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ASEAN’s Conception of Regional Citizenship

21 Jul 2021
By Luis Cabrera and Professor Caitlin Byrne FAIIA
Students dress up with National ASEAN costume and shaking hands together for ASEAN Day in Chonburi high school on August 8,2017. Source: BeanRibbon/Shutterstock

Investigations of citizenship beyond the state have increasingly moved beyond the European Union.  In the ASEAN context, a duties-centric conception of citizenship is backed by the organisation and affiliated bodies that are focused on top-down communication to and “development” of ASEAN citizens.

ASEAN has for some time been explicit that the development of a common regional identity among citizens of its 10 member states is essential to advancing the regional integration project. Its Charter declares that “ASEAN shall promote its common ASEAN identity and a sense of belonging among its peoples in order to achieve its shared destiny, goals, and values.” It has conducted cohesion and educational efforts under the theme “We Are ASEAN,” and it declared 2020 to be the “Year of ASEAN Identity,” with numerous related initiatives and events.

Increasingly, however, ASEAN and its affiliates have framed the identity building project explicitly as one aimed at creating ASEAN regional citizens. For example, a 2019 report from a “Poll on ASEAN Awareness” commissioned by the ASEAN Secretariat used the phrase “ASEAN Citizens” more than two dozen times, including extensively in survey questions themselves. For example, Q23 asks, “How can ASEAN improve the way it communicates with ASEAN citizens?” In that vein, ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi notes that the organisation launched The ASEAN magazine in 2020 to “share and communicate ASEAN’s work to its citizens.” The organisation’s ASEAN Champions podcast, focusing on high achievers throughout the region, is billed as being “In Conversations with ASEAN Citizens,” and ASEAN’s official social media accounts offer information and at times directive advice to “ASEAN citizens.”

A fully comprehensive assessment of the nature of ASEAN’s conception of regional citizenship would entail much more extensive content analysis of communications to and about ASEAN citizens, and extensive interviews within the organisation and affiliates. It is possible, however, to develop an outline, drawn from organisational statements and actions, of a conception of ASEAN citizenship. It is a conception whose substance of citizenship, or overarching aims which practices of citizenship are to realise, would be in part the top-down “development” of individual citizen capacities. It also foregrounds duties by citizens to support both the aims and institutional mode of ASEAN regional governance. The latter is represented in ASEAN Way norms of non-interference with member-state sovereignty, and elite-driven, ostensibly consensus-based regional decision making.

Implied duties of good citizenship to support the aims and mode of ASEAN governance feature, for example, in publicity for the annual ASEAN Prize. Established in 2018, worth US $20,000 and awarded at the ASEAN Summit, the prize recognizes:

inspiring achievements of ASEAN citizens … anchored upon the commitment of ASEAN Secretariat and ASEAN Member States who share mutual aspiration to acknowledge ASEAN citizens’ and institutions’ exemplary contribution in fostering ASEAN identity, promoting ASEAN spirit and upholding the ASEAN Way.

The ASEAN Way is framed as even more central to the identity and the duties  and norms relating to the substance of citizenship by Jonathan Tan, head of the organisation’s Culture and Information Division. Writing in the inaugural issue of The ASEAN, Tan notes that “For ASEAN identity to flourish, citizens must stay invested in appreciating and understanding ASEAN and its developments,” and that

… the development of ASEAN Identity would emanate from shared common values and principles guiding ASEAN, namely, respect, peace and security, prosperity, non-interference, abiding by rules of trade and international laws, consultation/dialogue, unity in diversity, inclusiveness, and ASEAN Centrality in the conduct of external relations—which are invariably known as the ASEAN Way.

In the same issue, Secretary-General Hoi also invokes the ASEAN Way norms, while outlining an approach to citizen engagement that is focused on how to communicate to ordinary ASEAN citizens the value of the work being done by regional elites:

As we look into global best practices, we seek to adapt and adopt methods using the ASEAN Way, with emphasis on our shared values and common goals. We have identified the need to convey these narratives in more engaging and accessible ways. Tangible results and outcomes of our meetings, programmes, and initiatives have to be explained to our stakeholders in words that people speak, understand, and feel, beyond the language of diplomats and academics. This magazine aims to bridge this gap and to contribute towards nurturing a sense of belonging and unity among ASEAN citizens.

A similar emphasis on communication from the organisation outward, but also on developing individuals’ capacities in furtherance of organisational aims, is explicit in the mission statement of the ASEAN Foundation. It was created and funded by the organisation in 1997 “to support ASEAN mainly in promoting awareness, identity, interaction and development of the people of ASEAN. We unite people. And we help to develop them. We are a strategic instrument to achieve ASEAN’s goal.”

What begins to emerge is a distinctively top-down approach to regional citizenship. It is one giving primary emphasis to the duties of citizenship. Those duties are informed by an overarching substance of citizenship that is focused on the development of individual citizens in furtherance of regional governance aims, which are to be pursued in a mostly elite-driven mode of governance expressed as the ASEAN Way. While ASEAN officials such as Jonathan Tan note the role of regional academics, creatives, and others in contributing to the development of regional identity, there is no clear emphasis on advancing regional citizen rights to formal input or representative co-governance.

As summed up by one staff member for an ASEAN-region civil society organisation: “If you want an honest answer, a good ASEAN citizen is someone who does not speak up, who is passive and just basically says yes to everything the government tells you to do.”

Luis Cabrera is Associate Professor of Political Science in the Griffith Asia Institute and School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University. He has published widely on the theory and practice of regional and global citizenship, as well as migration and regional and global governance and accountability. His most recent monograph is The Humble Cosmopolitan: Rights, Diversity, and Trans-State Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

Professor Caitlin Byrne is Director of the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University and a Faculty Fellow of the University of Southern California’s Centre for Public Diplomacy (CPD). She has published widely on Australian diplomacy, with a special interest in Australia’s engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. Her recent research projects explore the role of leadership, soft power and public diplomacy-including people-to-people connections developed through international education, culture and sport-in developing Australia’s regional influence, relationships and reputation.

This is an edited extract from Cabrera and Byrne’s article in the Australian Journal of International Affairs titled “Comparing organisational and alternative regional citizenships: the case of ‘Entrepreneurial regional citizenship’ in ASEAN.” It is republished with permission.