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On the road to policy development and practice ASEAN: Building a sense of community through the perf

“Arts belong to all of us; performing arts bring us together . . .” Dr Surin Pitsuwan, Secretary-General of ASEAN

This article was commissioned by the  Korean Arts Management Services and originally published in Korean  for – a database website for the global exchange of performing arts, a project supported by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of Republic of Korea.

The recent development in the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) becoming a legal body that represents a community of people coming together with One Vision, One Identity and One Caring and Sharing Community entails a strong commitment of mobilising its citizens as active participants in the movement.

ASEAN Performing Arts Series – Indonesia

Sense of community has been instilled at the core of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) since its establishment on 8 August 1967.  Its member countries Brunei Darussalam, Kingdom of Cambodia, Republic of Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, the Union of Myanmar, Republic of the Philippines, Republic of Singapore, Kingdom of Thailand and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam have been engaged in a dialogue process based on mutual respect and understanding, officially adjoined by the newly set-up framework through ASEAN Charter following its fortieth anniversary in December 2007.  As noted in the ASEAN Preamble, “Committed to intensify community building through enhanced regional cooperation and integration, in particular by establishing an ASEAN Community, comprising the ASEAN Security Community, the ASEAN Economic Community, and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community[i], the ten-member nation association is now faced with a challenge of setting-up a unified identity. The ASEAN Leaders adopted the Declaration of ASEAN Concord II (Bali Concord II) in Bali, Indonesia on 7 October 2003 to establish an ASEAN Community by 2020, through the three pillars, closely intertwined and mutually reinforcing for the purpose of ensuring durable peace, stability, and shared prosperity in the region.[ii]

Furthermore, the ASEAN Charter explicitly notes that it is gearing “to promote a people-oriented ASEAN in which all sectors of society are encouraged to participate in, and benefit from, the process of ASEAN integration and community building.” This implies that the ASEAN Secretariat, on the road to policy making, is to take actions in encouraging, not only the nation leaders of its ten-member countries but as well as a population of 567 million people to join and support the community-building endevour.  So how can this ASEAN community be achieved?  Is it through the crisscrossing of formalities or legislations?

ASEAN Performing Arts Series – Singapore

For an association that has functioned over time on an informal process often referred to as the “ASEAN way,” [iii]which is characterised by consensus-based decision-making, strict principles of non-intervention, and the sanctity of state sovereignty, moving towards the foundation of a one and yet highly diverse community is yet to establish concrete policies that will adhere to the fulfilment of its vision.

In a speech by Dr. Surin Pitsuwan,[iv] the ASEAN Secretary General he uttered that “to be able to raise awareness of ASEAN, we need to consolidate our efforts to make sure that a growing number of these 567 million people feel ASEAN and would like to contribute to ASEAN. In order to achieve this, we need a network across the sectors in every ASEAN Member State, which includes professional groups, civil society organisations, other stakeholders and well-wishers. But most of all, we count on the ASEAN citizens.”

ASEAN plays a pivotal role in encouraging involvement from the grassroots level beyond the confines of the boardroom composed of powerful decision makers. Its strength and lifeblood lies on the collective ideals and values eminent from the vast perspectives of its peoples geared towards a parallel direction. The presence of the ASEAN serves as the backbone in channelling the efforts of its leaders towards the people. The building of the ASEAN Community is a call for action:  a responsibility to be shared and developed with the people.

In the past four decades, numerous activities have been established by the ASEAN involving the different sectors both on governmental and civil society levels to fulfill its mission. Considering that the current vision is to reach a consciousness about ASEAN Community whilst instilling a sense of ASEAN identity, it is not the least surprising the that ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) pillar is extensively defined by goals directed towards people-oriented and socially responsible actions.

ASCC covers at least 12 sectors whereby culture represents a fraction of its diversified work.  As stated in the ASCC Blueprint, the building ASEAN Identity is the basis of Southeast Asia’s regional interests. It represents the collective personality; norms, values and beliefs as well as aspirations as one ASEAN community as it mainstream and promote greater awareness and common values in the spirit of unity in diversity at all levels of society. Essentially, the ASEAN is actively aiming to create a sense of belonging, consolidate unity in diversity and enhance deeper mutual understanding among ASEAN Member States about their culture, history, religion, and civilisation through the preservation and promotion of ASEAN cultural heritage as well as the promotion of cultural creativity and industry.

ASEAN: Building a sense of community through the performing arts

On the road to policy development and structural organisation of this international body, The Best of ASEAN Performing Arts series provides a concrete illustration of the ASEAN’s genuine move activate community building in the region. Initiated by Dr. Pitsuwan himself, he confidently said Arts belong to all of us; performing arts bring us together.”

ASEAN Performing Arts Series- Thailand

In an interview with Linda Lee, Head of Culture and Information Division of the ASEAN Secretariat,[v] she explains, “This is a series of cultural events held in Jakarta, Indonesia that showcases the richness and diversity of performing arts in the region.  The purpose of the series is to promote ASEAN awareness through the region’s rich and diverse cultures as well as to acknowledge the important role that Jakarta has played as the host city of the ASEAN Secretariat. When held on a regular basis, the “best of” will represent the message of ASEAN rather than individual Member States. The “best of” also will reflect ASEAN’s common shared values and history that will contribute towards building an ASEAN identity.”

She continues, “The series was proposed by ASEAN Secretary-General, Dr Surin Pitsuwan, at the 3rd Meeting of the ASEAN Ministers Responsible for Culture and Arts in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, on 12 January 2008.  The Ministers endorsed SG Surin’s idea to regularly showcase ASEAN’s best arts and cultural performances in Jakarta.”

Since May 2008, four performances have been staged co-organised by the ASEAN Secretariat and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Indonesia. The inaugural event entitled The Mosaic Archipelago,” highlighting Indonesia was held at the Gedung Kesenian in Jakarta, comprised nine traditional dances, wayang ajen and an interactive angklung session.  This was followed byThailand, with the theme Tapestry of Thai Beauty and Grace’.  Coinciding with ASEAN Day, for the ASEAN’s 41st birthday, it was hosted on 8 August 2008.  The performance featured Thai puppetry by the Traditional Thai Puppet Theatre (Joe Louis), the only troupe of Thai theatrical puppeteers in existence.  In addition, the troupe from the Bunditpatanasilpa Institute performed the Khon form of dance drama, “Ramakien”, which is the Thai version of the Indian epic “Ramayana”, as well as traditional dances from various Thai provinces.

Singapore performed ‘Singapore Showcase: Cultural Crossings’ on 30 April 2009.  The theme is a nod to Singapore’s melting pot of diverse peoples, set amidst the contemporary backdrop of an increasingly cosmopolitan city: an entrepot in both the commercial and cultural senses.  The Siong Leng Musical Association performed traditional and fusion pieces, with instruments ranging from the Chinese xiao to the Indian tabla.   Led by Singaporean violinist Foo Say Ming, the re:mix musicians presented works from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng’s Lover’s Tears.

On 14 December 2009, the Gedung Kesenian arts centre in Jakarta came alive with the sounds and strains of the rich culture of Myanmar. A cultural troupe from the Fine Arts Department of the Ministry of Culture of Myanmar performed “The Royal Beauty of Golden Myanmar”, which showcased 13 traditional and contemporary dances and musical performances of Myanmar. From the Dance of Zwagyi, a Myanmar folk character who is adept in the art of alchemy, to the Bagan Dance of the 11th-13th Century AD, the audience was treated to an evening of Myanmar music and dance.

On 11 March 2010, Malaysia will stage ‘1Malaysia: Harmony in Cultural Diversity”, which will portray the various peoples of Malaysia unified as one, signifying that embracing cultural diversity is the key to harmony in a multi-racial society.   The performance features artistes from Istana Budaya, Dua Space Dance Theatre and the Asthana Dancers, as well as up and coming solo artiste, Muhammad Ikhwal, and renowned singer, Noryn Aziz, both of whom were gold medalists at the 2008 World Championship of Performing Arts held in Los Angeles.   The performance will be held at the Usmar Ismail Hall, Jakarta.

According to Linda Lee, “There is no fixed time, nor venue for performances in this series.  However, we hope to achieve 3 performances each year.  With Malaysia, we would have reached the halfway mark.  You would also note from the performances that it can be contemporary or traditional or a mix of both.  Each country decides on what is to be featured.  The ASEAN Secretariat works with the country concerned to co-organise the event.  Once all ten countries have completed the performances, our intention is to extend it to the Plus 3 countries, that is, China, Japan and Republic of South Korea.  Perhaps even other Dialogue Partners of ASEAN after that.  “

Throughout history, the field of arts and culture has been a leading sector in emancipating peoples. Its core role in society is evidently noted over generations that have outlived times. Culture is an integral, ubiquitous and powerful ally in society building. People in the creative field have succeeded in maintaining eternal presence through the power of words, music, movement, monumental pillars and imagery. It has invoked universal thoughts and feelings across physical even metaphysical boundaries. Yet, there remains a tendency from the various professional practices, quite noticeably in governing bodies, to undermine its capacity and often address it as a mere ornamentation in the overall scheme of things.

ASEAN Performing Arts Series – Myanmar

It is a great relief to know that the current leaders of the ASEAN, recognises the value of culture and embarking on visible efforts to put culture in the centre amidst all the new developments concerning the political and legislative structure of the association.  “For ASEAN, the South East Asian cultures are a source of strength. They inspire creativity and help build a sense of community among the people of the region. Through this series, we demonstrate our respect for the diversity of cultures, tolerance, dialogue and cooperation,” reinstates ASEAN’s diplomatic leader.


[i] PREAMBLE, Charter of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Jakarta: ASEAN Secretariat, January 2008, Page 2.

[ii] Source: ASEAN Socio-Community Blueprint.

[iii] The ASEAN Way, ASEAN Anthem

Lyrics: Payom ValaiphatchraThailand: Music: Kittikhun SodprasertThailand

Raise our flag high, sky high. Embrace the pride in our heart

ASEAN we are bonded as one.  Look-in out-ward to the world.

For peace, our goal from the very start  and prosperity to last.

We dare to dream we care to share. Together for ASEAN

we dare to dream, we care to share for it’s the way of ASEAN.

[iv] Opening Speech by At the Opening Ceremony of the “ASEAN Awareness Survey” Discussion, The ASEAN Foundation, Jakarta, 15 January 2007..

[v] Email Interview with Linda Lee on 1 March 2010

Useful Links:

ASEAN Secretariat<


Philippines: ASEAN Cultural Capital

The ASEAN Way <

ASEAN Summit 2009

ASEAN Community

All photos courtesy of the ASEAN Secretariat.

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