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Post date: May 02, 2013 7:54:4 AM

Can Asean be turned into a pop icon?

Farish A. Noor For The Straits Times

1 May 2013

Regional bloc needs a makeover to make it real and relevant to the young, starting with its logo

"A BUTTERFLY." "A flower." "The Union Jack." These were some of the responses I received when I randomly asked young people in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia what they thought the logo of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) was.

That many young people in the Asean region do not recognise the Asean symbol was, however, not surprising. One of the research topics I have worked on over the years concerns the unsatisfactory way history books used in South-east Asia teach the history of Asean to young people. I have come to the simple conclusion that for many of those who belong to the so-called "Generation Y", Asean is an abstract, distant concept that has little relevance or impact on their daily lives.

How has this come to pass, and how can Asean be revamped in such a way that it becomes something real and meaningful for us today? To ask this question now is somewhat poignant, for it already assumes that to some extent the lustre of Asean has faded.

Yet we need to recognise that we now live in a world that is almost bereft of tactile memory.

It is a curiously non-tactile place, where even the keyboards of our computers do not register any sensory reaction. Our world is made up of flat screens, switches that do not switch, buttons that do not depress. In this void of tactile experience, how can we expect abstract ideas such as that of an association of South-east Asian nation-states to register?

The challenge we face today is both epistemic and socio-psychological.

How can we know Asean better, in the sense of knowing more about the neighbouring countries around us? And how can we be made to love our region, and to feel that we belong to South-east Asia on the basis of a common sense of shared history and belonging?

On paper such questions can be addressed and elaborated in great detail, but in real-life conditions they are more challenging than they seem.

For as long as there is no sense of belonging and homeliness among the peoples of Asean, our ambition of Asean integration (that will come about by 2015, mind you) will remain a pipe dream among a handful of technocrats and policymakers.

Worse still, the absence of a common sense of Asean belonging and identity means that other alternatives present themselves as the basis of collective identity-building.

The last thing that Asean needs now - faced as it is with a host of economic, diplomatic and geostrategic concerns - is to slip into the trap of hyper-nationalism and protectionism among the member-states.

So how do we go about bringing Asean into the living rooms of ordinary people? And how do we make Asean relevant to the young?

To harp on about the merits and achievements of Asean today would be an academic exercise at best. Living in an age where the popular memory extends only for a few hours and where the individual is flooded by newsbites and sound clips all day long, to talk of Asean's record of preventive diplomacy, conflict resolution and neutrality may be too academic for most.

It is sad to note that the younger generation of Asean citizens do not fully appreciate the fact that their respective comfort zones have been extended so far thanks to the efforts of Asean to ensure peace.

A pragmatic compromise of sorts is required. The older technocrats and nation-builders of the 1960s and 1970s have to address the reality of a South-east Asian society that is better connected, better educated, more mobile and more ambitious than ever before.

Rather than talking about what Asean has done in the past, we need to revamp the image of Asean as a vehicle for social mobility and opportunity structures in the present and in the future.

In other words, Asean may well be the tool that will uplift and extend even further the horizon of possibility for the young, dynamic and ambitious youth of our region.

In tandem with this is the need to change how Asean looks, and to perhaps move away from the older image of Asean as an inter-elite, bureaucratic assembly of technocrats and planners whose work was carried out in the closed confines of imposing buildings and offices. Branding is the key, although old-school fogeys like myself are loathe to admit it.

In the course of my survey, I discovered that young people across the region today are more likely to recognise the brands and logos of sport shoes, fast food, computer programs and fashion items.

The Asean logo, on the other hand, dates back to the Cold War. Aesthetically, it belongs to the same repertoire as the Daleks of Dr Who.

Those of us who still believe in an Asean- shaped future had better start thinking out of the box, and to come up with ways and means through which Asean can be made real and relevant to the young. We can begin by revisiting the Asean symbol itself, and find creative ways to make it more appealing.

Academicians should also push for reform of our history textbooks, so that more attention is given to how and why Asean remains as the primary vehicle for regional integration today.

And our public representatives would do well to inject references to Asean in their speeches and policy papers, to remind the people that this is our shared region, and that our future lies in an Asean that belongs to all of us who are Asean citizens.

None of this can guarantee, of course, that Asean will ever be as popular as the next pop music hit or movie blockbuster. But if ever the Asean logo - in whatever form it takes - becomes as catchy, popular and visible as the other icons of pop art that festoon our borderless world today, we may have succeeded in making Asean integration a reality, one step at a time.

The writer is associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

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