Oct 13, 2012

Malaysia - Rise of pan-Asean global citizens

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A COMMON DESTINY: All in Asean, especially Malaysians and Indonesians, need to identify common goals that will bring us closer together

WE are poised on the brink of a monumental change that will shape the destinies of millions of Southeast Asians in the generations to come.

In 2015, the Asean Community will be upon us, bringing the countries of Southeast Asia even closer. And to accelerate this process, our region has witnessed more intra-Asean travel than ever, thanks to the creation of a pan-Asean communications infrastructure in the form of cheaper airline travel, more roads, railways and bridges that connect, rather than divide, our nations.

As we look to the near future and anticipate the changes that will invariably arise, it is not surprising if some Asean citizens wonder about what will happen to their respective national identities.

All around the region, we see the rise of hyper-nationalism and the ascendancy of some politicians who still retain the notion that their nation is better than others, more deserving, nobler, loftier and superior.

We also see that some of the troubling obstacles to closer cooperation linger among us, in the form of misapprehension and misunderstandings about "cultural theft", "hidden agendas" and so on.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the complex and challenging relationship between Malaysia and Indonesia, two countries that remain close by virtue of a common history and geographical proximity.

Malaysia and Indonesia remain the closest and oldest civilisational neighbours to each other, yet it is sad and ironic to note that among the younger generation of Malaysians and Indonesians, there is less in common than ever before, and that they remain mutually ignorant of each other's countries. This should not be the case, for if there is any country that Malaysians should be close to and at home in, it ought to be Indonesia -- and vice versa.

The reasons why this divide remains are obvious as they are numerous: It includes the somewhat myopic way in which Malaysians and Indonesians are taught about each other at school, from an early age.

Our history books continue to tell the stories of our nations from a narrow nationalistic perspective, overlooking the fact that long before "Malaysia" and "Indonesia" emerged as nations, the peoples of the archipelago were already engaged in trade, movement and settlement for hundreds of years.

Then there is the media which has, of late, played its role in rousing tempers and highlighting differences rather than similarities, goading the more emotional among us to sound the trumpet of nationalism when we ought to have been focusing on common goals and long-term aspirations instead.

Notwithstanding these differences, it cannot be denied that Asean's evolution will continue regardless of whatever petty differences may emerge among its member states, and it is with that in mind that like-minded Malaysians and Indonesians need to identify the common points of interests and goals that will encourage the centripetal, rather than centrifugal, forces that will bring our countries closer together.

As we get closer to 2015, it is timely for both Malaysia and Indonesia to look at how the younger generation of both countries view the rest of Asean, and their closest neighbours. Though it is unlikely that we will ever see a common history textbook for Asean, each and every country can do its part by promoting more knowledge about other Asean countries among the young.

During a recent trip to Myanmar, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that  many young Myanmar students are in favour of Asean integration, and that their general knowledge of Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, etc, was  high.

How sad that the same cannot be said about the younger generation of countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, who were the founders of Asean itself. Could it be that among the founding countries of Asean, the concept of Asean has been taken for granted for too long, and become staid as a result?

Linked to this need to educate ourselves more about our closest neighbours has to be the realisation that the economic-financial landscape of Southeast Asia will also be changing in the years to come, faster than we realise. With easier movement of people comes easier movement of capital as well.

Already across the Asean region, we see Asean countries investing in manufacturing, commercial and residential capital, etc, in other countries. Underlying this pattern of intra-Asean investment is the realisation that each Asean country needs to develop an external economy too, to diversify its investment net as widely as possible, and to seek as many trading and investment partners as possible.

All of this points to the emergence of what will be the new pan-Asean community made up of Asean citizens who will be better connected than ever before.

In our lifetime, we will see the rise of this pan-Asean global citizen. For the next generation of Malaysians and Indonesians (and other Asean citizens) who are savvy, talented, socially mobile and ambitious will seek his or her livelihood not only in his country but also in the rest of Asean. The days when a Malaysian would study in Malaysia or Indonesia, work in his country, settle in his country and retire in his country will soon be over.

The next generation of Asean entrepreneurs and skilled workers will be born in one country, but may be educated in another, eventually work in several others, and may end up settling in several countries in the end. Asean will become the common homeland for the next generation of Asean citizens -- but only if we work now to open up the opportunity structures for this to become a reality for them.

It is with this thought in mind that I hope  Malaysia, Indonesia and the other countries of Asean will  step forward boldly and ascend above and beyond the rhetoric of narrow nationalism.

It cannot be denied that nationalism was an important mobilising force in the 1920s and 1930s, when it served as the springboard for eventual independence and the end of colonialism. But it has also bequeathed us the legacy of nation-states that remain trapped in nationalist narratives that are narrow and inward-looking.

As our region moves to the centre of the stage of geo-politics (as recent flare-ups in the South China Sea have amply demonstrated) a sense of homeliness, common identity and a common destiny is needed.

Whatever problems and misunderstandings that may have arisen among other Asean countries in the past -- such as between Malaysia and Indonesia -- need to be transcended for the sake of the bigger picture, and the future of Asean where each country will need its neighbours more than ever before.

Farish A. Noor 

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