On the way to an ASEAN Identity

The third and final installment in the ASEAN 2017 Dialogues commenced on 31 July 2017. Entitled “ASEAN Identity”, the forum was organized by the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), with support from its partner Asia Society Philippines and in cooperation with the Asian Institute of Management (AIM), where the event took place.

The forum was attended by over a hundred guests who were privy to the ‘people-centered’ discussion of the socio-cultural pillar. The notion of one ASEAN identity was put on centerstage, to be analysed, discussed, and challenged. Three panels of a diverse set of experts along with esteemed speakers came together with one goal in mind: to highlight the significance of an ASEAN identity--the development of which stimulates inter-state opportunities and relations, fosters integration, and gives way for improved policy-making among the ASEAN communities.

PCOO Undersecretary Noel Puyat opened the dialogues by reinforcing the importance of amity within the ASEAN regions, as the region working together better is underway. This will allow for a stronger coalition, provided that ASEAN member states can realize their own individualities, but respect the nuances of each other.

Asia Society Philippines Executive Director, Suyin Liu Lee, followed Puyat. Lee talked about the goal of Asia Society Philippines, and how it aligns with the theme of the event: to provide a means for Filipinos to take part in ASEAN integration through dialogues and events that can grant people a deeper insight into the association.

A Primer of the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Pillar

The keynote speaker for the first half of the program was Department of Social and Welfare Development Secretary Judy Taguiwalo, who gave praise to the achievements of the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Committee (ASCC). The Committee’s strides included the signing of treaties and the reception of aid for areas such as Marawi. Taguiwalo added to the already inquisitive mood of the afternoon by expressing the challenges that remain when it comes to expanding the awareness on ASEAN. However, she ended on a positive note by putting the focus back on the people, who she says are the reasons why ASEAN is ASEAN.

Ms. Mary Anne Luis, Head of the International Affairs Office of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), was the key participant in the first panel, that was moderated by PCOO Assistant Secretary Kris Ablan. Luis discussed the primer of the socio-cultural pillar by narrating the Philippines’ active participation in ASEAN, which is done in order to add to its cultural identity. On behalf of the NCAA, the Philippines’ contributions have generated a list of projects, such as a commemorative coffee table book, a mobile video game on culture, the planning of commemorative activities for the 50th year anniversary of the association, an exhibit in the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, and the Brunei Darussalam — Indonesia — Malaysia — Philippines East Asia Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA) Summit held in Saranggani, among many others. The latter two exhibit ASEAN arts and culture by showcasing ASEAN member countries’ performances, crafts, and costumes. Luis is thankful to the Singapore Embassy, who donated two national costumes.

While the contributions of other ASEAN countries to extend awareness about the association has been through tangible objects, like the projects mentioned earlier, the Philippines has also invested more into joining programs like the ASEAN Youth Camp. Ms. Luis herself had participated in this camp where young artists can network with their ASEAN peers, and find new opportunities in the arts across the region

Marking the start of the second panel was the speech of Ambassador Delia Albert, the first female Foreign Affairs Representative to ASEAN and a former Director General to the association. Being one of the first figures during its founding days in 1967, she shared anecdotes on the confusion in the pronunciation of ‘ASEAN’ (which turned out to officially be ‘ahhz-yan’). She proudly shared how attending the meetings for the last 50 years has enabled her to see ASEAN’s transformation over the last half-century, saying it has succeeded in many aspects of community building - definitely coming a long way from the difficult stages during the early periods where member countries had many competing land claims.

Amb. Albert then steered the conversation back into the heart of the dialogue’s matter by asking the audience, what is the ASEAN identity? Albert relented that ASEAN is a work in progress in itself. There is a long way to go before everyone in it can feel that they are truly part of it, and that they can be the puzzle pieces in a bigger picture of an ASEAN community. However, this is slowly being remedied, as ASEAN continually spearheads projects that encourage greater engagement among the people. This enables the sharing and respecting of each country’s unique cultural and institutional identities, to be able to work towards a unified ASEAN identity. Albert stressed that there is still much more to be done by the government— first among which is to implement all the commitments made over the years. Albert highlighted the commitment to getting ASEAN down to the man on the street, lamenting the low level of awareness of the association in the Philippines, despite it being one of the founding members.

On Incorporating ASEAN Into Everyday Life

Mrs. Wynn Wynn Ong, jewelry designer and founder of Artisanal Works Inc., her businessman husband Mr. Norberto Ong, and Ms. Mikee Cojuangco Jaworski, equestrienne and International Olympic Committee member, participated in the panel moderated by Asec. Kris Ablan to talk about how ASEAN integration seeps into everyday life. The group underscored the similarities and differences of the ASEAN cultures through their experiences. Each served as living examples of a grassroots level of ASEAN integration, featuring positive outcomes for those involved.

Mrs. Ong, Burmese by blood and birth but Filipino at heart, along with her Filipino husband Mr. Ong, showed that despite the varied cultures across the different member states, respect is an evident and recurring theme within all of the cores of the cultures. Merging and melding with other ASEAN cultures should happen more often, recommended the couple. Mr. and Mrs. Ong then delighted the audience with their love and appreciation for each other’s countries’ cultures — like Mrs. Ong’s admiration for the Philippines’ romantic traditions, showing a real-life product of the positivity that comes from realizing ASEAN’s opportunities and integrating into it.

Ms. Cojuangco Jaworski’s stories of her competition days in the South East Asian Games revealed to the audience that more than just competing and winning, the games allowed her to make connections with people of different cultures and backgrounds.

By sharing how she is still in-contact with the friends she made while competing nationally and internationally, along with her role in the field of sports administration in the Philippines, she noted how sports can advance integration and provide new avenues for competitive athletes. Investing in athletes is not about the medals or trophies but investing in their attitudes. Getting to meet their peers in the region also allows for the development of a network—one that can significantly benefit the athletes later on in their lives, in aspects both in and out of sports.

Ms. Cojuangco Jaworski also talked about the growing links between sports and other sectors such as health and science. One cannot be without the other, and must be thoroughly woven together—similar to the ASEAN logo that reflects the togetherness of the ASEAN states as put by Ms. Wynn Wynn Ong. Overall, their panel saw that there is great potential for ASEAN, with belief in its developing state, all in all being catalysts for more interconnections between the nations.

Advancing Education and Career Excellence in the ASEAN region

The last panel which focused on education and career excellence featured Mr. Zak Yuson, a noted news writer, former Director of Civic Engagement for Rappler, and alumnus of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, and Ms. Deeda Pama, Business Development and Marketing Director for Macay Holdings Inc., and alumna of the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok. The two panelists talked about their experiences as international students at universities in the ASEAN region.

Mr. Yuson noted that the overall sentiment from his school in Singapore, was that the ASEAN was rising—it was the place to be.This had inspired him and his classmates to stay in the region, rather than venturing westward. Given this rise, what remained now was on how to sustain it.

From this, Ms. Pama talked about sustainability, and how it was woven into each of the courses offered in the school she had gone to. She noted that the key to consolidating Asia’s rise is through its education system. She shares that there is a very high potential for ASEAN universities, as through her experience, the quality of the subjects in Bangkok’s Asian Institute of Technology, her alma mater, were more appropriate than those offered in the school she attended in France. Such stories highlight ASEAN’s educational resources are of high calibre and should be utilised.

Mr. Yuson further added that Filipinos were known for winning all the academic awards in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, which highlighted the untapped potential of Philippine education system.

With the different languages across all the ASEAN states, Asec. Alan could not help but be curious about the problems that students could face due to the language barrier. However, Ms. Pama quelled such concerns by sharing that many schools in Thailand employ a bilingual system, and with the Philippine reputation of being good English speakers, potential applicants need not worry. She then relayed an important message that learning English or other languages does not equate to forgoing your cultural identity, especially one’s mother tongue.

Ablan then questioned Yuson and Pama on their stance on the recently-implemented K-12 education system. Yuson and Pama were resoundingly in support of the change, saying it increases competitiveness abroad and employability. There should also be a focus on sciences and mathematics in terms of curriculum, as expressed by Mr. Yuson, as the Philippines is behind in such fields. The educational and career experiences and knowledge shared by the speakers demonstrate that the differences between the values of the ASEAN communities should be highlighted and used for increasing cultural sensitivity that will hopefully lead to a more cohesive ASEAN unit.

Interpersonal Relationships and ASEAN Identity

Dr. Jamil Paolo Francisco of AIM ended the informative but stimulating panel sessions with a succinct and eloquent synthesis of the stories shared by the speakers. He started by highlighting the importance of interpersonal trust in Asia, where people and the relationships between them matter. He seconded DSWD Sec. Taguiwalo’s opinion that ASEAN’s socio cultural pillar should be given utmost importance, but agreed with Amb. Albert that putting it at the forefront is a work in progress.

He ended his engaging speech with a light-hearted but profound analogy of a potluck party where every item brought is important. In the mishmash of items brought to the event, what matters is not that one dish is more complex than the other, but the individuality one can bring to the table, and the cohesiveness that can come out of it.


Text and photos by Issabella Ver