It was a rare opportunity to have a total of 150 university students (15 each) from all 10 Asean members gather in one place and identify their national heroes.
Two weeks ago, the programme called JENSYE (Japan-East Asia Network of Exchange for Students and Youths) did just that; it brought together these young people to this historic city to imbue in them the message of peace and nation building. The Atomic Bomb Dome served as a symbol of mankind’s destructive power that could annihilate them in a second.
All the Asean youth had a chance to name their national heroes and heroines. Each group had approximately half an hour to discuss with their peers and make power-point presentations. The outcomes were interesting because their choices were reflective of the nature of their societies and the environments they were brought up in.
As expected, given the diversity of Asean culture and histories, there were no common Asean heroes or heroines that the youngsters could uniformly identify with or refer to. In private conversations, some of them hoped in the future they would be able to pick a common Asean figure who encompasses the values and norms of the Asean Community and beyond, representing the integrated region of 640 million citizens.
The only heroine in Asean is Auung San Suu Kyi, who was picked by the students from Myanmar. Her struggle for democracy and human rights impressed the young students. They grew up during two decades of dictatorship and oppression. Now, they are free to express themselves. As one of the world’s most famous political idols, Suu Kyi has greatly influenced their thinking and they want to follow her example and determination.
Students from Brunei unanimously named the 70-year-old Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah as their hero. The tiny oil-rich nation joined Asean one week after it gained independence in January 1984. Sultan Bolkiah is loved by the Bruneians. To prove it, a student managed to produce a selfie, which he had snapped recently with the Sultan back home. In the photo, the Sultan looked like an uncle from the neighbourhood, enjoying rounds of selfies. But it’s more than the selfies that has made the Sultan the students’ hero. He represents all aspects of the country and Bruneian lives.
The choice of Indonesians was also clear – the first president Sukarno, who fought for independence of the world’s largest Muslim country. Bung Sukarno was credited with unifying Indonesia’s different ethnic groups under the five principles, known as Pancasila. In 1955, he brought Indonesia to the global limelight, uniting the newly independent countries in Asia and Africa. In Bandung, he organised the historic first meeting among these leaders, which subsequently gave rise to the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement.
During the discussions, Malaysia’s choice of national hero was not unanimous compared to other Asean countries. Some of the Malaysian students had radical ideas of who could be considered their national hero. However, at the presentation, they all concluded that former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who ruled Malaysia for 21 years was the one. His accomplishments were many, including the far-reaching vision of Malaysia as a developed nation. His vision of Malaysia and his economic development agenda, including the Proton car project, was among them.
The Filipino students agreed quickly that their hero is Jose Rizal, who fought for independence from Spain. He was brave and fearless – the qualities cited by the students. Rizal is a Filipino nationalist whose name has been cited from time to time whenever the regional leaders from civil society organisations discussed their common struggles and identities.
Brave and fearless were also the qualities that Vietnamese students saw in General Tran Hung Dao, who defeated the Mongols in the 16th century, and hence consider him their hero. Obviously, these students were well read on their country’s history. They dug deep into ancient history and identified the hero who had the most impact on their national psyche and way of life. The revolutionary leader, former president Ho Chi Minh, was mentioned during the discussion but the students contended that Hung Dao’s earlier struggle protected the nation against foreign invaders. Without him, there would no modern Vietnam.
Laos voted for Prime Minister Kaysone Phomvihane, who ruled Laos from 1975 to 1991 for more than three decades, as their hero. He oversaw this landlocked nation’s transition and transformation from the end of monarchy to the current socialist-capitalist system.
For Cambodian students, King Norodom Sihanouk was their hero because of his versatility and leadership. He was part of the developing world leaders who formed the Non-Alignment Movement after the meeting in Bangdung. He was also very artistic, producing films and music. “Without his majesty, Cambodia will not live in peace and prosperity,” said one of the Cambodian student presenters.
Singaporean students were heartened by the role of Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, one of the founding fathers of Asean. He led Singapore to the world, showing Singapore’s multiculturalism and global perspective. He also made the famous statement about Asean that if the members do not hang together, they would be hung separately. Those words are still embedded in the minds of Asean leaders and their citizens.
Finally, the most surprising choice by all students was from Thailand. The Thai students unanimously chose the 37-year-old “Toon” – Arthiwara Kongmalai, lead singer of “Body-Slam” rock group ,as their national hero.
The reason was a simple one: he recently ran 400 kilometres and raised donations of Bt63 million to build a hospital in Bang Saphan, Prachuap Khiri Khan province. This action won universal praise from the Thais. None has done this before. They cited his volunteerism and unselfishness as qualities that impressed them the most.
The choices of these young students varied from country to country and illustrated their common experience and history. As Asean is celebrating its 50th anniversary, these young students have to carry out these visions set forth by their national heroes one way or another.
It is hoped that in the coming decades, these young Asean students will get to know and trust each other better and become leaders who can gradually create common norms and values that are distinctive for the Asean Community. And one day be able to identify a common figure that encompasses the Asean spirit.