2005 has not been a particularly good year for ASEAN.
The aftermath of the 2004 tsunami disaster with its 120 000 victims made its impact on the following year, bird flu lingered from 2005 and continue to plague the East Asian region as we enter into 2006. Yet, the year has also started with some positive signs on the need for more regional cooperation.
In the area of setting up a pan-regional tsunami warning system, some Asia Pacific Parliamentary Forum (APPF) member countries have agreed to the construction of a tsunami early warning system in tsunami-prone countries to detect similar disasters in advance and to take care of the environment to prevent further escalation of natural disasters in the world. In the area of bird flu, East Asia and ASEAN have also seen unprecedented levels of cooperation. Singapore has announced it will contribute S$1 million, or about US$613,000, to global funds to deal with bird flu. The funds will benefit ASEAN directly as it will apply specifically for ASEAN countries. This is in addition to its existing provisions training, laboratory testing support and medical supplies to Indonesia. Singapore will also collaborate with Indonesia and the US to monitor and control possible bird flu outbreaks in a surrounding province of Jakarta.
On a bigger scale in Beijing, an international donors' meeting managed to obtain US$1.9 billion (one billion in grants and 900 million in loans) for the fight against the proliferation of bird flu. This was an amount that was more than initially expected, the original target was US$1.5 billion dollars. Since 2003, bird flu has infected about 150 people and killed about 80.
Besides natural disasters and viral attacks, man-made tragedies have also been a recent scourge in ASEAN. Some policymakers are arguing for religious reforms to forge greater regionalism and downplay monotheistic exclusivism. They urge Muslims to rationalize their faith as Islam remains embroiled in the global war against terror. It works both ways, there should also be public education to dissociate Islam from terrorism and destructive ideologies to lower incidents of Islamophobia. An art in dissemination of information about Islam is through da'wah also known as communicating the teachings of Islam to non-Muslims or less than informed Muslims. However, da'wah communicated wrongly is able to stir up ill feelings amongst the recipients.
Singapore has taken a lead in a registration scheme monitored by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (known as MUIS from its Malay title) for Islamic religious teachers before they can be given the titles ustaz, ustazah or maulana to officially teach and preach Islam in Singapore. This is to prevent the spread of wayward or dubious religious dogma. Meanwhile in Indonesia, while there is freedom to proselytize and teach different religions in Indonesia, attempts to convert children to another religion are banned. Indonesians also have to abide by a 1969 decree making religious groups obtain permission from local governments and residents before setting up religious places of worship. While individual countries have their own approaches, proponents of regionalism have argued for a regional approach to religious freedoms in the Southeast Asian region.
Perhaps, 2006 might turn out to be a good year for regionalism in the tripartite of challenges listed above. While regional cooperation is showing in managing natural disaster and viral outbreaks, perhaps there could be also more consensus-building for managing manmade conflicts and differences. The third leg of religious conflicts could pick up lessons from the other two through regional gathering of resources and pooling of funds to foster an atmosphere of exchange and learning, encouraging tolerance and greater understanding, contributing to a metaphysical early warning system that could eventually pre-empt the outbreak of more serious conflicts. Perhaps, working for the third challenge, is the fact that man-made tragedies are the most reversible of the three if there is a human will to do so.
* APPF Member States Agree To Set Up Tsunami Early Warning System (Antara, Jan 17)
* Singapore pledges S$1m to fight bird flu in ASEAN (CNA, Jan 18)
* Bird flu pledges total US$1.9b (CNA, Jan 18)
* Managing the preacher (Bangkok Post, Jan 18)
* Ban on trying to convert kids upheld (ST, Jan 19)