Written by Mary Farrow.

The Association of South East Asian Nations as a geographical grouping is an illustration of a collection of countries that is certainly greater than the sum of its parts. Fifty years on, the similarities don’t go too much farther than their regional GPS coordinates.

“Okky Madasari, Indonesian novelist, co-founder and program director for the ASEAN Literary Festival declares, “For fifty years, ASEAN was no more than a slogan and a series of meetings of elites. If we want to be a real community, we have to work at the grassroots level”.”

The homogeneous motto of “One Vision, One Identity, One Community” could be missing out on embracing the strength of ASEAN diversity in culture, ideology, religion, history, economies and environment. Perhaps a 50th birthday is the time to re-generate a more inclusive vision that celebrates the strength of diversity rather than ignore its value.

The principles of community development practice reach across the ASEAN borders and waterways with the ability to disempower the tyranny of distance. Sharing of the arts, education, environmental interests, and social betterment have provided the foundation for the regional grassroots to increase social cohesion, share values, and improve relationships in the ASEAN neighbourhood. This is the common language on which to build broader community strength beyond politics and ideologies.

ASEAN countries are not alone when dealing with corruption, abuse of human rights, and environmental carnage when compared to the West. However, as individuals, we all value access to clean water and food, safety for ourselves and our families, freedom to achieve , a sustainable income, and feel like we are a valued part of society. We have the ability to value and celebrate diversity.

Through storytelling, performing, and creative arts, we can look at both celebrations and struggles, draw conclusions about our similarities, and be inspired through eye opening discoveries. It is through the arts culture that we diminish boundaries, gain an education, and learn about each other. It can be a highly portable practice provided governments support exchanges in practical ways.

Shared responsibility for ASEAN social cohesion in the regional neighbourhood is not only the role of governments, but includes businesses, non-governmental organisations, community groups, and individuals to promote the exchange. For example, support from the Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture and avid promotion by the Tourism Ministry of the recent ASEAN Literary Festival 2017 is a positive example to other ASEAN members and their neighbours that they trust the diversity of discussion and sharing of perspectives. Okky Madasari, Indonesian novelist, co-founder and program director for the ASEAN Literary Festival declares, “For fifty years, ASEAN was no more than a slogan and a series of meetings of elites. If we want to be a real community, we have to work at the grassroots level”. With the annual ASEAN Residency Program, ALF continuously seeks and invests in the diverse contribution from the region’s emerging talent pool of young energetic writers who share inspiration but are also troubled by the same concerns.

Peripheral nations such as Australia and others with an interest in ASEAN have a broader regional responsibility to contribute their own national participants in the celebration of social and artistic achievement through the arts as well as academic literature. While there are many praiseworthy Australian government promotions and programs to help university students get to know others in the region, the bureaucratic procedure and expense for ASEAN students, writers, and artists to gain a visa to visit Australia are mind boggling.

Promoting and facilitating people-to-people exchange is a strong and necessary step to increase the regional dialogue and build grass roots relationships. It does not only occur through academic exchange.

Tourism related businesses, particularly airline and mega hotel chains, not only have the opportunity but the obligation to provide travel and accommodation benefits to those involved in regional artistic exchange whenever possible. This is their business role in contributing to the strengthening of relationships and increasing social cohesion in the regional neighbourhood which benefits their business interests. While there have been some scattered contributions from this sector, more is needed, and is very possible. Every day, empty seats on planes and empty hotel rooms bear witness to lost opportunity and failure to contribute to the regional arts and education dialogue that could benefit ASEAN wellbeing.

Environmental impacts, disasters and climate change have real potential to strengthen ASEAN communities, develop complex trusting relationships in the region and include collaboration with the broader neighbourhood. Senior Energy Economist for Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA) advises the necessary steps to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals require “a strong systems approach at the regional level, across the sectors and that involves public and private stakeholders”. This approach also applies shared values in community development practice which can contribute to social cohesion in the ASEAN neighbourhood. Regardless of political ideology and geographic boundaries, personal relationships underpin the success of the ASEAN community and embed the necessary resilience to ride out the challenges from social, environmental and economic calamity.

Author and journalist Duncan Graham has spoken about “seriously flawed relationships” in the Australian-Indonesian context. His observations apply across the ASEAN region, that “The path forward won’t come from professionals in bombproof shelters but suburban folk seeing for themselves how their neighbours live, understanding their values and appreciating what’s really happening next door”.

Today, Timor Leste is knocking at the ASEAN door, with its diverse cultural influences, challenging history, survivor mentality and a hunger to be part of the greater exchange. Coupled with José Ramos-Horta’s vision of a “culture of peace” and this new nation’s courageous rejection of the death penalty, their inclusion can bring rich social benefits to the tides that run in and out of the ASEAN estuary.

In the next 50 years, the ASEAN neighbourhood will be bound by the common
challenges that we all face, with the potential to garner strength from its diversity.

Mary Farrow (@Maryfarrow4) is the Director of International Cooperation for the ASEAN Literary Festival, and Director of the Centre of Resilience in Melbourne, Australia. As a community development practitioner, Mary is a regular speaker at government events and academic institutions on the importance of empowering communities through education, social challenge, human rights, freedom of expression and creative practice through the arts. Image credit: CC by Tom Soldan/Flickr

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