Shaping our ASEAN mindset
IT IS often said that Filipinos are one of the most self-engrossed peoples in the world today.
So much space in local and national news is devoted to what Filipino newsmakers--politicians, businessmen, technocrats, the military, clergy, the militant masses, rebels, cause-oriented groups--have to say and do. This explains our highly sensitive nature because we are always tuned into ourselves.
This innocent narcissism stems from our ongoing search for national identity. An identity crisis makes up a big chunk of our national crisis. One Latin American diplomat notes the limited range of views he reads in Philippine news. Despite scores of writers and columnists, many come from the same side of the discourse coin, and the issues currency isn't that varied either.
The nation-state paradigm is heavy on our national psyche. The failure to rise beyond the nation-state concept can be debilitating--a serious flaw in our civic culture. In a global world, the nation could be absorbed into an entity larger than itself. This is the lesson that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) can bring us. Mold ASEAN into the Filipino consciousness we must.
On August 8, ASEAN will mark its 40th Anniversary since its founding in 1967. Aside from the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting and the series of post-ministerial meetings, all of which the Philippines hosts, there is very little that will imprint the country's spirit and primary role as chair during these benchmark events. The embers from the coverage of the 12th ASEAN Summit held in Cebu City last January are sputtering out. True, media supplements on ASEAN are ubiquitous these days, but as a matter of occasion, not a set course. Advance promotional blurbs on these events are limited and evident only right on or near the target meeting dates.
There is no regular ASEAN habit of mind in our shores. One has to seek special website editions to know what's happening and what the official support the ASEAN program requires and deserves from us. The recent postcard-sending campaign of the Departments of Education and Foreign Affairs, in cooperation with ASEAN embassies, partly addressed this lack of ASEAN awareness among Filipino youth.
Indeed, how ASEAN fares in the Filipino mind is decidedly different. Other ASEAN countries make use of standard media fare to show how important the regional association is to them. Short of what Kenichi Ohmae calls the "region-state," ASEAN has tried many routes--economic, security, socio-cultural--to reach its goal. Region-state may be a tentative concept for what ASEAN is at the moment. But to the concept's credit is a greater vision, of resources and the promise of well-being for both leaders and citizens. Political actors, in short, must know how to work for ASEAN ideals and dynamics.
The Philippines, it is observed, lags behind newer ASEAN states in commanding the regional vision for whatever will serve the national interest. Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos follow more venerable, senior ASEAN members in shaping their citizens to think of themselves not only as Khmers, Burmese or Laotians, but more importantly as ASEAN nationals. How inspiring to find lanes in their airports reserved for ASEAN countries rather than impersonal and blunt signs for "foreigners" or "migrant workers." Unfortunately for the Philippines, our government is prompter in sorting out air passengers along the parameters of disease control (SARS, avian flu, HIV-Aids) or as terrorist suspects than as ASEAN persons. The same can be said about the mental space media provides for foreign policy issues--powerful bilateral and multilateral topics that link us to America, Europe, the other developing states are often lead news. But ASEAN is treated with an undeserved vagueness and is seen more as subsidiary, rather than the central news itself. This ignores the major role of the Philippines in getting ASEAN started, back when Diosdado Macapagal proposed the creation of Maphilindo in 1963. The Philippine legacy in ASEAN is very rich but is not projected accordingly.
ASEAN at its best has been given an academic robe, its import a matter of occasion; even its 40th anniversary fails to resound in our people's consciousness. It is time for our poll bodies to maintain and contextualize an ASEAN consciousness report, in the Philippine scenario. Social Weather Stations did such a survey in 1997 and 2002. One must go beyond awareness of ASEAN countries as markets only for Philippine labor. Or could that be a good starting point for shaping the ASEAN mindset?
A regional community demands a higher level and quality of interaction that may not initially involve the common man. ASEAN is definitely understood and appreciated by political leaders and the economic elite who have the means to benefit from the regional process. The "trickle down" effect to the community could come later. Only a growing awareness of what the region means could hasten the spread of its benefits. Our diplomatic establishments in ASEAN countries sensibly don't let the embers just die, outside of summit events.
A recent visit to Phnom Penh alerted and involved us in the book donation campaign of Ambassador Lourdes Gutierrez-Morales to help the country re-build its "soul" and mark 50 years of Philippine-Cambodian diplomatic relations. Cambodia has a rich history and culture, symbolized in its treasured Angkor Wat. The visit touched us in more ways than one. Phnom Penh is now one of the ASEAN capitals proud of its Gawad Kalinga community built by Filipino expatriates there who are part of the Couples for Christ movement. The place of 20 or so Khmer families (former inhabitants of dumpsites) in the district of Cheoung Euk clearly shows the Philippine vision of "One Caring and Sharing Community" etched in the minds and hearts of the Cambodian people, despite the long-term impact of their "killing fields."
Asean's 40th anniversary can be marked more aptly if stories of how our people learn to help and bond with ASEAN peoples become part of daily discourse in the media and beyond.
Natalia M.L.M. Morales is vice president of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations.
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