Mention ASEAN to any Singaporean, and it is likely that about eight in 10 of them will say having a membership to the association is a good thing. However, for many Singaporeans, ASEAN does not feature much in their day-to-day life. These findings are according to researchers from the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), in a survey conducted last year in conjunction with ASEAN’s 50th anniversary.
As a student, I do not have that much professional knowledge nor authority to comment about the implications of ASEAN to fellow Singaporeans, but I can say without doubt that being in ASEAN is very important to our tiny nation-state. Since Singapore is small country with little natural resources and a relatively small population, joining hands with our regional neighbours helps us to command a bigger voice in international affairs.
This year, Singapore hold the chairmanship of ASEAN. At the launch of ASEAN 2018 in January, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong mentioned that the grouping of Southeast Asian nations since 1967 has brought peace, economic growth and prosperity to the region and all the people living in it.
The importance of ASEAN to Singaporeans was also highlighted by Singapore’s Ambassador-At-Large, Professor Tommy Koh, in an article he wrote for The Straits Times earlier this year. Professor Koh emphasised the enormous economic benefits of being in ASEAN — access to a larger domestic market as well as free trade agreements, regional integration and open economies. He also discussed how political stability allows the ten ASEAN member states to attract the world’s most important leaders to meet annually with them.
Nevertheless, while ASEAN has achieved many great things over the past five decades, the association has also been facing a challenge. According to the SIIA researchers, it is common for people across Southeast Asia to mainly identify with being Asian, rather than Southeast Asian. In Singapore, there is also a weak concept of the ASEAN identity. The researchers also said that the lack of an ASEAN identity is because of ASEAN’s tendency to engage mostly on state level only, with little public involvement.
Even so, I think that it is possible to still develop a special connection within the ASEAN community. Personally, I feel fortunate to have had many opportunities to connect with people from the various ASEAN countries through a range of avenues and platforms. It is these opportunities that has opened up my eyes to the ASEAN region, sparking my curiosity and interest in the different Southeast Asian cultures.
One of my favourite memories is volunteering for the Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) in 2015, which involved participants from all the ASEAN countries. The 28th SEA Games was held in Singapore in June 2015, and I helped out with the basketball event. In December 2016, I also volunteered with the 9th ASEAN Para Games, for the wheelchair basketball event. By taking part these events, I was able to meet fellow volunteers and athletes from the ASEAN region, interact with them, and forge meaningful friendships.
Today, the ASEAN community to me is no longer just an abstract or vague term that bring up faceless people to mind. Instead, I feel a special connection towards people from the ASEAN community, and I believe that this connection comes from me further developing a vested interest in the ASEAN region. I have fond memories of interacting with my friends from ASEAN, and these interpersonal relationships, have allowed me to be more exposed to and understanding of the region’s many different people, perspectives and ways of life.
By Prisca Lim, ASEAN Correspondent from Singapore
Photo credit – featured image banner by ASEAN 2018