Will AEC mean much for SE Asians?

By A. Ibrahim Almuttaqi ,The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network

Today ASEAN wakes up to a new reality: the realization of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). This new reality marks the culmination of the region’s long-held aspiration for the people of Southeast Asia to determine their own political, economic and socio-cultural courses.

Indeed, much progress has been made. For example, all ten Southeast Asian countries are member states of ASEAN (except Timor Leste).

The association lies at the heart of the regional architecture, with ASEAN-led initiatives including the East Asian Summit (EAS), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the ongoing negotiations of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

Crucially, the region has enjoyed a long period of peace, stability and prosperity — a far cry from the unstable era that marked the years before ASEAN was established in 1967.

Yet for many people within ASEAN, the historic milestone of the AEC will mean very little and the launch day will feel like any other day for them.

As one commentator said, “ASEAN has no meaning for the majority of the 600 million citizens living in the region. They have no real feeling of being a member of an ASEAN community.” This is indeed worrying given that for the ASEAN community to be a success, it is crucial for the people of Southeast Asia to develop a strong sense of ASEAN identity that underpins the regional integration project.

In the words of the then ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan, the 600 million people in the region need to “feel ASEAN.” Having had years to prepare for the ASEAN community, how did we get to this sorry state of affairs? Having emphasized the importance of a “people-centered” ASEAN, why does the public care very little about the AEC? Sense of Belonging, Awareness and Identification And what can ASEAN, it’s secretariat and member-states do to bring about a larger sense of belonging, awareness and identification with the ASEAN regional integration project?