LUGAR LANG| ASEAN 50 and writers

THIS week, the Philippines is hosting the ASEAN Summit, an event that is not as historic as it is being drummed up to be. It’s the third time we are hosting it since its founding. And the Philippines being its Chair is not historic either, as it is only a matter of rotation by alphabetical order of country names. This is actually our fourth time to be Chair. Perhaps it is notable because it’s the fiftieth year of ASEAN, and any golden jubilee is worth celebrating for its sake. But that fact alone does not make it historic.

 Give us a clear agreement on the South China Sea dispute and that will definitely make this Summit historic. But that doesn’t seem forthcoming, judging from opening speeches conveniently skipping the substantial issue. It’s a symptom of what is clearly not being addressed about ASEAN50 because people are fixating about superficial matters like fashion, menus, and whether Honeylet Avancena should be called First Lady. But really, has fifty years of ASEAN really been productive for its member countries? And where do we go from here?

 At the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival held in October in Bali, I was part of a panel that boldly discussed “whether half a century of the alliance has given rise to an ASEAN identity,” particularly in our literary lives. Singaporean poet Marc Nair noted, “ASEAN is more about economics and infrastructure” rather than culture, and that Singapore barely receives funding specifically for ASEAN-related activities because other countries need it more. Moderator Intan Paramaditha of Indonesia minced no words when she said we cannot deny the unequal power relations among its member countries and the “neoliberal framework that underpins everything.”

 Just to put that neoliberal thingie in more tangible terms, I gave as an example how the previous Philippine Development Plan subsumes cultural activities under tourism and measures the success of an event on the basis of number of persons in the audience. Thus, funding is directed towards performance-centered events that attract tourists and thus, revenue. Our government will easily provide Php4 Million for a street dancing festival and niggardly grant Php1 million (if at all) for a literary festival, which is never an income-generating activity for the country.

 Indonesian novelist Leila Chudhori added that ASEAN is a geopolitical construct, not an identity. It is useful only for the governments to forge agreements on trade and to foster political unity. But she doesn’t see it affecting the way we write literature particularly because of the diversity of its members. We have different languages, unlike the Latin-American countries, and different histories, particularly in our response to colonization. There is no way for us to have one identity despite our obvious cultural similarities. Bernice Chauly of Malaysia put it bluntly: “We are all failed nation-states” and things just seem to be getting worse everywhere. (At least we have that in common.)

 How indeed do we foster one identity given what Chauly described as “fractured nations with a bloody history?” All we can do as writers is to deal with this material within our individual capacities. None of us considers forging the ASEAN identity when we write our creative work. In fact, Philippine identity is still under negotiation. With 110 ethno-linguistic groups and at least 150 different languages, we cannot even say who we are as Filipinos. Heck, our government cannot even spell “Philippines” correctly!

 Fraught with these concerns, ASEAN really isn’t helping us writers. While I do acknowledge its pragmatic aspect, particularly when I travel to the member-countries visa-free and take advantage of the special ASEAN queue in Immigration, I still wish the economics of it would trickle down to wider publication opportunities. Chauly bemoaned the fact that we are not reading each other because our books are not easily available within the region and because of the lack of translations. I think it’s worse within the Philippines. Filipinos cannot even read each other due to our different languages. And to only be able to read each other in the language of the former colonizer is just plain sad.

 While I don’t think ASEAN is an illusion, it would take a great imagination to appreciate its role and significance to the development of our literatures. Maybe we can take a cue from the shared textile weaving skills of the indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia, who see the designs in their mind’s eye or in their dreams and manifest them in their looms. Surely, writers work along similar warps and wefts regardless of whether we call the loom ASEAN or not.

 Follow or message me on Twitter @jhoannalynncruz

Posted in Opinion