The word ASEAN has been taught to my generation since primary school, during one of the Geography lessons. (Current primary pupils may beg to differ because much has changed in the education syllabus). My early understanding on ASEAN is the definition of its acronyms, the names of its 10 members, and the sports event they held every two years, known as South East Asia (SEA) Games.
As I grow older, the word ASEAN symbolizes broader meaning. When a country is a member of any regional or international organization, it attaches importance to the organization’s benefits to the people. My country, Brunei, joined ASEAN a week after its independence on 1 January 1984. This speedy membership also accentuated the fact that Brunei gives the highest priority to ASEAN in terms of foreign relations. Additionally, Brunei has reaped plenty of benefits since becoming a member of ASEAN.
For one, we see the government and the people of each member grow closer each year. They promote understanding of their culture and traditions. At ASEAN meetings and events, members learn and exchange ideas and programs in areas of interests, especially business, tourism, agriculture and education, amongst others.
In other ways, ASEAN has helped to promote economic development – undeniably. ASEAN provides a large market for our products, prospering trade among the countries. While Brunei is still importing rice from Thailand, it has also driven to become self-sufficient in producing their own rice and other kinds of crops. They have been taking notes on the methods of production, and at the same time trying to innovate their own ideas into it.
Tourism and education has always been promoted among the countries. School Immersion Programs (SIP) are just some examples. I myself have been involved in (SIP) to Singapore, thanks to a Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministries of Education of Singapore and my country. On the sidelines, we have students from different ASEAN countries studying in all levels of Brunei education, and eventually continuing it up to university levels. Furthermore, Brunei’s Ministry of Education provides scholarships for its citizens to study in other countries, including several ASEAN countries.
Brunei has also opened invitations and provide tours to the people of ASEAN to visit their lush tropical rainforests. Thanks to this, new museums and centers have been built to further help tourists understand the diversity and biology which can be found in the district of Temburong, which is also often called the ‘Green Jewel of Brunei’. In remote places, longhouse communities learn a thing or two from their neighbor Sarawak (Malaysia), by opening their living space as homestays to tourists.
Perhaps the most significant meaning of ASEAN to me is unity. There’s a phrase that says that humans work well together in a crisis, and this can easily be seen when any of the ASEAN Member States are facing regional-scale problems. They help to facilitate countries in addressing problems such as haze and national disasters. One prime example is when Brunei and several other countries helped Indonesia in their reconstruction efforts after 2004 tsunami.
Such achievements are only attainable through mutual understanding among ASEAN countries over the years. Each country always has something to offer for the good of their people, and while we do have certain disagreements, ASEAN as a whole has definitely helped its members, and hopefully more can be achieved in the coming years.
Photo credits (used with permission) to: Ridhwan Kamarulzaman
By Hjh Nur Hafiizah MAHMUD, ASEAN Correspondent from Brunei Darussalam