Academics and Diplomats Highlight Shared Culture, History, and Values as Bedrocks of an ASEAN Identity

Clockwise from top left:  Prof. Maria Bernadette Abrera (Dean of the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines Diliman); Ambassador Noel Servigon (Philippine Permanent Representative to ASEAN); Prof. Nestor Castro (Department of Anthropology, University of the Philippines Diliman); and Director Mikhal de Dios (Department of Foreign Affairs Office of ASEAN Affairs)

In celebration of the 54th ASEAN Anniversary, the Foreign Service Institute organized a virtual Mabini Dialogue entitled “Sketching Precolonial Southeast Asia: Toward Fostering ASEAN Community Rooted in Regional Identity” on 25 August 2021.  The distinguished panel was composed of diplomats and members of the academe. 

Ambassador Noel Servigon, Philippine Permanent Representative to ASEAN, discussed the importance of the ASEAN Identity as reflected in the ASEAN Charter.  Amidst the diversity in cultures, languages, and religions among the peoples of ASEAN, he said, fostering a collective identity is still possible. The essence of an ASEAN Identity can be anchored on shared cultural traits, common values, and the spirit of unity in Southeast Asia. He also stated that the concept of an ASEAN Identity is manifested in the ASEAN motto, flag, emblem, and anthem—all of which symbolize ASEAN unity in diversity.

Professor Nestor Castro, from the Department of Anthropology of the University of the Philippines Diliman, provided an anthropological perspective to the discussion by highlighting genetic, archaeological, and linguistic pieces of evidence of pre-colonial Southeast Asian encounters. Prof. Castro shared that the people in Southeast Asia had similarities in gold ornamentations and jewelry, burial practices, pottery and ceramic designs, languages, and even folkloric sources such as stories, legends, myths, and songs and dances. All of these show that shared traits may be proofs of common cultural origins and of cultural borrowing.  

Professor Maria Bernadette Abrera, Dean of the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy and former Chair of the Department of History of the University of the Philippines Diliman corroborated archaeological evidence with historical accounts. She said that Southeast Asia at present may seem diverse in terms of politics, economy, and culture, but analyzing the historical past unravels a more connected ASEAN. This sense of connectedness is present in maritime trade linkages among Southeast Asian states. Prof. Abrera presented historical evidence of the intermingling of people, as shown by the presence of the Dong Son drum in Timor Leste, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines; the Malay and Indian influence in the Laguna Copper Plate, and the similarities of literatures and epics from different parts of the region. 

Director Mikhal de Dios, from the Department of Foreign Affairs’ (DFA’s) Office of ASEAN Affairs, emphasized that as much as ASEAN as an organization is continuously evolving and changing, so is the ASEAN Identity which is a work in progress. Southeast Asia’s inherited values such as collectivism, communalism, social harmony tolerance, and spiritualism are the threads that bind Southeast Asia and are essential aspects of the ASEAN Identity. Surely, Southeast Asia shares a rich cultural heritage and therefore, it is crucial that people in the region become conscious of this heritage and appreciate how it has influenced present day Southeast Asia. According to Dir. De Dios, once this is realized, more people will have a better idea and understanding of what it means to be an ASEAN citizen and embrace an ASEAN identity. 

Critical insights on the role of education in raising ASEAN awareness were explored and underscored during the open forum.  All of the speakers agreed that much needs to be done in making ASEAN more relevant to the general public. Many Filipinos, for instance, have a superficial understanding about ASEAN and are unaware of the benefits it brings to society. 

The education sector has a crucial role in addressing this issue. Alongside Philippine and Asian history, elementary and secondary education must incorporate the history of Southeast Asia in the curriculum. More importantly, teaching ASEAN must be across all disciplines, from culinary, music, and dance, arts, and math, to politics and economy. This should be complemented by the government’s effort to make ASEAN Identity and culture known to the general public through social media, literature, and television programs. Overall, raising ASEAN awareness and instilling an ASEAN Identity is, and should be a concerted effort by all sectors of society. 

The Mabini Dialogue participants were from the DFA and foreign service posts, the diplomatic corps, other government agencies, and the academe, including students and faculty members from various schools nationwide.