Stories > Being ASEAN

2017 • Issue 3


ASEAN Foundation executive director Elaine Tan says ASEAN’s 50th anniversary marks a greater call for the foundation to focus on youth and people-centric initiatives that embody “Think, Feel, and #BeASEAN”.


The ASEAN Puppets Exchange Programme (APEX), held in Hanoi, Vietnam, from Dec 12 to 17, 2016, was a showcase of different ASEAN people coming together as one to perform an ancient craft.


oday, I see a greater call than ever for all of us who live in and are a part of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to focus our initiatives – both corporate and individual – on meaningful, shared experiences, by creating opportunities for people from all walks of life in this region to connect and bond. My own involvement so far, as executive director of the ASEAN Foundation, has been extremely gratifying.

Connection in ASEAN is usually between leaders and government officials, so I am glad to have been able to support connections between community artists. Puppetry is a rich oral tradition shared by most countries in ASEAN, and the ASEAN Puppets Exchange (APEX) has helped it become a powerful channel for people to discover unique aspects of each culture, as well as the distinctiveness of the body’s cultural heritage as a whole.

At a previous iteration of this event, in January 2016 in Brunei, I was fascinated to watch a puppet master from Myanmar passing down puppet manipulation techniques to his daughter, as part of the next generation, to keep the art form alive. It was a genuine and eye-opening demonstration of the event’s vision; One ASEAN Story, after all, was a performance that wove together collective stories from previous performances across ASEAN. And young people, as our future leaders and change-makers, are a main focus of the ASEAN Foundation’s initiatives.

Engaging with Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) on important issues facing ASEAN’s integration is, I feel, one of the most important ways in which the foundation works towards forging a shared ASEAN identity. In vew of this, we launched the S Rajaratnam Endowment-ASEAN Community Forum Series this year. I found personal satisfaction in being able to contribute to the creation of a platform for CSOs to engage with ASEAN Secretariat colleagues and government officials.

“It is my hope that in the next decade, the ASEAN identity will be less about institutional forms and more about belonging to this region.”

Elaine Tan, executive director of the ASEAN Foundation

I also felt that the animated discussions the Cambodian CSOs had with their Secretary of State from the Ministry of Rural Development in Singapore on March 9, revealed the rarity of interaction between these groups – not only in Cambodia but also in other ASEAN Member States. Forging closer connections outside one’s country is less fraught with tension, and can lead to stronger ties with one another when they return home. It also builds trust and confidence, and epitomises how ASEAN works.

Another project I have been involved in and which I feel particularly strongly about is the ASEAN Foundation Model ASEAN Meetings, which enable ASEAN youth to gain first-hand experience in learning how mutual understanding serves as a foundation for consensus-based decision-making in ASEAN.

Watching the students, dressed in traditional costumes, dancing to current pop songs after role-playing Senior Officials during the Model ASEAN Meeting, I was struck by the diversity reflected there. They were proud of their heritage and simultaneously connected by a shared appreciation of contemporary music. To me, this is ASEAN – straddling our different identities (our own nationalities, ASEAN “citizenship”, different ethnicities) and embracing the new. The fostering of friendship through this initiative is rewarding, too – I see them staying connected over Facebook.

It is my hope that in the next decade, the ASEAN identity will be less about institutional forms and more about belonging to this region, and that through the foundation’s various initiatives, friendships can develop that embrace our diversity, while recognising the similarities we share in our ASEAN cultures and heritage. In this way, the ASEAN community can move towards truly embodying what it is to “Think, Feel, and #BeASEAN”.

ASEAN has always been about people. It was founded in 1967 to broker peace, security and economic integration in the ASEAN region. In 1997, to deepen bonds for a cohesive ASEAN community, its leaders established the ASEAN Foundation to foster interaction among the different cultures and people of ASEAN, and so nurture and strengthen the ASEAN identity and sense of community.

For ASEANʼs 50th anniversary in 2017, we planned various initiatives under the themes of Arts & Culture, Education, Community Building, and Media. One example was APEXʼs One ASEAN Story, which saw collaborative participation by over 160 puppet artists and practitioners from ASEAN and ASEAN Dialogue Partners Australia, Japan and the United States.

Private sector partnerships are crucial to our efforts: they highlight how young people can benefit from ASEANʼs integration if equipped with commercial skills and support. This year, we partnered German software solutions company SAP and United Nations Volunteers. The Youth Volunteering Innovation Challenge, themed Impact ASEAN, supported youth-led innovation by equipping ASEAN youth with the entrepreneurship skills needed to thrive in the digital economy, with mentoring from SAP employees. The ASEAN Data Science Explorers, a data analytics competition, saw tertiary students from all 10 member states delivering data-driven insights for ASEAN across six United Nations Sustainable Development goals. And the Social Sabbatical programme saw SAP employees offering mentoring and pro-bono consulting to over 20 ASEAN organisations, driving social progress by harnessing entrepreneurship, capital and innovation.

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