Students urged to know ASEAN

SINGAPORE - When a Korean pop concert is held at the Esplanade, a full house is guaranteed. But when an Asean musician performs, not many will flock to watch the show.

This harsh reality was cited by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong yesterday to drive home to 200 young people from Asean countries why the success of the regional grouping hinges on how proud they are in being a South-east Asian.

"Our popular mindsets and our thinking is not always wired to Asean, and that is a fact we must acknowledge," he said. "If our mindsets are always looking West, looking to the US, looking to Europe or looking to countries farther afield, then very little will happen in Asean."

Mr Wong made the point in his address at a dialogue with the tertiary students on the last day of the four-day Youth Model Asean Conference, an annual event at which young people from the 10 Asean countries play the role of diplomats tackling issues faced by the grouping.

Similarly, he urged the young participants, particularly those from Singapore, to understand the region better first rather than travel to far-flung parts of the world for a vacation.

"Why not think about going around to our neighbours, visiting and understanding Asean culture?" he said, noting that its diversity and richness are not often appreciated. "Understanding Asean culture, traditions and heritage is a very useful starting point, (and it's) not difficult for young people like yourselves to do," he said.

Responding to a question on how young people in Asean can effect change, Mr Wong again urged them to look closer to home.

"We have many artists who are very keen on Western art... but not very many are familiar with South-east Asian art," he said. "We are in South-east Asia. Why would somebody go to you, as a South-east Asian, and expect you to be an expert on Western art, when they can easily find a Westerner to be an expert on Western art?"

But he acknowledged that sometimes the domestic policy of an Asean nation is at odds with greater Asean integration.

The Asean Community, which will bring about closer economic integration, is set to be formed next year.

But, Mr Wong noted, a flood of Asean professionals coming into Singapore could suppress workers' wages here.

"Shouldn't we have more free flow of people and movement, isn't that what the Asean goal is about? Or should we then slow down? These are real issues," he said.

After the dialogue, the student delegates told The Straits Times the conference gave them good insight into how the grouping worked.

"Before, in my view, Asean was just about economic and political issues," said Ms Rattiya Phoophasuk, a 24-year-old Thai student from the Rajamangala University of Technology Thanyaburi.

"But now, I know it's not just about those things, but different ways of making a better life for people in Asean. Like how Asean can help small businessmen look beyond profits and be more socially aware."

This article was first published on Dec 23, 2014.
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