Southeast Asia's Digital Identity
In a certain corner of the internet, two factors have come together to create a very unique online community. These two factors are the rapidly expanding base of internet users in Southeast Asia and the commitments ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asia Nations) has made to cultivate a sociocultural community among the association’s ten member states: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. In only two short years, these two factors have helped The ASEAN Community Page, located at www.aseancommunity.org, grow from a small group of Thai students to a thriving online community with over 200,000 members.
Before going into the details of the ASEAN Community page it is important to understand the factors that have spurred on the website’s growth. One of the factors behind the growth of the ASEAN Community Page is the staggering pace at which the Southeast Asian internet audience is increasing. A 2013 report by comScore shows that the internet audience in the Philippines is growing at 22% per year and 14% per year in Vietnam. For the region as a whole the report estimates that Southeast Asia represents 10% of internet traffic in the Asia-Pacific region (including Northeast Asia and India but excluding countries on the western side of the Pacific). This amounts to more than 64 million internet connections in Southeast Asia. Considering that multiple individuals can share a single connection, the amount of actual internet users is probably exponentially greater. This seems to be the case, since Indonesia alone has 64 million Facebook users who actively access their accounts on a monthly basis.1
The expansionist trend in Southeast Asia’s digital domain is confirmed by several other sources. According to an article in The Diplomat titled “Facebook Booming in Asia,” the citizens of Bangkok, Thailand make more daily photo postings and status updates on Facebook than the citizens of any other city on the globe. Moreover, on the list of the fastest growing countries on Facebook, Indonesia and Vietnam are respectively ranked third and fourth. Finally, a report commissioned by the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union (ITU) shows that Malaysia has the fourth-largest proportion of “digital natives” in the world, one rank below South Korea and two ranks above the United States.2 According to the study, “digital natives,” who are defined as persons between the ages 15 and 24 with at least five years of active internet use, make up 13.4% of Malaysia’s population.
The second factor is the development of ASEAN’s socio-cultural community. ASEAN was created when the foreign ministers of Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore signed the Bangkok Declaration in 1967. Since, ASEAN has expanded to include ten Southeast Asian states. The last member to be inducted into the association was Cambodia, in 1999. ASEAN made a formal commitment to the development of an ASEAN Sociocultural Community when the ASEAN Charter was adopted in 2008. ASEAN’s Sociocultural Community Blueprint was designed a year later. The document included goals such as: achieving enduring solidarity and unity among the peoples and Member States of ASEAN, forging a common ASEAN identity and building a caring, sharing and inclusive ASEAN society.
Despite ASEAN’s ambitious proclamations, academics and the Southeast Asian media have questioned the progress being made on realizing an ASEAN sociocultural community and common identity. One academic article characterized ASEAN’s attempt at creating a regional identity as an elitist project lacking input from the citizenry and civil society.3 The article goes on to argue that as a project of the political elite ASEAN’s quest for a regional identity excludes pluralistic society and this makes a common identity difficult, if not impossible, to create. Another academic article claims that without and increased focus on the citizenry, “[The ASEAN] regional identity will be but an imposed super-structure with no facilities of governance.”4 Academia is not the only place to find criticisms of ASEAN’s sociocultural community. Late last year, The Nation, a prominent English daily newspaper in Thailand, published an article titled, “Constructing myriad facets of the Asean identity.” The article held that implementing ASEAN’s sociocultural community required a stronger political will than currently present in the association and that, for the time being, the ASEAN identity that the grouping's leaders envisage and like to boast about rings hollow.
While the success of the ASEAN Community Page gives little insight into how the states of ASEAN formulate and implement their policies on the ASEAN socio-cultural community, it does offer living proof of the viability of an ASEAN sociocultural community and ASEAN identity. Moreover, the Page shows that the ASEAN sociocultural community has been somewhat successful in capturing the imaginations of young people across Southeast Asia. This provides evidence that even if the creation of an ASEAN identity is an elite driven project, it still has traction at the grassroots level in some segments of society.
The ASEAN Community Page is an example of grassroots mobilization because it is independently operated. The page was initially created in 2011 by a Thai student in an effort to help Thai students practice their English, the lingua franca of ASEAN. The page has since evolved, now its goals are to disseminate information about ASEAN to all Southeast Asian Ethnic Groups, to facilitate friendship between the group’s members who are ASEAN citizens and the group’s non-ASEAN members, to create closer ties between ASEAN countries and their citizens, to prepare for ASEAN Economic Integration in 2015 and to support ASEAN governments and the ASEAN secretariat in the realization of an ASEAN community by 2015. Currently the officers of the page hail from the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Laos. Each ASEAN country has a representative and several admins that help develop content for and maintain the page’s Facebook and twitter accounts.
Social media is where much of the interaction between the group’s members takes place. The ASEAN Community’s Facebook page has over 200,000 likes and is very active. Each week day is dedicated to posts about two different ASEAN countries. Mondays, for example, are reserved for posts about Cambodia and Brunei. Weekends are used for inter-ASEAN news. The membership of the Facebook page skews towards students in their late teens, college age students and young professionals. The page is lively and posts cover a variety of topics from culture and politics to current events. Some of the topics discussed on the page in the first two weeks of October included: Indonesia’s soccer victory over Korea, granting ASEAN membership to Timor Leste and Papua New Guinea, various natural and cultural attractions across ASEAN, introductions to some of ASEAN’s lesser known ethnic groups and how to improve the ASEAN educational system. The tone of the posts and comments are generally inclusive, focusing on sharing and cultural commonalities. Posters often refer to themselves and each other as “ASEANers.” Questions and comments for non-ASEAN members are equally welcomed.
The rapid expansion of the internet audience in Southeast Asia along with ASEAN’s efforts to create a common identity and sociocultural community has given rise to a very dynamic and interesting online community. The ASEAN Community Page and the group’s Facebook page are excellent places to visit for anyone interested in Southeast Asia. In the bigger picture the ASEAN Community Page demonstrates the appeal of a Southeast Asian regional identity among ASEAN’s youth and provides reason to reevaluate how the formation of national and supranational identities is changing in the digital age.
3 Jonsson, Kristina. 2010. ‘Unity-in-Diversity? Regional Identity-building in Southeast Asia’. Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 29, 2, 41-72. Retrieved from <www.CurrentSoutheastAsianAffairs.org>
4 Jones, M. E. (2004). Forging an ASEAN identity: The challenge to construct a shared destiny. Contemporary Southeast Asia, 140-154. . Retrieved from <http://www.academia.edu/981239/Forging_an_ASEAN_Identity_The _Challenge_to_Construct_a_Shared_Destiny>
Author: Lance Devreaux Jackson, Intern, Asia Society Southern California