A new ASEAN community? Many already live it

A new ASEAN community? Many already live it

It is a question that may strike some as being somewhat simple: Where is ASEAN? However, the simplicity belies a deeper and more complex line of inquiry.

In reply, someone may simply pick up a map and point to the region designated as South-east Asia, and say, "There is where ASEAN is located".

But is it? This leads us to ask: What is ASEAN?

Over the last few decades, the Association of South-east Asian Nations - as a multi-state pact of nation-states - has proven itself successful in many respects, from the prevention of war in South-east Asia to dealing with complex multilateral issues, ranging from cross-border pollution to the movement of ASEAN citizens to smuggling and terrorism.

These achievements, however, may pale in comparison to what may follow from next year, with the creation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), a move that will bring about greater economic integration and cooperation.

As far as knowledge of the AEC is concerned, it would appear that not all the countries of ASEAN are equally prepared.

However, since 2012, Indonesia has begun to invest in think-tanks, departments and research centres in universities to promote the idea of ASEAN and the AEC, with one such being the newly minted ASEAN Studies Centre at the faculty of politics and social sciences at Gajah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Central Java.

These centres have been set up "to socialise", or popularise, the concept of ASEAN and the AEC, in preparation for the changes ahead.

The ASEAN Studies Centre at Yogyakarta has conducted public awareness campaigns among workers and members of the public to inform them further about the importance of ASEAN and what the AEC can do for them.

Here lies the answer to "Where is ASEAN?"

For surely ASEAN - as a complex abstract idea - cannot simply lie in the buildings and institutions associated with its work, impressive though those buildings may be architecturally.

Complex ideas are not things that are embodied in non-sentient monuments, but rather embedded in the collective socio-psychological architecture of societies.

ASEAN may be symbolised by objects like buildings, flags and logos, but as an idea, it is carried in the hearts and minds of people.

Giving life to an idea

So what would make ASEAN something real, and less of an abstract concept to people across South-east Asia?

Here we need to distinguish two processes: While ASEAN integration has been happening on a multi-state level, driven by governments and capital, centuries before ASEAN was even concocted, there was already the longer history of South-east Asian integration and social movement.

The latter is still evident today. Across many parts of South-east Asia, ordinary people continue to live as their ancestors have always done: Field-working researchers will tell you that in the waters of the region, nomadic itinerant communities like the Bajao Laut sea nomads still move across the archipelago with ease, and are spread across Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Communities, such as the Dayaks of Borneo, straddle the political frontiers of both Indonesia and Malaysia, as do many cross-border communities in other parts of mainland South-east Asia.

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