Digitalizing ASEAN (2): Three Key Pillars

In the second of two-series article, we introduce ASEAN Youth Initiative Empowerment Programme, a one-week program for ASEAN Youth organized by ASEAN Studies Center, Universitas Gadjah Mada. The theme of the program is “Digitalizing ASEAN”, which will be explained in this article and the following article.

We have acknowledged the importance of “digitalizing ASEAN” as an inseparable part of ongoing regional integration. What is to be done in the future? What would ASEAN youths do to socially integrate people across the region  through emerging digital platforms?

In this context, we develop three pillars of “digitalizing ASEAN” that encapsulates the need for digital integration in ASEAN, namely (1) digital diplomacy; (2) digital activism; and (3) digital citizenship.

Where do we start? Standard understanding on ASEAN and regional integration project usually depart from the relationships between “state” and “society”. Two positions are in contention. The first view perceives ASEAN as merely “state project”. Diplomatic practices makes ASEAN. Diplomats represent ASEAN. The future of ASEAN, from this viewpoint, is the future of statecraft and diplomacy.

We argue that understanding ASEAN merely from a “statist” lens is not sufficient. ASEAN is also built upon the “people” –businessmen, activists, academics, youths, religious leaders and many other elements in a complex society. This is the virtue of the second view, that perceives ASEAN as a relationship between state and non-state actors.

Thus, we need to go beyond “traditional” understanding of ASEAN as merely “state-led project” to ASEAN as a complexity. This is how “digitalizing ASEAN” should be perceived. “Digitalizing ASEAN” isn’t merely a state-led program; it should also be at the heart of people-to-people interaction in the future

This is where the role of young people is essential.

From this viewpoint, we could identify two key pillars of “digitalizing ASEAN” in the future: importance of digital diplomacy in ASEAN and the growing digital activism across the region. Both of them are intertwined. The complexity between the two pillars be framed under the idea of digital citizenship: a complex relationship between state, markets, and civil society in a newly established digital environment in Southeast Asia.  

First Pillar: Digital Diplomacy

The traditional conception of “diplomacy” often refers as the relationship among states conducted by a formal representative. However, in this globalized era, the important of citizens role in could not be neglected. For example, civil society organisations have used diplomatic apparatuses to advance their interest to embrace ‘alternative regionalism’. Various elements of peacemakers have been involved in the so-called “multi-track diplomacy”. Recently, multinational corporations have also considered as an actor of diplomacy through lobbying and trade.  

It is thus safe to say that emerging digital landscape creates opportunity for a new platform for diplomacy, too. Jan Melissen calls this  trend as ‘digital diplomacy’. Indonesian Foreign Minister, HE. Retno LP Marsudi, has also used similar term in one of her speech.

Digital diplomacy come as a solution to address the complexity of regional politics. In Digital Diplomacy, the growing use of ICTs and social media platforms by a diplomat is acknowledged as a part of diplomatic practices. As a consequence, a diplomat needs to engage with ‘digital native’. Diplomatic pratices have since transformed: from a formal roundtable meeting to livetweet; from an official press conference to a live Facebook video.  

The instrument might be changing, but the purpose is still the same: to achieve foreign policy goals. It benefits not only diplomats, but also ordinary citizen. This is obviously an opportunity to further bring ASEAN at the heart of its citizen.

Second Pillar: Digital Activism

As the diplomatic practices have been evolved, our understanding of state-society relations in ASEAN should be updated, too. ASEAN not only encompasses state-facilitated activities through ‘formal’ diplomatic practices, but also through social movement. We need to acknowledge  the rise of social movement and NGO activism in ASEAN, including youth.

ASEAN has also witnessed the rise of various youth movements that take part in advocating youth-related issues in ASEAN. The rise of these movements is also accompanied by the use of technological devices, such as mailing list and other forms of media and communication.

Rapid technological development brought by ICT industries in the region connect the people across the region. However, it is not necessarily new. In Indonesia, the Reformasi itself has been the very product of the use of internet in driving social change. The internet connects not only pro-reform activists in Indonesia but also with broader social movements abroad .

In emerging youth activism in ASEAN, the growing uses of ICT is inevitable. Telegram, Whatsapp, and Facebook has been the main medium of interaction among the young people. They publish the program through Instagram, Twitter, and connected Website. Some of them uses it for political purposes –a campaign to release Mary Jave Veloso, for example.  Some of them merely spread the opportunities for regional events. Some of them are embracing social entrepreneurship. And so on.

It is thus necessary to understand how social activism in ASEAN is forged through the medium of ICT. Let us see this happen in ASEAN.  

Third Pillar: Digital Citizenship

What connects the first and second pillar? We introduce the third pillar, digital citizenship. This might be a complex concept. Put it simply, we regard digital citizenship as a complex relationship between state and society in the region. It connects digital diplomacy and digital activism in everyday life.

The emergence of ICT industries has raised further questions over civic engagement and political life. So does in ASEAN. It brings us questions as to where the rapid digital advancement would be heading to. Would it tackle inequality among the people? Or would it instead raise racist sentiment in social media?

As the digital society is taking further steps forward, a good sense of digital citizenship is required. ASEAN should raise a sense of ‘collective identity’, which is lacking in the people across the region due to the lack of regional engagement in the past.

Taking together the idea of digital diplomacy and digital activism, the ICT development in the region should not be merely understood as a part of growing ‘regional market’. It should be seen as a tool for cultivating active citizens participation, too. Moreover, both digital diplomacy and digital activism should craft a more vibrant sense of belonging between ASEAN citizens.

Thus, we put the idea of digital citizenship as a part of our call for ‘social integration’ in ASEAN. It should be embraced by all ASEAN people in the future. Information and Communication Technology should not be put as an end in ASEAN integration. Instead, it should be utilised as a means to put forward deeper integration among ASEAN citizens and redefine our identity through engagement with technology.

The Rationale for AYIEP 2017

So here were are. We attempt to incorporate these key pillars by introducing the The 2nd ASEAN Youth Initiative Empowerment Programme (AYIEP) in 2017, which will be held between 23-29 July 2017 in Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta. All of the programs are organised along these key pillars. We hope it consistently brings the participant to take part in our call for “digitalizing ASEAN” throughout the programs.

The 1st AYIEP has been successfully put forward the agenda for bringing social awareness among ASEAN youths, with various visits to NGOs in Yogyakarta and Working Groups. Critical thinking is at the heart of our event.

The 2nd AYIEP embarks upon the success of the previous program to bring social awareness and embrace critical thinking through digital platform. We intend to address the need for regional integration by bringing about youths across the region. To do so, we adapt three sub-themes engage all of the elements of youhts from all ASEAN countries, as well as other regions that might be interested with ASEAN-related issue.

We have a simple mission here. We pledge to pave the way for “digitalizing ASEAN” through youth engagement. So that, ASEAN could be more “people-oriented” and “people-centred” in the future. Let us see this happen in the future!


Ahmad Rizky Mardhatillah Umar is the Executive Secretary of ASEAN Studies Center, Universitas Gadjah Mada