Asean looks beyond the economy

Bangkok Post, 13 May 2013

Asean looks beyond the economy

Drive toward regional integration must not overlook the implications for culture and education.

As the realisation of the Asean community draws closer in 2015, member states are putting the finishing touches on years of preparations for integration within a new regional context. Their focus has been mainly on building stronger economic relations through closer transport, trade and investment ties, with an eye to gaining from the free flow of goods and labour.

But amid all the AEC hype, little attention has been paid to how educational and cultural institutions are responding to regional integration. According to Romano Prodi, a former president of the European Commission and former prime minister of Italy, social cohesion and human capital development are essential for regional cooperation to succeed.

“Getting a country ready for regional integration is an ongoing process that has to be done step by step. We need to begin with changing the common perspective and interest of the people,” Mr Prodi told Asia Focus during a recent visit to Bangkok.

“It could start from trade and investment but it is also important to remember that getting the new generation geared up will create an enormous impact in the long run for the region as a whole.”

Mr Prodi was a keynote speaker at the fourth Asean event series “Bridges: Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace’’, sponsored by the Vienna-based International Peace Foundation and hosted in Thailand by Stamford International University.

Discussing his experience during the formation of European Union, he said “the less we talk about the past and the more we talk about the future” are the keys to strengthening the foundation of the region.

As a veteran European politician, Mr Prodi conceded that the European model of economic integration might not be one that others would want to replicate, given the euro zone’s current troubles. However, he noted that Asean and Asia could also learn from the many things that the EU has done right in other areas.

Discussing the importance of the social and cultural dimension, he said that ethnocentrism, or the belief that one’s own culture, ethnic group or society is inherently better than others, is the greatest threat to the success of regional integration.

“To think that your nationality is superior to your neighbour’s is a very dangerous perception. Economic superiority is understandable because the developments of countries in the region are at various stages, but people need to realise the equality of being a regional citizen.”

Educational institutions must play a greater role in enhancing students’ English-language skills together with other skills that will be in demand once Asean integration becomes a reality, said Gilles Mahe, the CEO of Laureate Thailand, the local unit of a global operator of international schools including Stamford International University.

English is the official language of Asean, he added, so without improved language skills, students will not be able to communicate with people from the neighbouring countries.

He noted that in one study by an international language-training organisation, Thailand ranked 42nd out of 44 countries in terms of English proficiency among those applying to take its courses. “The country’s English language ability is significantly lower than in Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia. However, migration in the region will double in the next decade and this could become a problem if the country is not prepared to fix this situation,” warned Mr Mahe.

Apart from English proficiency, successful Asean integration will also require education systems that give people the requisite skills for the changing labour market. For example, courses in international trade, logistics, international accounting and finance would be constructive.

Moreover, instead of teaching only the history of their students’ home country, teachers must raise awareness about the way the region has evolved and the common cultural heritage that countries have shared.

Policymakers too must change their mindsets and start doing more to encourage the younger generation’s participation in activities related to Asean integration. Young people should be taught to understand the roles they need to play in the coming years.

Improving cultural ties and educational systems will not happen overnight. It is a continuing process that will more forward only through collective appreciation of its significance.

In the long run, each Asean member state needs to do more to try to understand and know its neighbours better. More investment in citizenship education, and not just for young people, could focus on teaching and learning in a multicultural society.