ASEAN is a very diverse region – with over hundreds of different tribes and ethnic groups coming together under a single bloc. It is impossible to force the various people into a single platform or assume they are able to share a single collective mind set. Therefore, it cannot be denied that prior to the ASEAN Summit, there are many concerns among the ASEAN communities on whether the formation of ASEAN Community is achievable in the foreseeable future. However, on 22nd November 2015 during the ASEAN Summit held in Kuala Lumpur, such doubt has diminished when leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed a declaration establishing a stronger economic, security, political and socio-cultural community.
This is the same for Malaysia and unlike racially homogeneous countries like South Korea or Japan – Malaysia prides itself as a melting pot of cultures, with various races intermingling freely among each other. You won’t be surprised to find Malaysians lining up to savour spicy Chinese Char Kuay Teow (fried seafood noodle) or Malay Nasi Lemak (A dish of rice cooked in coconut milk served with homemade Chili paste sauce, fried anchovies, and boiled eggs carefully wrapped in banana leaf) for breakfast under a Chinese owned Kopitiam (Coffee shop). Or the various races congregating at a Mamak (Indian Muslim) restaurant that opens till the wee hours in the morning, watching EPL football matches here in Malaysia. Although we may have different preferences for food, we are very proud of the diversity that represents us. They are our identity.
In Malaysia, youth are now defined clearly under the National Youth Policy as comprising Malaysians with age ranging from 18 to 25 years. In the past, age was not of relevance hence some youth association members were from all ages, even age 50’s is also considered as “youth”! As a result there were some wise cracks that these organizations should be classified as organization for “senior citizens” instead of “youth”.
As the future of a country depends very much on the youth of today, various policies have been implemented by my government to improve the participation of our future leaders. As a rapidly developing nation, equal access to education for every child in Malaysia vis-à-vis decreasing illiteracy rate are of highest importance. We have already allocated more than 4% of our GDP each year for education, one of the highest in ASEAN. Similarly, universities were established around the country to cater to higher education needs of the youth as jobs have become more specialized. Many universities in Malaysia have started to provide twinning programs with other reputable universities around the world and are also beginning to recruit more international students to be part of the university’s community.
These days, it is not uncommon to see youth in ASEAN countries coming to Malaysia for study or actively participating in student exchange program. However, in several universities here in Malaysia, students from prestigious universities in Indonesia and Thailand are occasionally invited to attend the short term courses. Similarly, there are also thousands of Malaysian students furthering their studies at universities here in ASEAN. In November 1995, to enhance cooperation among ASEAN universities, ASEAN University Network (AUN) was established. This association was set up with the noble goal of promoting human resource development and the development of regional identity. Through this network, ASEAN youth are encouraged to apply for scholarships or student exchange programs with generous tuition waiver provided by their host universities across ASEAN countries.
Malaysian youth had studied in ASEAN countries and returned to their homeland have contributed tremendously to Malaysia. Such can be seen in many Malaysian medical and engineering graduates from reputable universities in Singapore who chose to come back and serve the country. This is also true for talented Malaysians who choose to contribute their expertise in ASEAN countries. As a part of ASEAN Economic Community (AEC)’s aspiration to improve mobility among highly skilled workers across the region, free flow of skilled labour among ASEAN countries does indeed benefit everyone.
These days, Malaysian youth are also better informed and more knowledgeable as compared to the past. With rapid technology transformation like fast internet and Facebook connecting people globally, Malaysian youth are now more receptive to new cultures and ideology. As our national language – Bahasa Malaysia is mutually intelligible with Indonesian language and also in-use in several ASEAN countries such as Brunei, cross border travel or business is not a big issue to some extent in places where English is not well spoken such as in rural or non-touristy places. Moreover, with the advent of low cost carrier like Malaysia’s Air Asia, travelling to ASEAN countries is relatively inexpensive. Cheap flight ticket and ease of communication definitely help in fostering deeper understanding among Malaysians youth towards their ASEAN neighbours. With mutual interest and similarity among the ASEAN countries, I am very confident that ASEAN integration is within our grasp. Let us start small, beginning from the youth, and grow to something bigger for ASEAN. Like a wise man used to say, “Every adventure starts with one small step”.
By KYLE TAN JIN SOON, ASEAN Correspondent from Malaysia