Southeast Asia is a very diverse and multi-layered sub-region in Asia which consists of different nations with different ethnicities, languages, cultures, and societies. Besides, Southeast Asian nations considerably share distinctive socio-cultural features, in terms of language spoken, ethnicities, religion, culture, and society which differed from one to another. Specifically, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore are highly considered as Southeast Asian diverse nations, ethnically, linguistically, religiously, culturally, socially, and politically. But they are diverse in different ways and cope with diversity in different ways (Ali, 2011).
In responding to such diversity, Southeast Asian nations are often encouraged to establish one common regional identity enabling them to integrate as one unity of Southeast Asian nations. Further, the notion of building such integrated identity is supported by Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as one of the most influential organisation in Southeast Asia. In addition, it is concretely represented in the concept of ASEANâ€™s long-term plan stating that ASEAN has formulated a planned integration among its ten member nations and has challenged its citizens to embrace regional identity (Jones, 2004). Moreover, such plan is also well-affirmed in ASEAN Vision 2020 proclaiming â€œwe envision the entire Southeast Asia to be, by 2020, an ASEAN Community conscious of its ties of history, aware of its cultural heritage and bound by a common regional identity.â€
The ideas to encourage the integration of one identity is also supported by the notion proposed in ASEAN Blueprint on Socio-cultural Community (ASCC) as it envisages several notable and worth-pursuing characteristics, one of which is building the ASEAN identity. The Blueprint pronounces that the ASEAN identity is the basis of Southeast Asiaâ€™s regional interests. It is the collective personality, norms, values and beliefs as well as aspirations as one ASEAN community. ASEAN will mainstream and promote greater awareness and common values in the spirit of unity in diversity at all levels of society.
However, it is important to highlight the problem currently occurred as the modernity in this late era has made the issue of identity become more complex and complicated. This phenomenon happens as the complexity and instability of identity are believed widely pervaded by the vast changing of social condition in human life. As a result, the rapid flux of identity can somehow be considered threatening the stability of identity itself, particularly in the era of modern technology, migration, urbanisation and globalisation on which people live nowadays (Rutherford in Howarth, 2002).
Thus, identity is believed as a socially constructed identification rather than just a simple idea considering identity as the belonging of individuals to geographical places where they live, as people now are able to adjust and adapt from one space into another. Under that circumstance, identity is no longer believed as something fixed as it dynamically changes and is always constructed and reconstructed. Hence, it can be seen from the sociological perspective, all identities are indeed a socially constructed identification which might use building materials from geography, common socio-cultural attributes, political control, history, biology, collective memory, or even religious institutions (Castells, 2010).
Further, Castells (2010) believes that social construction of identity always takes place in context of power relations. This functions as a basis of his proposal on the three forms of identity building covering legitimising, resistance and project identity. Legitimising identity deals with the origin of identity introduced by dominant institution to extend and rationalise their domination. When it is generated by actors who are in more devalued or stigmatised position in terms of its domination, it refers to resistance identity which aims to resist and survive from the influence of the dominating ones. Whereas project identity occurs when social actors are available to any cultural materials in order to build a new identity or redefine who they are (Castells, 2010). Hence, it is momentous to emphasise the role of powerful social institutions in Southeast Asia, either it is ASEAN, NGOs, religions, cultures or societies in building together once common identity of Southeast Asia.
By considering such complexities of identity, and the feature of Southeast Asian diversity which is greatly distinguished from one to another, therefore, it is necessary to propose the ideas that can let the identity possibly built without pushing or forcing, even to eliminate particular features of the existing diverse national identities. Thus, this paper aims to discuss the concept of multiculturalism in constructing the identity of Southeast Asia functioning as a bridge among its diverse nations.
In discussing about multiculturalism, it is indisputable that there is an increased awareness among scholars, activists, and policymakers of the importance of multiculturalism as a concept, as an approach, as an ideology to struggle for, a fighting creed, and as an object of research and study. But it is also a way of understanding of culture (Ali, 2011). Moreover, multiculturalism concept is well-applied in several prosperous countries such as the United States of America, Canada, Australia even some Southeast Asian countries, i.e. Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. It is often illustrated via analogy of melting pot, salad bowl or mosaic.
Melting pot refers to the process of assimilating different identities, races, ethnicities, cultures, etc. into one common pot provided. It is important to underline the involvement of assimilation or the process of melting a way to form and create one new identity or society. In other words, it is possibly made up from existed various racial and ethnic groups which have been combined into one culture creating a richly diverse country like the United States of America. While salad bowl and mosaic which are considerably similar and more applicable in this case refer to the process of combining and uniting the diversity into one common space or place allowing it to display its own beauty and aesthetic value. The key point of these concepts are the existence of the space (i.e. bowl and frame) which enables the materials to show how beautiful they are when they were combined and placed in the same space without any assimilation or the process of melting away (Datesman et al., 2005).
All in all, the problem is actually not how to accommodate relatively fixed plural identities, but rather how to provide for multiple possibilities of identity and culture. Moreover it is supported by the notion believing multiculturalism as an effective approach to addressing questions of ethnic, cultural diversity in contemporary society (Ali, 2011). Thus, it is also to highlight the need and the possibility for Southeast Asiaâ€™s powerful social institutions to form and construct one common identity which enable its diverse nations and citizens to be who they are yet positioned under the same underlying big umbrella, Southeast Asian multicultural identity.
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This article was written by Moh. Za’imil Alvin, a student of the Faculty of Cultural Sciences, Universitas Islam Negeri (UIN) Maulana Malik Ibrahim Malang, while working as an intern at Center for Southeast Asian Social Studies (CESASS).