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The illusion of ASEAN and how literature can help

This month ASEAN celebrates its 50th anniversary. What does it mean for us? 

For almost half a century, ASEAN has been a big illusion fed to all of us. In school we were taught about ASEAN and told that we were “ASEAN people”, without ever understanding what that meant or using the term outside of our classrooms. 

We use many other personal factors as a source of our identity – country, religion, ethnicity –  but never our membership of ASEAN. I can say that I am Javanese, Muslim, Indonesian, but it’s impossible for me to say that I am an ASEAN person – even if I am clearly a Southeast Asian person.

ASEAN nations range from Singapore, a dynamic city state with the GDP per capita of a developed nation, to small, backward communist dictatorships such as Cambodia and Laos, to democracies like Indonesia and the Philippines. Culturally, they range from Muslim-majority states such as Indonesia, the nation with the world’s largest Muslim population, and Malaysia to Buddhist secular states such as Thailand.

We have different languages, different religions, different cultures, different governmental and social systems, and different levels of economic development.

There is no single reason for us, the people of Southeast Asia, to stick together as one community. Our only common denominator is our shared experience of colonialism – even still, Thailand did not share this experience. It is only through geographic proximity that a concept of community seems plausible.

And today, we call ourselves a community. We call ourselves a community just because our elites have decided that we should. It’s the same with what happened in 1967 when our elites agreed to establish an organization named ASEAN. We, the people, did not have a choice. We were never asked whether we wanted to join such an organization, or even more, to be part of one community.

While ASEAN was formed for security and political reasons – to avoid conflict or war among countries in the region while defending the Western Bloc’s interests and containing the spread of communism at the height of the Cold War – now we are one community, first of all, for economic purposes. 

But even so, we can’t call ourselves an economic community just yet. Intra-ASEAN trade makes up only 30 percent of the bloc’s total trade, while intra-Asian trade is much bigger, standing at 53 percent. Thus, it is no surprise that some ASEAN states – Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam – have joined the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a move that could further divide ASEAN, especially politically.

In its nearly 50 years of existence, ASEAN’s biggest achievement is avoiding war. But while it was formed for political and security reasons, it is in these aspects that ASEAN nations are the most divided, and it seems almost impossible to remedy this situation.

The Philippines, Singapore and Thailand are traditionally US allies. Meanwhile Indonesia and Malaysia, often confused by their attempts to stay neutral, generally just try to be pragmatic. Cambodia and Laos are beholden to China and will not approve of any action on an issue important to Beijing. With this division and the “ASEAN Way” of consensus decision-making and non-interference, it’s impossible to make a united move on issues such as the South China Sea, for instance.  

With ASEAN economic integration and political commonalities increasingly becoming a delusion, the only way for nations in this part of the world to create a genuine community is to focus on the stepdaughter of the so-called Three Pillars, namely the socio-cultural sector. 

While we can always say that the ASEAN community is a work in progress, it will not progress until we seriously embark on exchanging values, lifestyles and customs of people in ASEAN so that they come to know and understand each other. This sense of belonging will only come from a bottom-up approach.

How can we become a community if we don’t know each other? How can we be a member of a community to which we don’t feel a sense of belonging? We are close yet so far. We know much about people in England, in the US, but we know nothing about people in other ASEAN countries.

We know much about England and the English because of their football and music. We feel close to the US because of Hollywood. And today we even consider South Korea our close neighbor more than our actual neighbors in ASEAN thanks to the K-pop invasion.

It is only culture that can nurture and build a sense of being part of something bigger, and ultimately a sense of belonging and an ASEAN identity. And for me, as a writer, I believe that literature and books in general are cultural products that can have a significant influence on people.

History shows us how books can create revolution, war, conflict, peace, consciousness, nationalism awareness, and encourage people to fight for freedom and equality. From George Orwell we understand the cruelty of authoritarianism, from Charles Dickens we learn about life under industrialism, and even from Harry Potter millions of kids in the world believe that anything can happen if we are brave enough.

From Bennedict Anderson’s books we learn about nationalism in Southeast Asia and at the same time, from Edward Said’s works we learn how important it is to always explore different  perspectives; to be critical of everything, including knowledge and opinions that are brought by people from the West about people in Asia. And of course from the Indonesian giant Pramoedya Ananta Toer we learn a lot about the nationalist struggle of Southeast Asia nations in the early 20’s century.

Yet while I believe in the power of books and literary works to shape a new awareness and perspectives among people in Southeast Asia, I cannot bring to mind the names of any writers and scholars from Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, even more Laos or Cambodia. 

We really need to begin making efforts to ensure that books and literary works from ASEAN writers are read by people in ASEAN. We have to believe that only by cultural exchange, especially through books, can we understand each other and become a real community. The ASEAN Literary Festival is a small effort to build this understanding.

Okky Madasari is an Indonesian author and co-founder of the ASEAN Literary Festival. This article is an excerpt from her speech at the Warwick ASEAN Conference in the UK, February 2016. It has been edited for this publication.

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