Making ASEAN relevant to the young people of Southeast Asia

On the eve of the 42nd Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, hosted by Indonesia in Jakarta, Lee Yoong Yoong, Director for Community Affairs at the ASEAN Secretariat, muses on how ASEAN specialists could inspire young people about their region.

INTERNATIONAL YOUTH Day is celebrated annually on 12 August. Growing up as a young person in Singapore in the 1980-90s, I was more in tune with the arts, music, and literatures of American and British influences than I was with local and regional popular culture. I was also more familiar with western-based landmarks, eg the Eiffel Tower, than I was with those in Southeast Asia, eg Borobudur Temple. That was how oblivious I was of the region I was living in.

Though I knew who Singapore’s closest neighbours were, I was unaware of the inter-historical ties between them. The only inkling I had of Singapore’s link with the regional countries was the Singapore-Malaysia relations, and my limited knowledge of the biennial SEA Games. I learnt to recognise the respective Southeast Asian countries’ flags as they appeared next to the competing athletes’ names on the television. It never occurred to me that I should be embarrassed by my lack of regional knowledge. 

I began to know more about Southeast Asia when my secondary school taught modern histories of Indonesia (known as Dutch East India then), Myanmar (then known as Burma), and Thailand (then known as Siam). All my classmates found the lessons dry and dull. They were unable to comprehend why the East India Companies of Britain and the Netherlands decided to exchange Bencoolen (Bengkulu) with Malacca so that no pocket of territory was excluded from the two powers’ sphere of colonisation influences. Similarly, my class cannot understand why the region was so appealing to these western powers that they had to travel far and wide over months of vessel-expeditions to possess Southeast Asian lands in the names of trade and development. 

As I looked back, I also found out how India’s Hindu and Buddhist influences had spread everywhere across the region, leaving imprints in the form of monuments and inscriptions. I studied how indigenous rulers in ancient Southeast Asia adopted the practices of Indian kingship to develop territories and economies. The South Asia’s sphere of influence on ancient Southeast Asia is clear in the ruins of Ayutthaya in Thailand and Angkor Wat in Cambodia today, but how many young people in the region knew that?

By the time I moved up the ladder of my educational journey, I no longer looked at Southeast Asia as an unfamiliar entity. Through my own research and my travelling experiences, I learnt about Southeast Asians’ shared experiences in decolonisation and nation-building, and its common stance in resisting external threats. 

I wondered to myself, why didn’t I know anything about the region before? The only answer I could gather was an apathy that was prevalent among my generation of youths who became accustomed to a spoon-feeding culture. Young people in my time only gave attention to whatever was brought before us, be it education, entertainment, or experience. 

"Young people have a role to support ASEAN. They will be the drivers of this region and will determine the ASEAN agenda someday. It is essential for them to embark on getting to know more about ASEAN, and support what ASEAN is doing"

As part of my current responsibility as the Director for Community Affairs Directorate at the Jakarta-based ASEAN  Secretariat [1], I would visit schools and universities around Southeast Asia regularly. Many of them would put up impressive exhibitions to commemorate ASEAN Day on 8 August annually. The exhibits supplied a wealth of information about ASEAN Member States, which included histories, national flags, geographies, landmarks, currencies, traditional attire, and economic progress. 

I was impressed by the research work these students invested in. Despite so, I know that there is still much more that the ASEAN Member States and ASEAN Secretariat can do to raise our students and youth’s awareness of ASEAN while they were still at an impressionable age. 

To me, merely knowing ASEAN through armchair internet research is not enough. The youths must be provided with a more in-depth understanding of the regional grouping to underscore its relevance to its people. 

Beyond a superficial understanding of the individual member states, youths need to know why it is important for the region to remain cohesive and strong. They need to understand that regional peace and stability is not a given but exists because of a collective effort to support it; that ASEAN’s quiet diplomacy has its unique way of dissolving tension arising from bilateral disputes, and that ASEAN holds more economic power than as fragmented markets. Only then would the youths appreciate the common thread that binds the region. 

The only possible obstacle to achieving these is the tendency for youngsters to view such topics as “dry,” “boring,” and “too technical.” Reading about multilateral diplomacy in their textbooks will more likely elicit a yawn from them, at least that was the case with my own son when I went through his history and social studies. That is because what my son learns about the region is either from the internet, or via his schoolbooks. Information presented is mostly memory-based on key dates, main events, or milestone anniversaries.

Even though ASEAN has been rolling out programs to promote increased involvement of youths in regional activities, these are confined to small groups of student leaders. The multiplier effect of these selected groups is simply insignificant, if we compare the number of participants to the total number of ASEAN youths. 

There is a need to engage these youngsters at a different level. Just as individual countries rouse nationalistic feelings among their citizens through independence day’s celebrations, parades, and songs, it may be far more effective to appeal to these youngsters in a comparable manner. A teen who likes the music of a pop singer will trawl the internet for more information on the artiste and his/her works. A youngster who is fascinated with fashion trends of a particular group of people will mimic them in their dressings. Teenagers of all generations are alike in that they enjoy following the latest in music or fashion in mass media. 

Therein lies the question: “Which aspect of ASEAN culture would appeal to the youths of Southeast Asia?”  

Over the years, I have seen and witnessed commendable efforts to promote ASEAN culture, such as ASEAN Rocks music festival, and ASEAN Film Fair. To generate greater interest among the young in ASEAN, there needs to be a more sensational means of garnering a following. Popular artistes or football heroes of yester years of each member state could come together annually to tour the region. There could be an ASEAN Idol reality singing contest which involves only citizens of member states. We could hold an annual fun parade in each capital where other ASEAN nationals living, studying, and working in the host country would stand for their home countries in their respective contingents. Participants could do a song-and-dance, play their musical instruments, or do a talk-show. 

The important thing is that whatever form it takes, the outreach should be wide, and people should take pleasure in taking part in it. 

Youngsters these days are attracted to popular culture that is easily understood and which strikes a chord with them. They shun what they believe is the high culture. It may be much more effective to create a buzz from the grassroot-up where spontaneous feelings of unity are generated, instead of a top-down approach where people are told what and how to feel. Young people of this generation can smell propaganda a mile away. Such approaches will backfire.

Moreover, youths these days have more expectations, concerns, and anxieties, but at the same time, they want a larger part in deciding their future. To this, let me say to the youths that ASEAN is for them. In the meantime, these young people have a role to support ASEAN. They will be the drivers of this region and will determine the ASEAN agenda someday. It is essential for them to embark on getting to know more about ASEAN, and support what ASEAN is doing. 

ASEAN is still at the nascent stage of forging a regional identity. Developing a sense of belonging to any community requires time and mutual effort. Trust needs to be built; common experiences need to be shared. It is only when we truly feel a connection that ties begin to grow. When that time comes, young ASEAN citizens will no longer be asking on the relevance of ASEAN. Instead, they shall be the advocates to form the backbone of a strong and dynamic ASEAN Community.


Lee Yoong Yoong is the Director for Community Affairs at the Jakarta-based ASEAN Secretariat. The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author, and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the ASEAN Secretariat.

[1] The ASEAN Secretariat is the central coordinating body of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Its primary role is to facilitate cooperation and integration among ASEAN Member States. The ASEAN Secretariat works closely with partner organisations, governments, and stakeholders to advance regional cooperation and foster economic, political, and social progress in the region.

First published at