This month, Asean celebrates its 49th anniversary. What does it mean for us?

In school we are taught about Asean and told that we are “Asean people”, without ever understanding what that means or using the term outside of our classrooms.

We use many other personal factors as a source of our identity – country, religion, ethnicity – but never our membership of Asean. I can say that I am Javanese, Muslim, Indonesian, but it’s impossible for me to say that I am an Asean person – even if I am clearly a South-East Asian person.

Asean nations range from Singapore, a dynamic city state with the GDP per capita of a developed nation, and small communist dictatorships such as Cambodia and Laos, to democracies like Indonesia and the Philippines. Culturally, they range from Muslim-majority states such as Indonesia, the nation with the world’s largest Muslim population, and Malaysia to Buddhist secular states such as Thailand.

We have different languages, different religions, different cultures, different governmental and social systems, and different levels of economic development.

There is no single reason for us, the people of South-East Asia, to stick together as one community. Our only common denominator is our shared experience of colonialism – and even then, Thailand does not share this experience. It is only through geographic proximity that a concept of community seems plausible.

While Asean was formed for security and political reasons – to avoid conflict or war among countries in the region while defending the Western Bloc’s interests and containing the spread of communism at the height of the Cold War – now we are one community, first of all, for economic purposes.

But even so, we can’t call ourselves an economic community just yet. Intra-Asean trade makes up only 30% of the bloc’s total trade, while intra-Asian trade is much bigger, standing at 53%. Thus, it is no surprise that some Asean states – Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam – have joined the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership, a move that could further divide Asean, especially politically.

In its nearly 50 years of existence, Asean’s biggest achievement is avoiding war. But while it was formed for political and security reasons, it is in these aspects that Asean nations are the most divided, and it seems almost impossible to remedy this situation.

The Philippines, Singapore and Thailand are traditionally US allies. Meanwhile, Indonesia and Malaysia generally just try to be pragmatic. Cambodia and Laos are beholden to China and will not approve of any action on an issue important to Beijing. With this division and the “Asean Way” of consensus decision-making and noninterference, it’s impossible to make a united move on issues such as the South China Sea disputes, for instance.

Indonesian author and cofounder of the Asean Literary Festival Okky Madasari.

Indonesian author and cofounder of the Asean Literary Festival Okky Madasari.

With Asean economic integration and political commonalities increasingly becoming more difficult, the only way for nations in this part of the world to create a genuine community is to focus on the stepdaughter of the so-called “Three Pillars”, namely the sociocultural sector (the other two pillars are political-security community and the economic community).

While we can always say that the Asean community is a work in progress, it will not progress until we seriously embark on exchanging values, lifestyles and customs of people in Asean so that we all come to know and understand each other. This sense of belonging will only come from a bottom-up approach.

How can we become a community if we don’t know each other? How can we be a member of a community to which we don’t feel a sense of belonging? We are close yet so far. We know much about people in Britain, in the United States, but we know nothing about people in other Asean countries.

We know much about England and the English because of their football and music. We feel close to the United States because of Hollywood. And today we even consider South Korea our close neighbour more than our actual neighbours in Asean thanks to the K-pop invasion.

It is only culture that can nurture and build a sense of being part of something bigger, and ultimately a sense of belonging and an Asean identity. And for me, as a writer, I believe that literature and books in general are cultural products that can have a significant influence on people.

History shows us how books can create revolution, war, conflict, peace, consciousness, nationalistic awareness, and encourage people to fight for freedom and equality. From George Orwell we understand the cruelty of authoritarianism, from Charles Dickens we learn about life under industrialism, and even from Harry Potter millions of kids in the world believe that anything can happen if we are brave enough.

From Benedict Anderson’s books (the best known of which is 1983’s Imagined Communities: Reflections On The Origin And Spread Of Nationalism) we learn about nationalism in South-East Asia and at the same time, from Edward Said’s works (1978’s Orientalism being the most famous) we learn how important it is to always explore different perspectives; to be critical of everything, including knowledge and opinions that are brought by people from the West about people in Asia. And, of course, from the Indonesian literary giant Pramoedya Ananta Toer, we learn a lot about the nationalist struggle of South-East Asia nations in the early 20th century.

Yet while I believe in the power of books and literary works to shape a new awareness and perspectives among people in South-East Asia, I cannot bring to mind the names of any writers and scholars from Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, even more Laos or Cambodia.

We really need to begin making efforts to ensure that books and literary works from Asean writers are read by people in Asean. We have to believe that only by cultural exchange, especially through books, can we understand each other and become a real community. The Asean Literary Festival is a small effort to build this understanding. – Jakarta Post/Asia News Network/Okky Madasari

Okky Madasari is an Indonesian author and cofounder (with Indonesian journalist Abdul Khalik) of the Asean Literary Festival. This article is an excerpt from her speech at the Warwick Asean Conference in Britain in February; it has been ­edited for this publication.