Towards Community Formation in Southeast Asia? History Education, ASEAN and the Nation-State

By Aguilar, Filomeno, Jr. | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, March 2017 | Go to article overview

Towards Community Formation in Southeast Asia? History Education, ASEAN and the Nation-State


Aguilar, Filomeno, Jr., SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has embarked on an ambitious project of building a regional community. At their summit on Bali island in October 2003, ASEAN leaders declared that an

ASEAN Community shall be established comprising three pillars, namely political and security cooperation, economic cooperation, and socio-cultural cooperation that are closely intertwined and mutually reinforcing for the purpose of ensuring durable peace, stability and shared prosperity in the region. (ASEAN 2003)

Former ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino (2006, pp. 342-55) traces the concept of an ASEAN Community to a Singaporean proposal to create an ASEAN Economic Community as a way of getting serious about market integration in the face of the rise of China and other challenges presented by the global economy. To that proposal was added the notion of an ASEAN Security Community championed by Indonesia as a means to deal with, among other matters, maritime security, terrorism and transnational crime and to promote defence cooperation (ibid., pp. 355-68). The third pillar, the formation of a Socio-Cultural Community, "was apparently brought in almost as an afterthought, at the Philippines' suggestion, in the interest of rounding out the concept of a community" (ibid., pp. 368-69). Given this background, it is understandable that ASEAN member-states have agreed upon clear institutional mechanisms for implementing the first two pillars of the community, but not the third.

The 2003 Bali concord's ten declarations nonetheless enunciated the pledge that "ASEAN shall continue to foster a community of caring societies and promote a common regional identity" (ASEAN 2003). The association's December 2005 Kuala Lumpur declaration, which underscored that ASEAN leaders were "Conscious of the unity and diversity in ASEAN and the existing ties of history, geography and culture that have bound their peoples together", repeats this phraseology (ASEAN 2005). This mention of the ties that bind in the same breath as "unity and diversity" suggested, despite the diplomatic language, a tacit recognition that the building of community would not be easy.

How far has this project of fostering a regional identity and community gone since the 2003 Bali declaration? The keen observer will know that the project of creating a regional community has not gone far, a predicament that requires close analysis. As Severino (2006, p. 368) has recognized, "developing a sense of Southeast Asian identity, building a regional awareness and fostering mutual understanding among the people of ASEAN" are indispensable to a workable security and economic community, but they require a "long-term and never-ending endeavor, involving the education of children and the general public, the transformation of attitudes, and the breaking down of prejudices and mutual suspicions" (ibid., p. 370). As this article seeks to demonstrate, the education establishment in every Southeast Asian country has prioritized the goals of the nation-state, goals that education leaders have not reconciled with the expressed aim of creating a regional community. Through the analysis it offers, this article may serve as a useful signpost on the protracted journey towards a regional identity and a regional community.

Texts and Region Making

A crude regard for the propaganda value of education, especially because in the classroom one has a captive audience of young minds, often motivates the reliance on history education in efforts to form a collective identity. Consequently, the curriculum and textbooks in use become the battleground of contending forces or, where contestation is not possible, the handy tool of the powerful. Apart from this pedestrian view, there is a theoretically nuanced explanation for the reliance on history education in the promotion of a common identity.

Being part of a community involves a "we-feeling". …

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