Written by Salimah Idzaturrohim (picture: US Department of State)


ASEAN was established on 8 August 1967 in Bangkok, Thailand, which was initiated by 5 countries, which were Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Today ASEAN has 10 member countries, with Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Cambodia (ASEAN, 2018). The unification of the ten countries undeniably shows that ASEAN is composed of various ethnicities, cultures, languages and religions united under the ASEAN name. This shows how ASEAN is really an organization which unifies diversity. More than just a block or geographical area that forms a group of countries, ASEAN is a network, life-world, trading systems and pathways for human contact (Noor, 2017).

In diversity, ASEAN seeks to form a common identity. Diversity is often regarded as one of the obstacles in forming a common identity. Unlike the European Union, ASEAN has high diversity. Uniting requires good integration with each other. According to ASEAN’s General Secretary, Le Luong Minh, ASEAN’s successes to carry out integration which suits the member state’s diverse culture, region, and political systems have created strength for the ten countries (VOV, 2015). This shows how ASEAN has become innovative and resilient. It can form a unique integration which unites all ASEAN country and changes the notion that diversity serves as a “disadvantage.” Therefore, today ASEAN has been able to see diversity as the energy that has strengthen itself. The “Unity in Diversity” has become a milestone for ASEAN in forming a common identity which is still in its efforts to be achieved.

The Socio-Cultural Pillar is one of the three pillars of the ASEAN Community which has a very important role in building an ASEAN identity. The main component of the Socio-Cultural pillar is the active role and contribution which ASEAN member states have made to add value to the identity of ASEAN. The youth are members of ASEAN citizens with great potential and today they have shown interest in the socio-cultural sector of ASEAN. Therefore, ASEAN youth have been considered to take an important role in building an ASEAN identity.

Socio-Cultural Cooperation as ASEAN’s Focus to Build ASEAN Identity

ASEAN has a vision as a concert of Southeast Asian nations, which are able to look outwardly, live in peace, stability and prosperity, and bond together in partnership, dynamic development and in a community of caring societies (ASEAN, 2018). One of the ways this vision was realized was in October 2003 at the 9th ASEAN Summit in Bali (Indonesia) when ASEAN leaders decided to build the ASEAN Community in 2020. However, the ASEAN Community was realized 5 years earlier in 2015 to adjust with the rapid changes in international conditions. ASEAN leaders signed the Kuala Lumpur Declaration on the establishment of the ASEAN community in 2015 on 22 November 2015 at the ASEAN Summit in Malaysia. The ASEAN Community is composed of three community pillars, consisting of the ASEAN Political-Security Community (ASC), ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC). In general, the aim of the ASEAN Community is to make ASEAN “a harmonious group, the people of Southeast Asia, the stick in a social community of mutual reassurance.”

For ASEAN, getting to know one another’s culture is important because ASEAN is built on a collection of multicultural nations, multi-ethnicity, so socio-cultural cooperation is one of ASEAN’s concerns. In the field of socio-culture, ASCC focuses on humanity to build and improve living standards and improve the welfare of the people. In general, the aim is to strengthen the relationship between ASEAN countries in a community, develop evenly in all member countries, and build harmonization with “social care and share” (Trung Van, 2017). Quoted from ASEAN, “ASCC is committed to opening a world of opportunities to collectively deliver and fully realise human development, resiliency and sustainable development through Member States’ cooperation on a wide range of area, including: culture and information, education, youth and sports, health, social welfare and development, women and gender, rights of the women and children, labor, civil service, rural development and poverty eradication, environment, transboundary haze-pollution, disaster management and humanitarian assistance” (ASEAN, 2018). To realize its objectives, various programs were prepared by the ASCC as an effort to achieve the objectives in the development of the ASEAN community.

On 31 July 2017 at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM) Hall, Makati Philippines, ASEAN 2017 Dialogues was held to discuss “ASEAN Identity.” The forum was organized by the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), and supported by the Asia Society Philippines.

The forum was attended by over 100 guests who participated in the “people-centered” discussion of the socio-cultural pillar. The discussion on this socio-culture pillar focused on ASEAN identity and the role of ASEAN socio-culture in building that identity (Ver, 2017). It was discussed that the main component of the socio-culture pillar is the active role and contribution in which ASEAN member states have made to add value to the identity of ASEAN countries. The discussion brought up the planning of commemorative activities for the 50th year anniversary of the association, an exhibit in the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, and the Brunei Darussalam — Indonesia — Malaysia — Philippines East Asia Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA) Summit held in Saranggani and joining programs like the ASEAN Youth Camp as examples of how ASEAN member states can contribute to building the ASEAN identity (Ver, 2017). These activities are carried out to encourage engagement between the ASEAN community which allows the exchanging and sharing of culture, respecting of each country’s ‘unique culture and institutional identities,’ and enabling work towards a unified ASEAN identity (Ver, 2017). Respecting each ASEAN member’s culture is a simple way to build awareness that ASEAN is unity, and is inseparable from one another. If this attitude for culture between ASEAN countries can be formed, it will be easier to work together to develop together an ASEAN identity without prioritizing the ego or the interests of just one or several members.

To develop socio-culture cooperation, ASEAN has attempted to spearhead projects which encourage community involvement among ASEAN countries themselves. Cross-country activities such as sports competitions, art exhibitions, trade activities, and tourism have been widely carried out and are still growing. In sports competitions such as ASEAN Games, it is not only a matter of winning matches but also providing opportunities for participants to establish connections with people of different backgrounds and cultures. In other cross-country activities, there is always the opportunity to exchange cultures with each other (Kit and Spykerman, 2016). In the tourism sector, intra-ASEAN tourism, travel and migration continue to increase. We can now see the ASEAN backpacker phenomenon where more ASEAN citizens are visiting different ASEAN countries. This phenomenon arises from young ASEAN (Noor, 2017). Aside from traveling, backpacker activities carried out by the ASEAN youth also often bring humanitarian missions to the destination country. In Indonesia, in particular, there are numerous organizations that organizes volunteering or youth exchange with the backpacker method. This is certainly a place for the ASEAN youth to get to know different ASEAN cultures.

ASEAN Youth Today is the Future of ASEAN Tomorrow

“Today’s youth is tomorrow’s future.” The quote is familiar to us. It is undeniable that the youth create milestones in civilization. Not only are they citizens of the world but the youth have the obligation to bring positive change to their environment (Bobby, 2016). The United Nations defines the youth to be between the ages of 15 and 24 years (UNESCO, 2002). Youth is a transition from childhood to adulthood. There is a term, childhood means acceptance, and maturity means conservatism, and youth means rebellion (Heaven and Tubridy, 2008).  Rebellion referred to here can be viewed from a positive perspective where they can bring change to improve lives. The youth do not only accept what they get from the environment, but think about the environment and try to rebel in order to change, build and develop the environment. In addition, in contrast to conservative adults, the youth are expected to be innovative.

The youth of every country certainly have the desire to develop their countries. However, ASEAN youth have the desire to also develop ASEAN. The difference is, the ASEAN youth play a part on a broader scope, more than just regional areas, but a world community that connects people in it, namely ASEAN (Noor, 2017). In 2016, the total population of all ASEAN countries was recorded at 635.9 million, and the number continues to increase every year. More than 50% of the population is under 30 years old which means it is a productive age or it can be said that most of the ASEAN population forms the youth population (Statista, 2018).

ASEAN Youth Collaboration to Build ASEAN Identity

Seeing the phenomenon in the intra-ASEAN tourism, travel and migration sector, the ASEAN youth have shown interest in each other’s cultures. It has been discussed previously if the youth are important members of a nation and civilization, so are the ASEAN youth. Today’s ASEAN youth is the future of ASEAN tomorrow. They will be the face of ASEAN in the future. ASEAN tomorrow is what the ASEAN youth are doing today. Seeing the great enthusiasm of the ASEAN youth towards each other shows their potential to play a key role as agents to build an ASEAN identity.

Programs or activities which support intra-ASEAN cultural exchanges have been carried out, such as youth camps, cultural camps, and student exchanges. This grants the idea to form a collaboration of and between the youth from all ASEAN member states to introduce their culture to the world under the

ASEAN name. This is similar to youth exchange activities which are usually carried out by a country’s representative to present the name of their country before other countries proudly. But now the scope is greater, for the youth would unite as ASEAN. There would no longer be an intra-ASEAN but inter-ASEAN program. Through this program, it is with hope that the youth will feel proud as an ASEAN member when they conduct, for instance, cultural exchange or youth exchange to countries outside ASEAN. But, before they do cultural exchanges to other countries as a united ASEAN, of course they would need to prepare by studying each other’s cultures. To the world, ASEAN countries themselves are well-known as friendly countries, highly tolerant, have a warm sense of citizenship and togetherness as depicted through the ASEAN symbol.

This program can be developed by the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) which is an open community that expands collaboration to the outside world, and serves as a forum for ASEAN to contribute to building solidarity, lasting unity among the nations and peoples of ASEAN, and towards a common identity. Through ASCC, which is a place of integration in the socio-culture sector for ASEAN member countries, opportunities are provided for all member countries to participate and help one another. Every country can build identity awareness with the same portion, not only limited to the ASEAN 6 (ASEAN member countries that are more advanced). The ASEAN 6 can provide support to 4 other countries to build awareness together of an ASEAN identity in and out of ASEAN (Trung Van, 2017).


ASEAN today is still making effort to build a common identity. To build an ASEAN identity, the youth, members of ASEAN citizens, have great potential to play a role in spreading awareness of the ASEAN as ASEAN. Moreover, because ASEAN is formed by a variety of diversity, thus collaboration, unity and togetherness are the keys of ASEAN. ASEAN youth collaboration has great potential in building an ASEAN identity, develop awareness for the ASEAN community and bring its identity out of ASEAN and proudly before the rest of the world.



ASEAN. 2018. About ASEAN. ASEAN Secretariat

ASEAN. 2018. ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) Blueprint 2025. ASEAN Secretariat

Bobby, Disha. 2016. The youth of today is the future of tomorrow. Al Nisr Publishing LLC. accessed in October 2018.

Heaven, Cara and Tubridy, Matthew. 2008. Global Youth Culture and Youth Identity. Highly Affected, Rarely Considered, pp. 149-160.

Kit, Leong Wai dan Spykerman, Kimberly. 2016. Could ASEAN form a common identity?. Medacorp. singapore/could-asean-form-a-common-identity-8183680 accessed in October 2018.

Noor, Farish A. 2017. ASEAN Identity, now and into the future: the interaction across borders in Southeast Asia. Heinrich Boell Foundation. www.boell. de/en/2017/08/02/asean-identity-now-and-future-interaction-across-borders-southeast-asia accessed in October 2018.

Statista. 2018. Total population of the ASEAN countries from 2008 to 2018 (in milllion inhabitants). Statista. accessed in October 2018.

Trung Van, Hieu. 2017. The Challenges of ASEAN-50 About Unity in Diversity. SSRN Electronic Journal.

UNESCO. 2002. Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, Paris. UNESCO 1:7-59.

Ver,      Issabella.       2017.       On      the       way     to       an       ASEAN      Identity.      Asia       Society. accessed in October 2018.

VOV   (Voice of Vietnam). 2015. “Unity in diversity creates ASEAN identity. accessed in November 2018.

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