What does ASEAN mean to you/to the people of your country?

The idea of Southeast Asia remained abstract to me for many years.

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From Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia can be reached within the hour by car or ship. Here, Thai and Vietnamese foods are well-loved, the Brunei currency is in use, and there are people from around the region who live, study, and work alongside the locals. For a long time nonetheless, I knew little about the lives of the people of ASEAN, whose communities I had not lived amongst.

Like every other student in Singapore, I studied about ASEAN as an organization in Social Studies classes in secondary school. I would go on to learn about our common history, art, and culture. I would also recognize our interests and differences.

ASEAN to me has been the commitment of a people with multiple affinities who sought independence and peace for ourselves.

It was only in university that I travelled for the first time to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and the Philippines, and revisited Malaysia and Indonesia. For the first time, I could be immersed in various Southeast Asian communities beyond Singapore. I was able to wake up in the mountains of Northern Thailand and have sticky rice with my Karen host family. I was able to record the traditional weaving process of the sinh (a Laotian skirt) in Luang Prabang. I was also able to have wonderful conversations about social development and the future with friends in Vietnam.

The people I met and experiences we shared put a face to the aspiration that is ASEAN. I received concern about my health and happiness, and grew to be concerned about the health and happiness of the people I met.

So to come a fuller circle now, and to think about what ASEAN means to me, I have an image in mind: ASEAN is a body, and its many peoples form its heart, eyes, ears, hands, and so on. The body works well when its heart, eyes, ears, and hands are well.

By TAN Teen Li, ASEAN Correspondent from Singapore