Some say a specter is haunting Southeast Asia today: bad neighbors and evil foreigners. For many people in the region, it was the non-locals who caused the biggest tragedies of the year – deadly haze, communal riots, even the problem of rising unemployment. This fear or hatred of the unknown, real or imagined, is the single biggest threat to the grand plan of building a cohesive Southeast Asian community.
When great disasters happen, it seems that the initial reaction of nearly everyone is to blame other people, whether from another race, religion, or nationality. Perhaps it is easier to accuse other countries or foreigners of committing criminal acts instead of digging deeper into issues close to home. Worse, Southeast Asian governments are doing almost nothing to correct the irrational reaction of their citizens.
The plight of the Muslim Rohingya is a perfect example of the obscene lack of camaraderie in the region. In Myanmar, members of the Muslim minority are viewed as violent neighbors and unwanted foreigners. Further, their religion makes their integration into the Buddhist-majority country more complicated. In other words, they are unfairly treated as illegal immigrants who are plotting to dominate Buddhist Myanmar.
Since last year, several riots have erupted in western Myanmar between the Rohingya and Rakhine locals, displacing thousands of people and sending more Rohingyas into refugee camps. But despite the well-documented plight of the Rohingyas, they have received only scant domestic support and a lukewarm response even from so-called opposition and democracy groups.
Elsewhere in Myanmar, the recent clashes between Muslims and Buddhists who have peacefully co-existed for several centuries highlights the spread of the plague of fanaticism which mysteriously turns religious multitudes into violent intolerant mobs.
Another example of “bad neighbors” creating mayhem is the Great Haze of 2013. Singaporeans and Malaysians were correct to blame Indonesia for its failure to stop the forest fires that cause the annual haze in their countries. But aside from demanding accountability from the Indonesian government, they could have also inquired about the role of their homegrown companies with timber concessions in Indonesia.
For its part, the Indonesian government initially refused to accept blame for the haze and even chided Singapore for complaining too much. What could be a more glaring proof of the widespread distrust and blame currently sweeping the region than the remark made by an Indonesian minister, who called Singapore childish at the height of the haze onslaught?
Luckily, the transboundary haze is not something that can trigger war mongering because Southeast Asians are known for being alert and ready to fight over illegal border crossings. This was attested to earlier this year when most Malaysians supported the military offensive against the armed Filipinos who invaded parts of Lahad Datu in Sabah, a territory which is also being claimed by the Sultan of Sulu.
Meanwhile, the Philippines is vehemently protesting the alleged illegal incursion of Chinese patrol boats into its territorial waters. But while partly successful in protecting its sovereignty against Chinese “aggression” in the South China Sea, also known as the West Philippine Sea, it was unable to prevent a U.S. Navy minesweeper and an oversized Chinese fishing boat from damaging its world-famous Tubbataha Reef.
More recently, in May it was the Philippines’ turn to become a “bad neighbor” to the Taiwanese when the Philippine Coast Guard shot and killed a Taiwanese fisherman in the Balintang Channel.
If there’s a country where foreign labor is both welcomed and despised, it must be Singapore. Earlier this year, the government published a population policy paper which discussed the plan to hire more foreign workers to preempt the looming manpower shortage brought about by its aging population and falling birth rates. It angered many citizens, especially those who believe that the influx of foreigners caused a deterioration of life in Singapore, as indicated by rising prices, falling wages, and even traffic congestion.
Anti-foreign worker sentiment is in fact growing in Singapore, reflected in well-attended public rallies organized by citizens who want to keep Singapore for Singapore nationals. This is quite troubling since the patriotic campaign to define Singapore identity has the potential to mutate and explode into something more xenophobic.
Despite these challenges, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is moving forward with its integration plan. Laws and other technical matters are already being readied to formalize the building of a united ASEAN community in the next few years. But are we really nearing the integration phase when Southeast Asians continue to blame neighbors for their everyday woes? Yes, there is cause for hope and optimism, but there is also much more to be done.