FULL SPEED AHEAD: KL, Singapore high-speed rail link is an example of a project that will bring Asean citizens closer
THE news that Malaysia and Singapore will embark on an ambitious project to build a high-speed rail link connecting Kuala Lumpur and Singapore in 90 minutes is a happy prospect for those of us who remain committed to Asean integration.
This comes at a time when inter-Asean and intra-Asean trade and investment are slowly but surely rising. Also, the communications infrastructure across the region -- in the form of road, sea and cheap airline travel services -- has brought millions of Southeast Asians closer, more than ever before.
Though the project will come into fruition only in several years, it is worth taking stock of what Asean has achieved and what it needs to bear in mind as it progresses.
For a start, with the growing ease of travel across countries, we have not only increased physical mobility but also increased upward social mobility. Services like the high-speed rail system between KL and Singapore will bring together professionals, technocrats and entrepreneurs more than ever, greatly contributing to the dynamism of both countries and expanding their critical mass and talent pools.
It will render geography increasingly redundant, to be replaced by temporal proximity instead as communities develop in tandem with each other.
It will also compel us to ask serious and deep questions about loyalties, identities, nationalities and nationalism at a time when globalisation is forcing us to rethink these categories, too.
Our children will grow up in an Asean region where the concept of home may be dispersed, diluted and fluid.
One hopes, they will garner the pluck to become truly global Asean citizens.
In a generation's time, we may well see the next generation of Malaysians being born and educated in Malaysia, but working and living in Singapore and other parts of Asean.
Asean may increasingly become the home of these globalised Malaysians, and I feel that that would be a brave new world that we should be anticipating from now.
However, there are two factors that may hinder this process and derail it from its appointed trajectory, if we are not careful:
For a start, it is crucial that in the process of developing this new communications infrastructure that connects and compacts Asean even more, all the partner-countries work and cooperate on an equal and mutually beneficial level.
While I for one welcome the high-speed rail link between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, it is imperative that Malaysia gains as much from the deal as its partner will do.
Second, it is equally vital to remember that as we herald the coming of this great new age of social mobility, we do not forget that for millions of ordinary Southeast Asians, such opportunities may not avail themselves to them as much as they would like.
In this respect, I am referring to ordinary Malaysians who would also need to benefit from such projects, and for whom the benefits of such projects have to be made tangible and felt.
As Asean continues in its path towards integration -- the Asean Community is coming closer, by 2015 -- we should avoid the trap of creating two Asean that do not communicate with one another: a rich, upwardly mobile, savvy and connected Asean of professionals, entrepreneurs and technocrats; and a poor Asean made up of those who have been marginalised by capital-driven progress and development.
What Asean has to avoid at all costs is the prospect of creating a region where we have pockets of hyper-development and wealth, surrounded in a vast ocean of poor, illiterate, disenfranchised and immobile citizens.
For wealth and hyper-development never rests comfortably next to ignorance, poverty and helplessness, and the capitals of Southeast Asia should not end up like gated communities fearful of the restless countryside.
What needs to be avoided in the Asean region is the creation, by default, of scores of poor and unconnected people who feel that they have lost out in the globalisation race, for these will be the ones who will be most likely to support the sectarian campaigns of hyper-nationalists who insist instead on the closure of borders, the nationalisation of resources and who regard all foreign capital as predatory and dangerous.
Signs of such stirrings are found among the poorer sections of Indonesian society, and this is not surprising when we consider that 60 per cent of Indonesia's monetary wealth resides among the rich elite in Jakarta.
It is for these reasons that I am elated by the announcement of the new speed-rail between the two countries, but am also mindful of the need for all the governments of Asean to develop their societies together, and comprehensively. Should both objectives be met successfully, the future of an inter-connected Asean seems brighter than ever before, and crucially it will also mean that we, Asean citizens, would have overcome the colonial legacy of divide and rule that once tore our region apart and rendered us strangers to ourselves.
Farish A. Noor
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