ASEAN must not only be relevant to its people, it must also be SEEN to be relevant by its people.

With the clock ticking towards the establishment of the ASEAN Community in 2015, the relationship between the grouping and its people is gaining more attention by the day.

“There are a lot happening in ASEAN, and this will have a direct impact on its people. But how many among the 600-million plus people know what is ASEAN doing?” said Associate Professor Mely Caballero-Anthony, Head, RSIS Centre for NTS Studies, and Secretary-General of the Consortium of Non-Traditional Security Studies in Asia.

“A survey by ASEAN have shown that although 81 percent of its people in the capitals have heard of ASEAN, 76 percent of the respondents do not know what ASEAN is doing.”

This is a main concern, and it is one of the key issues examined and discussed at the ASEAN-Canada Forum and Public Symposium held in Ho Chi Minh City. The gathering brought representatives from the ASEAN Secretariat, the ASEAN Foundation, think tanks, the International Institute for Sustainable Development, the Asia Foundation, Civic Groups, as well as the media.

Against the backdrop of the Ho Chi Minh City University, the participants discussed how developments in ASEAN would influence the implications and future directions of the group, and its people especially the young people.

Research findings on various aspects of ASEAN were presented, and discussed. The exchanges were candid and thought provoking, as participants explored how issues were impacting daily living in the grouping, and what are some of the possible solutions.

When it was time for dinner, the group was delighted to have Viet Nam’s well-regarded diplomat Madame Ton Nu Thi Ninh, showing the way. The charming diplomat and scholar made sure that her visitors do not return empty-handed rom the lovely Ho Chi Minh City.

The passionate discussions quickly gave way to appreciation of fine Vietnamese cuisine, as Madame Ninh introduced the participants to her two favourite restaurants in the city.

Day two of the workshop proved to be a rewarding session for all the participants, which had expanded to include the Academic Staff of several Think Tanks in Ho Chi Minh City, as well as staff and students of the HCMC University.

While some of the students confessed they do not know much about ASEAN, it certainly was not due to a lack of interest.

From eradication of poverty, to promoting growth, from wanting to learn about the “success story of Singapore”, to “how to join the ASEAN Secretariat”, the discussions quickly went beyond schedule.

Over lunch later, Professor Richard Barichello told me that a student was originally set on a post-graduate course focusing on European studies. But after the discussions, she is now thinking of focusing her post-graduate learning to ASEAN instead.

“You must be pleased to hear that,” said Professor Barichello, a University of British Columbia scholar, who had spent much time studying Southeast Asia.

I was really pleased to hear that. I was also reminded of the heavy responsibility that ASEAN owes its people, and all its well-wishers.

“It is heartening to see the progress which ASEAN has made so far. The ASEAN Community in 2015 will be an important landmark. It should remind us of the hardwork we have put in, and how it is anchoring our dreams,” said Dr Makarim Wibisono, Executive Director of the ASEAN Foundation.

“But the journey is not finish yet. ASEAN will have to evolve continuously, to keep pace with the aspirations of our younger generations. It will also be their responsibility to nurture and shape ASEAN.”

By

Danny Lee

Director for Community Affairs at the ASEAN Secretariat