After 46 years, ASEAN leaders have now started talking about shifting the focus from state-centric to people-centric activities that would benefit people in the regions. However, it seems like this realization and its implementations are rather slow.
"I know only a little about ASEAN; it was from school. But, whether I have benefited from ASEAN, I dont know because it was not taught in school," stated Irma, 22, an Indonesian migrant worker who has been working in Singapore for the last two years.
Similar opinions were voiced by Siti, Nur and Ida, also Indonesian migrant workers in Singapore, when they were asked about what they knew about ASEAN and its benefits for them.
"Singapore is ASEAN, and Indonesia too. Thats all I learned at school. I dont know about the activities of ASEAN," emphasized Siti in response to this writers question.
The ASEAN Community will officially begin in 2015. However, these brave young Indonesian women have already interacted within the ASEAN community, in the economic and cultural sense. They have not waited for the governments to facilitate them, nor to guarantee their protection against abuses, for instance.
They work in the neighboring country because they are merely driven by an economic reason - to improve their economic condition, which is in line with one of the aims of the ASEAN community, namely, prosperity of the people.
The Indonesian migrant workers, often termed as "foreign exchange heroines", are part of the ASEAN people, who are supposed to be an important target for the people-centered ASEAN Community.
ASEAN was established with the signing of the ASEAN Declaration (Bangkok Declaration) in Bangkok on 8 August 1967, by the Founding Fathers of ASEAN: Adam Malik (Indonesia), Tun Abdul Razak bin Hussein (Malaysia), Narciso Ramos (The Philippines), S. Rajaratnam (Singapore) and Thanat Khoman (Thailand).
ASEAN, which now groups 10 Southeast Asian countries - Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei Darussalam, VietNam, Lao PD, Myanmar and Cambodia, aims to achieve regional peace, prosperity and gain more power internationally.
At the Ninth ASEAN Summit in 2003, the ASEAN leaders resolved to establish an ASEAN Community comprising three pillars, namely ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC), ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC).
Due to begin at the end of 2015, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) is expected to become the worlds greatest trading bloc by eliminating most barriers to trade and commerce within the region, including liberalization of the movement of skilled personnel, creation of a single customs regime for the region and enhancement of connectivity.
If completed as planned, the AEC will greatly enhance regional economic ties and put life into ASEAN's slogan of "One vision, one identity, one community."
At the 12th ASEAN Summit in January 2007, the ASEAN leaders affirmed their strong commitment to accelerate the establishment of an ASEAN Community by 2015 from the earlier planned 2020. They signed the Cebu Declaration on the Acceleration of the Establishment of an ASEAN Community by 2015.
A study undertaken by the ASEAN Secretariat entitled ASEAN Community Building Efforts published in October last year, however, showed a very low level of ASEAN awareness amongst its member countries peoples.
The study showed that 36 percent of Indonesians, 56 percent of Filipinos, and 66 percent of Malaysians claimed that they have never heard of the ASEAN Community, stated Danny Lee, the Director for Community Affairs Development of the ASEAN Secretariat, to the ASEAN journalists during a two-day workshop on "Reporting on Regional Integration and ASEAN" organized by the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC), EU Centre in Singapore and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS).
When Indonesia assumed ASEANs chairmanship in 2011, the countrys Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa reminded that more work needed to be done "to make ASEAN directly beneficial and more meaningful to its people."
"People centered ASEAN is an ASEAN that is advantageous and relevant to the day to day life amid active participation from the community. One of the new tasks for the ASEAN Foundation is not limited to raising awareness, but more than that to cultivate sense of ownership among the ASEAN people," stated Minister Marty during his welcome remark at ASEAN Foundations 14th anniversary in Jakarta, last year.
"An ASEAN community cannot come into being only by having signatures on documents and the participation of senior officials. It must also involve the ASEAN peoples," Marty stated.
And yet, during its tenure, Indonesia hosted more than 100 meetings including the 18th ASEAN Summit, the 19th ASEAN Summit and East Asia Summit (EAS), as well as a series of meetings mostly attended by ministers and other government officials.
According to some reports, there are more than 1,000 ASEAN related meetings a year organized in a number of countries.
Lee noted that ASEAN has very limited budget and most of the time, has to rely on its dialog partners such as the European Union (EU), Japan and China to fund activities involving its people including students and journalists.
At present, each ASEAN member country contributes to the total of US$1.6 million for the running of the ASEAN Secretariat.
The Jakarta-based ASEAN Foundation, under the leadership of Dr. Makarim Wibisono, senior Indonesian diplomat, however, claimed that since its establishment, the foundation has supported more than 100 development projects involving members of the civil society across the region.
The ASEAN Foundation was established by the leaders of ASEAN in 1997 to promote ASEAN awareness and identity, encourage interaction among various ASEAN stakeholders and help address socio-economic disparity and poverty issues in the region.
The ASEAN Charter, under Article 15, further mandates the ASEAN Foundation to promote greater awareness of ASEAN, people-to-people interaction and close collaboration among the business sector, civil society, academia and other stakeholders in the region.
A major source of the ASEAN Foundations funding contribution came from the Japan-ASEAN Solidarity Fund, and additional contributions have come from several ASEAN member countries, the governments of China, Korea, and France and IDRC of Canada, as well as Microsoft Corporation and Hewlett-Packard.
To be the ASEAN Chair in 2015, Malaysia has announced that one of the main planks of its chairmanship is the creation of a truly People-Centred ASEAN.
"A People-Centered ASEAN means that ASEAN will be an even more powerful vehicle for the realisation of our peoples aspirations - good governance, transparency, higher standards of living, sustainable development, the empowerment of women and greater opportunity for all," Malaysias Foreign Affairs Minister Dato Sri Anifah Haji Aman stated at the 20th ASEAN Leadership Forum in Kuala Lumpur on 18 July 2013.
Anifah Aman expressed concerned about the lack of ASEAN awareness, which is a major obstacle toward fulfilling the vision of a People-Centred ASEAN.
Therefore, Malaysias ministry of foreign affairs plans to embark on a very aggressive campaign to promote ASEAN in his country.
"The task of promoting a people-centered ASEAN by 2015 and beyond is a challenging one. We need to: Firstly, foster a change in the mind-sets of Governments; Secondly, create a sense of belonging amongst peoples of ASEAN; and thirdly, institute arrangements that can foster People-Centredness," the minister noted.
ASEAN is not an elite organization and is determined to involve the peoples of its member countries in its activities to create a true ASEAN community.
This means that its people including students, media and businessmen, should and will play more roles in the future, instead of organizing too frequent meetings of ministers and other officials. (*)