If you ask any formally educated Filipino what ASEAN means, he or she would probably reply with the basic answer – that it stands for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Ask the same person to expound on the purpose and functions of the said organization and, if he or she is not entirely knowledgeable about it, he or she would probably just type its acronyms on Google and read you the results – that it is an intergovernmental coalition established in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand to promote economic, political, and socio-cultural cooperation among its members, and that it is currently comprised of 10 countries.
Ask a businessperson what it means to be affiliated with ASEAN and he or she would probably cite economic gains such as free trade and the influx of foreign investments. Ask a middle class millennial how the advantages of being a citizen of an ASEAN member country is being felt on a personal level and he or she would probably tell you the ease of traveling visa-free to other member countries.
But ask a sidewalk vendor, a street sweeper, or an indigenous person how ASEAN affects his or her life and he or she would probably not even have the slightest idea about what ASEAN is.
And this is where ASEAN loses its true meaning.
ASEAN was founded with the aim to promote close and beneficial relationship among member states by providing each other with assistance to accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development, and maintain peace within the region. Yet put ASEAN countries under a magnifying lens and one could easily see heavily polluted urban centers plagued with heavy traffic and flocked by street children, and indigenous people or minor ethnic groups being constantly threatened by military forces.
When the promises of ASEAN are only felt by those in the upper levels of the social pyramid and are not delivered to those who experience the very problems for which the organization was formed to address, this is when ASEAN fails to fulfill its purpose. And when it fails to fulfill its purpose, it loses its value and meaning.
There is therefore a need to realign the angle with which we view ASEAN as a whole in order to avoid leaving anyone out of the equation. Instead of seeing ASEAN as a political alliance where each member meticulously calculates what it would gain out of the agreement, we should see ASEAN as our kin where each one looks after the other. After all, family is a deeply-embedded concept among Southeast Asians that tugs strongly at our heartstrings. And being one who grew up in this culture, I know deeply well how difficult it is to leave family behind no matter how insufferable they may seem to be.
By Marie Abigail PACHO, ASEAN Correspondent from Philippines