noodles as an example. One can find this dish in several countries in the region - from Thailand (phad mee) and Indonesia (goreng) to the Philippines (pansit). Yet, each national noodle speciality contains different ingredients and tastes unique. The same goes for spicy papaya salad. What's known as som tam to Thais is called tam bak hung in Laos and bok lahong in Cambodia, and each has a distinctively different flavour.

If travel is the best way to connect the people, then there's a chance that cultural connectivity will be boosted.

In 2001, 10.06 million tourists arrived in Thailand, of which 2.24 million, or 22.28 per cent, were from other ASEAN member countries. Last year the number rose to 6.46 million ASEAN tourists, or about one fourth of a total of 26 million.

Travel opens eyes, ears and minds. Visitors taste the local food, watch local TV and talk with locals, often via the "bridge" tongue of English.

In time, we might imagine the advent of som tam tours, offering a chance to taste the salad in all the countries that offer the dish. Or what about a tour to the most popular islands across the region, made affordable and convenient by the number of local low-cost airlines?

Not long from now, Thais might find their minds straying more and more to the possibilities that regional neighbours like Indonesia and the Philippines have to offer.

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