ASEAN Cultural Exchange in the Era of Interconnectedness – Examining the 3 Campus Model

By Truston Yu (Photo: Culture 360 Asia-Europe Foundation)

In my very first lecture on Southeast Asian politics, I learned about the creation of an institutionalized Southeast Asian Studies discipline in the United States. It nurtured a new generation of Southeast Asians who saw themselves not only in national terms but also as a member of the greater Southeast Asian region. It is this class of intellectuals whom, upon returning to their countries of origin after the 1950s, created a personal network that lasted decades. Could the youth today emulate the early classes of Southeast Asianists? In this article I recount my personal experiences with 3 Campus East Asia Programme, examining the prospects of emulating such a model in a Southeast Asian setting.

Socio-cultural integration is one of the ASEAN Community’s three pillars. Unfortunately, the phenomenon is that many Southeast Asians would know more about faraway countries like the United States or Japan more than their closest neighbors within the region. 2020 is the Year of the ASEAN Identity and if this is the goal, it is imperative that we instill greater regional awareness among the students today. While being a global citizen could do no harm, we must also recognize ourselves as regional citizens.

In my junior year, I had the honor of representing my home university in the 3 Campus East Asia Programme. Over the course of a year, students spend a fall semester in Tokyo, spring semester in Korea, and a summer semester in Hong Kong. The final section of the program includes a 2-week course and culminates in a social innovation internship. My primary motivation was that Japan and Korea are important players in the Southeast Asian region, and I did utilize the opportunity to speak with local scholars specializing in Southeast Asia. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience, but I wished that there was a Southeast Asian equivalent of such a program.

There are two unique features to 3 Campus: it is cohort-based and multi-destination. Unlike typical exchange programs where one would travel to their host institution alone, the diverse 3 Campus cohort is a group of ready-made friends. There are numerous dual or double degree programs around the world, but 3 Campus is unique in the sense that the cohort does not start with a blank page – they bring with them diverse perspectives from their home institutions.

The multi-destination nature of 3 Campus magnifies the benefits of the cohort-based program. Members of the consortium mirror each other in many ways: they are the oldest modern higher education institutions of their countries, enjoying great prestige and playing similar roles in their societies. Exploring the parallels and differences between destinations is part of the learning experience. Switching between three environments in one year is no easy feat, but having friends by one’s side surely helps. The shared experiences going through these challenges made the cohort bonding even tighter. Being in three destinations within the span of a year, students could triangulate and develop intercultural sensitivity, which allows them to understand and adapt to new cultures easily.

In terms of curriculum, 3 Campus incorporates a series of courses designed to provide students with deeper insights of the region beyond everyday life; The internship is a precious opportunity to experience work in an East Asian setting, setting students up for an international career. There is a profound social impact out of this program: Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans students are put together in one classroom to discuss each other’s culture and history, sometimes involving topics difficult and even painful. This paves the way towards mutual understanding and may nurture the next generation of leaders that are able to bring the region together. From Sabah to Preah Vihear, Konfrontasi to the Khmer Rouge, Southeast Asian neighbors have also been marred by historical rivalry and conflicts. a similar model in Southeast Asia could serve a greater purpose of reconciliation between rival nations.

If there is enough will from the various institutions in the region, the 3 Campus model could easily be replicated in Southeast Asia. A Bahasa-themed program could be created between Universitas Indonesia, Universiti Brunei Darussalam, and Universiti Malaya – they are the oldest universities of the Bahasa-speaking world, based in the respective capital cities: Greater Jakarta, Bandar Seri Begawan, and Kuala Lumpur. The quarrels for cultural relics like batik and rendang proves just how these neighboring countries (and Singapore) share much more than we would like to admit. Having lived in Java, Borneo, and Malaya, students would have a more nuanced understanding of the common regional heritage that connects the modern countries. A similar triangle could be drawn along the Mekong between Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, which make up the former French Indochina.

For an ASEAN studies perspective, we could form another trio between the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, the ASEAN Studies Centers at Universitas Gadjah Mada, and Chulalongkorn University. Students would get a glimpse of all three ASEAN founding members, which are very different from one another: A highly modernized city-state with a president; a diverse republic boasting hundreds of ethnic groups and a sultanate; and a kingdom where the monarch still plays a highly influential role.

These are, of course, just a few examples, so to speak. With ten ASEAN member states and Timor-Leste in waiting, there are many more potential combinations. The incorporation of students from outside the region may also be a good opportunity to showcase Southeast Asia’s diversity. At any rate, these graduates would become a new class of Southeast Asianists that would contribute towards an interconnected region.

We are now in the age of experiential learning and greater interconnection between countries. The 3 Campus model has been extraordinarily successful in an East Asian context; As we strive to advance the narrative of an ASEAN identity, educational initiatives like the 3 Campus model would be a worthwhile investment to consider.


Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. They were nominated to participate in the highly selective 3 Campus East Asia Programme, spending half a year in Japan, and Korea respectively. They could be reached at their e-mail:

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