Ten countries — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia — came together to form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to make things better and safer for the people of the region.
But it has not always been a dash to the desired destination. We understand this.
After all, countries are post-Westphalian creatures. Sovereignty reigns. Borders stop. But neither should bring good things to a halt. Asean isn’t without an example.
If the 28-member European Union can be nimble and quick, so can Asean. If it wills itself, that is. All it needs is to find a common ground: consensus ad idem.
Let’s begin with football. If Fifa president Gianni Infantino is right, Asean may have found the one item that unites everyone: football. After decades of discussions, the regional body has found a common voice: Asean wants to host the World Cup in 2034. In the meanwhile, it is building capacity and education, with a little help from Fifa.
But 2034 is 15 years away. Until then, why not work on the European idea of a ‘‘Schengen Area’’, where people travel from country to country for work or tourism without checks or control.
Granted, not all of the 28 countries of the EU are members of the Schengen Area. But 22 have seen fit to be part of it. Asean can do the same.
Instead of all 10 members being party to such a free-movement area, a couple of Asean members could start the ball rolling. An earlier NST Leader did suggest that Malaysia and Singapore begin the Schengen Area experiment. Our rationale then was the daily heavy flow of men and machines across the causeway.
It remains our argument still. Other Asean members sharing borders can do the same.
Asean needs to do some rail work, too. The Asean summit has come full circle: from the 5th Bangkok summit of 1995 to the 2019 Bangkok summit. Yet, the Pan-Asean Rail Link from Johor Baru/Iskandar Puteri to Kunming, China, proposed in 1995 remains off the track still. Just imagine the good this rail link would do to trade, tourism and travel.
The Pan-Asean Rail Link is not just about connecting Asean, but bridging the larger Asia. Perhaps even Europe.
Connecting dots on the map is a must. So is connecting people. When minds meet on a common ground, it is that much easier to speak with one voice. It is for this reason the New Straits Times has begun to give Asean a space online. We style it NST Region. Asean is diverse.
There is a wealth of things and people to explore. Its 650 million population includes 240 million Muslims, 150 million Buddhists, 125 million Christians and seven million Hindus. Millions more follow one folk religion or the other.
Added to this is political and cultural diversity. This dissimilitude notwithstanding, we must strive to find a common voice.
Understanding our neighbours is a first step. Asean will have to empathise with each other more. Only in this way can we fully grasp local contexts and realities.
A forum on Indonesia or Thailand may be a good start. This is no meddling. It is learning. To know is to move from maps to minds.