READ: "ASEAN Integration and Critical Education:" An Essay by Noel Moratilla, PhD

on . Posted in News @ UP Asian Center

Photo by sasint via


The Philippines’ hosting of the ASEAN Summit this year is significant because it coincides with the organization’s 50th anniversary.  That the ASEAN has existed and grown (it only had five members at its founding) for half a century, despite some setbacks such as intermittent tensions mostly arising from conflicting territorial claims, can only mean the viability of regional cooperation in this part of the world. 

The move toward further integration in the region has had its share of cynics. To the dismay of those who believe in protectionism and national self-sufficiency, it means the lifting of some of the remaining trade restrictions, and the continued promotion of labor migration.  The undue liberalization of trade has, for example, proved detrimental to local manufacturers and workers who have to deal with the influx of goods and services from other countries, which are generally offered at lower prices. The call for integration has also placed pressure on member states into hastily implementing policies instead of doing it at their own pace or until the systemic requirements have been put in place. One can cite, for instance, the addition of two more years in the Philippine educational system, notwithstanding the major repercussions (say, additional costs on the part of parents sending their children to school and the dislodgement of tenured college teachers) and perennial concerns such as the shortage of classrooms, school buildings, and teaching personnel which have raised doubts about the readiness of the country’s educational system for integration.

On a more positive note, the ASEAN has also served as a platform for dialogue among the member states, cognizant that cooperation is a better option than isolationism.  Likewise, the organization has been viewed as a buffer against the growing might of China and, as ever, the pantopragmatic machinations of the US.  It may also play a crucial role in addressing the menace posed by North Korea, which if not resolved adequately, may plunge the Asia-Pacific, or for that matter, the rest of the world into a major catastrophe. This is because the ASEAN is widely perceived as a better alternative to traditional players like the US and even China whose motives could invariably be viewed with suspicion given their checkered reputation as the dominant power wielders in the Asia-Pacific.  The ASEAN, in this regard, performs a two-fold obligation: one that is intramural, for it introduces organizational policies aimed at promoting the inclusive growth of member states in the region; and one that is outward-looking, ready to take on greater responsibilities beyond its traditional purview in an increasingly globalized world. Even superpowers have accorded it due recognition primarily as a crucial economic partner, which would readily explain their presence in the yearly summit. 


The promise of regional integration is too seductive to be ignored.  Efforts are underway towards incorporating elements of this integration into the educational systems of the ASEAN member states.  But such an education should be one in which there will be as much space for dialogue and cooperation as for creative and critical interrogation. The question is whether or not there will be space for critical discourse in an ASEAN-inspired education?   If so, how can such critical interventions not be incompatible with dialogue and integration?  What will be the role of the humanities and the social sciences, the traditional foci of critical studies, in a regional organization that seems to operate according to the logic of political economy? I try to articulate below some of the strategies through which critical education could insert itself into the praxis of regional integration. 

Anticolonial Histories

The very provenance of ASEAN member states lends itself to a critical positionality.  One cannot speak of the emergence of these states without invoking, in particular, the struggle against centuries of colonialism: Malaysia (which used to include Singapore) and Myanmar against Britain; Indonesia against the Netherlands; Indochina against France; the Philippines against Spain and, later, against the United States.  If developing a kind of ASEAN consciousness through education is an essential element of integration, such an endeavor should necessarily include the histories fraught with the challenges posed by Western colonial powers.  If problematizing an ASEAN identity under the conditions of integration is in order, then it should also critically take stock of how colonialism shaped—and perchance continues to shape—the peoples and the cultures of the region.  One can interrogate, for example, how the natives were represented according to the colonizers’ Orientalist optics, which complemented the use of draconian measures to maintain the colonizers’ stranglehold on the region for many years.  What is suggested, therefore, is the teaching of the ASEAN history and character that should not fail to highlight the (counter)memories of the region’s rich and colorful anticolonial past.  This should necessarily involve familiarizing ASEAN students with the lives and teachings of great heroes and leaders from the region like Jose Rizal, Ho Chi Minh, Sukarno, and Lee Kwan Yew, and see their implications to us in the present.

The relative economic progress enjoyed by Southeast Asian states after colonialism has not wiped out certain features of the region’s colonial past.  For example, many societies in South East Asia, with the exception of Singapore, remain largely agricultural.  In this regard, peasant or rural studies may still be a source of academic interest, intersecting politics, history, and culture in a region where a big cross section of the population continues to wrest its living from the soil.  Inspiration may be drawn from groundbreaking studies on peasant movements—including chiliastic groups—that played no minor role in the region’s struggle against colonialism and imperialism, even if they lay outside the acknowledged centers of power and revolutionary activity.  Filipino Reynaldo Ileto’s Pasyon at Rebolusyon illustrates this kind of counterhistoriography that dispenses with historical linearity and the traditional concentration on big events and personages, and instead sheds critical light on popular chiliastic movements whose anticolonial struggles took, as it were, uncanny trajectories.  Some of the peasant groups that Ileto cites interwove Biblical readings, local myths, and the gnawing desire for independence in waging their own brand of revolution. Another example the story of Myanmar’s Saya San and his leadership of an anti-British millenarian rebellion in the 1930s which remains a source of ceaseless fascination among contemporary scholars.  Such proud moments, it goes without saying, should have their rightful place in an integrative, but also critical, ASEAN social history.

Narratives of the Marginalized

Given the rapid industrialization being experienced by the ASEAN member states, critical attention should be paid to workers who serve as the lifeblood of any given society.  Add to this the unabated promotion of labor export in the name of globalization.  These developments, however, are not without complications, for many workers do not receive a fair share of the wealth they themselves create, their importance undervalued in many respects and worse, their basic rights violated. Such paradoxes necessitate a critical engagement—that is, with these obvious cracks in the metanarrative of progress.  If the ASEAN is to foster inclusive growth, more attention ought to be paid to these social cleavages and ‘little stories’ that are often relegated to the peripheries, among them the stories of abuse and exploitation experienced by workers.  I can cite in particular the stories of some Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) who do not only negotiate strong feelings of alienation and longing for home, but also confront abuse in varied forms.  These critical articulations should find their way into the curriculum, not really to cast a pall over the trend of development in the region, but to devote some space to groups and voices often set aside by the credo of progress. 

Because it aims to be relevant, the pedagogy of the 21st century calls for the fusion of the local and the global.  But critical discourse should also be part of the equation because 21st-century education, in order to hold relevance, should be relentlessly democratizing, viewing learners and mentors as intellectuals in their own right, who do not just absorb or transmit knowledge, but unmask their connections to past or current relations of power.


Noel Christian Moratilla, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor at the UP Asian Center. He obtained his Ph.D. in Philippine Studies from the University of the Philippines in 2015. His research interests cover resistance literature, Marxism, critical pedagogy, testimonial writings, and postcolonial theory. His dissertation analyzed ‘Testimonial narratives of Filipino workers’ from 1986-2012. 

The UP Asian Center offers M.A. degrees in Asian Studies with four fields of specialization: Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and West Asia. The Center also has an M.A. program in Philippine Studies that allows students to major in Philippine society and culture, Philippine foreign relations, or Philippine development studies. The Center offers a Ph.D. program in Philippine Studies in conjunction with the College of Arts and Letters and the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy. Get an overview of these programs. The Asian Center also houses a peer-reviewed, open-access journal, Asian Studies: Journal of Critical Perspectives on Asia. It has published several books and monographs, and hosts or organizes various lectures and conferences

Lectures @ UP Asian Center (SS)

What's Happening @ UP Asian Center