How YSEALI Can Help Forge a Unified ASEAN Identity

The region of Southeast Asia is one of the most diverse regions in the world. It is comprised of rich multiculturalism, varying economies, differing societal values, and contrasting political structures.

In 1967, five leaders–the Foreign Ministers from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand–met with the intention of uniting the countries of Southeast Asia. They signed a document to form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN challenged its citizens to embrace a regional identity and organize around a collective vision that aimed to promote economic development and social progress in the region.

The question today is: do the citizens of ASEAN truly have a regional identity? Is it possible to identify with a region that is so different on a social, political, cultural, and religious level?

Cambodian monks from Roteang Village, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo Credit: Beth Kanter

Muhammad Iqrammullah, an Indonesian participant of the ASEAN Youth Volunteer Programme, comments on the concept of ASEAN identity in his piece with the ASEAN Studies Program:

“The idea of an integrated community is not to erase our true identity, but to enrich our identities itself. The vast gathering of many traditions and cultures that belongs to individual ethnicities distributed across ASEAN countries is the identity of ASEAN.”

“An integrated community is not to erase our true identity, but to enrich” #YSEALI

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ASEAN Studies Centre Lead Researcher Moe Thuzar also mentions that the vision of a shared ASEAN identity remains a work in progress:

“It’s about how the very intertwined, cross-cutting nature of topics can now be addressed by all groups that there is more understanding on the ground of what a certain political decision means for the citizen or what implication or impact a certain agreement or declaration that the ASEAN head of state and government issue has on the ground at the national level.”

For many, the concept of an ASEAN identity is still new and vague, leaving an incomplete understanding of that repeated concept. What exactly does it mean to have a shared ASEAN identity?

Elderly woman from Laos. Photo Credit: tbSMITH


Vietnamese conical hat and basket vendor in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo Credit: Chris Goldberg

One simple explanation that is also fundamental to the ASEAN motto is that ASEAN has a shared identity through its shared vision. In other words, the region is united behind a common cause.

Creating an ASEAN Identity Through YSEALI

One vehicle to help ASEAN youth determine that shared vision is President Obama’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI). Since its conception in 2013, YSEALI has promoted the idea of regional integration and cooperation through nurturing the future leaders of Southeast Asia by strengthening leadership development and networking in the region.

Myanmar girls in local dress. Photo Credit: World Bank Photo Collection

U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN Nina Hachigian, who spoke at the University of Indonesia in February of 2015, discussed the importance of YSEALI in her speech on U.S.-ASEAN Relations and the future of the oceans:

“[YSEALI is] helping to build an ASEAN identity. These young people will foster ASEAN integration and ensure this region has a strong, unified voice in Asian and global affairs.”

#YSEALI is helping to build an #ASEAN identity

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Through various regional exchanges, YSEALI has brought ASEAN young leaders together. It has provided young ASEAN leaders with a platform to discuss some of the major issues affecting their communities. It has helped them forge something unique and exclusive as well: a shared vision of positively impacting their region.

Alicia Tan (bottom left) with other Malaysian representatives at YSEALI Generation: Oceans in Jakarta, Indonesia.

“YSEALI…was the first regional exposure for me at least and introduced me to the ASEAN identity,” said Alicia Tan from Malaysia, who is an alumna of YSEALI Generation: Earth exchange and was a youth mentor at YSEALI Generation: Oceans. Many other YSEALI participants share this sentiment of first identifying as an ASEAN citizen during a YSEALI project.

Jules Guiang (right) and Lismawati Lapasi (left) host the opening ceremony for YSEALI Generation: Oceans in Jakarta, Indonesia

“All nationalities in Southeast Asia…there are similarities and there are differences as well, but what’s important [is] you’re sharing almost the same culture [and] sharing the same issues,” said Jules Guiang from the Philippines, who is an alumnus of two YSEALI regional exchanges.

Jules is absolutely right.

Within Southeast Asia, there are characteristic differences among the countries, yet the region also shares similar issues–and a common obligation to collectively address those problems.

Southeast Asia’s Oceans: A Shared Crisis

Plastic pollution is a growing issue in ASEAN. Photo Credit: John Perivolari

ASEAN’s oceans are threatened by some challenging issues. It is possible there will be 155 million tons of plastic in the ocean by 2025 and five of the 10 ASEAN countries will be top contributors to pollution worldwide. Southeast Asia, which contains some of the most marine biodiversity in the world, has 95 percent of its coral reef at risk. Several sea turtle species endemic to the region are also in danger of becoming extinct.

These issues are some of the most serious problems affecting our ocean today, but YSEALI has provided a platform for young Southeast Asian leaders to create the solutions.

Participants attending the YSEALI Generation: Oceans regional exchange in Jakarta, Indonesia, organized into multi-national teams, refined their ideas into projects that aimed at making a difference in the region.

They are young Southeast Asian leaders who have a shared vision of empowering local communities to use seaweed as a natural biofilter, installing mooring buoys to prevent anchors from crushing coral reef, rebuilding mangroves to protect coastal areas from natural disasters or educating youth about coastal issues through local language infographics.

They are ASEAN citizens whose shared identity is rooted in their passion for the environment and shared vision for a more sustainable world.

.@YSEALIoceans’ shared ASEAN identity is a passion for the environment

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By looking beyond the borders of Southeast Asia–towards the vast, deep blue ocean–young leaders formed a regional identity when they were advocating around an issue that held importance in each of their own lives and their countries. Through YSEALI, more young leaders will likely do the same.

Here more about the ASEAN identity from the YSEALI Oceans participants themselves: