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Creating a Vibrant ASEAN Youth Community

29 Nov 2017

Developing our youth to build a future integrated ASEAN

As the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) celebrates 50 years of cooperation, the fraternity continues to grow in economic strength and numbers. Formed as a regional economic organisation, ASEAN has seen Vietnam, Myanmar, Brunei, Cambodia and Laos join founding members Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines. The goal of an integrated ASEAN is to facilitate trade by allowing freer internal movement of goods, services and capital. Externally, pooling the resources of the trade bloc’s 600 million population would provide more clout for trade negotiations on behalf of all member states.

At the ASEAN 50 summit organised by the Singapore Management University's (SMU) Institute for Societal Leadership, regional leaders attributed ASEAN’s success to a policy of consensus-building within the community. Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan acknowledged that the unanimous decision-making process was akin to giving a virtual veto to every member state: “It is a design feature. It is not a bug. It is necessary if you are going to try and put together ten sovereign states with such wide differences to work together effectively."[1] Former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono reiterated that collaboration was the hallmark of ASEAN relations: "Indonesia may be the largest country with the biggest economy and population, but at the ASEAN table we are all equal. We cannot impose views on others."[2]

Collaboration has helped the region make remarkable forward strides. Since the formation of ASEAN, members have promoted peaceful economic growth by avoiding military conflicts and significantly reduced poverty in the region. However, consensus-building is a double-edged sword and progress towards regional economic integration has been slow. Plans to launch the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) – the establishment of a single ASEAN market – were hindered by the slow growth of intra-regional trade. While the AEC could potentially give member states an equal footing with the likes of larger countries such as China, India or the U.S., ASEAN has to deal with various cross-cutting societal, cultural and national issues internally.

Community Building

The first step towards unity is to raise awareness of other cultures and better understand the problems faced by other countries. The conference discussed ways to improve relationships between the ASEAN member states. Community-building efforts should start at the youth level. ASEAN needs to develop the next generation of leaders in order to progress.

David Chua, CEO of the National Youth Council in Singapore, believes that youth have an advantage. “Young people can work with a clean slate,” he states. “They do not have the same prejudices and misperceptions that older people do.” Youths in their respective countries can start by learning about their neighbours before contributing to the wider community. Cindy Chng, Temasek Polytechnic Lecturer, urges youths to take advantage of the geographical proximity of ASEAN members: “Youths of today are able to build a common identity by travelling within ASEAN and having cultural exchanges.”

The youth have to develop a shared sense of purpose in order to view the world from a broader perspective. By communicating with one another, youths can discuss challenges and collaborate to resolve regional issues such as poverty, social equality and environmental protection. Frequent interactions will also allow youths to discover common passions and help build a warm and open ASEAN community.

They can also shape perceptions by celebrating, instead of suppressing, the region’s diverse religions, languages and ethnicities. Chua advises the youth to build cross-national teams: “Co-delivering and co-creating initiatives will leave a long-term impact. It will create shared experiences that bring people closer. Collaboration has to be a lived reality for our youths.”

Institutions also have a role to play by providing opportunities to build relationships. Leona Tan, Head of DBS Foundation, said companies can influence the larger communities in which they operate. “Human connections are what are going to bind us as a society,” she explains. “Employees at firms with a regional footprint will interact with colleagues from different locations. These employees can start cooperating by understanding how to do business in different countries. Change starts in small ways.”

Engagement and Participation

Carmen Yong, Planning Executive at Setia Malaysia, worked in a student volunteer foundation that sends out Malaysian students to run community projects in ASEAN. While there will be obstacles along the way, she urges youths not to allow their exuberance to be curbed. “Don’t let people say you’re too young,” she says, “Grassroots efforts could make all the difference. It is about making a connection with another group of people living in a different country. Life is about opportunities given, opportunities taken and opportunities passing by. So let’s make a difference.”

Zhang Tingjun, cofounder of the Chain Reaction Project at Mercy Relief, an NGO that responds to natural disasters, contends that people can contribute in any capacity. “Partnerships start in our home countries,” Zhang asserts. “We work with schools. We work with the public. We have lawyers who look at our MOUs and contracts and they do it pro bono. There are many ways to be a professional and make a difference in ASEAN.”

In order for ASEAN to be an inclusive community, youths have to drive change. Carmen Low, cofounder of rooftop restaurant Lepark and Arts curation company Getai, feels that providing dedicated working areas can kick-start the youth movement: “It is important to create community safe spaces for young people to work together. This generation has the best conditions to effect change. We have access to technology and education. Discussions can be started on social media to enable change on various issues.”

Building informal networks at the ground level is important in fostering the entrepreneurial spirit. Personal connections are built on common areas of interest such as sports. Zhang shares that those personal connections are the most important: “When Mercy Relief responds, we call on friends. We don’t always call on the military or the government.”

Chua also suggests that youths could learn from each other to effect change. He urges: “Draw inspiration from one another and tap on collective energies. There is a healthy discontent about the status quo and how current institutions are doing things in the region.” The youth of today can make themselves heard and shape the policies of tomorrow. If ASEAN’s youth develop a strong sense of ownership in the collective success of the region, then the next 50 years will bring even more progress.



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[1] Charissa Yong, “Consensus works best for Asean, say diplomats”, The Straits Times, October 7, 2017,, accessed October 2017.

[2] Ibid.


Last updated on 30 Nov 2017 .


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