The neighbours are back!

NOV 23 — Even if I failed any of my exams this week, my parents would still be happy. You know why? It’s because the neighbours are back.

A family of working parents and children of school-going age, my family has long relied on our maids to help my mother maintain our house. Keener on hiring maids on a contract basis through an agency, the two-year moratorium that started in 2009 really affected my family.

Luckily I have supermak and superayah.

The new terms signed by both sides sound delicious but I still doubt that the agencies will succeed in ensuring maids don’t leave their jobs before six months and find other jobs with their passports in their hands. But there is no use complaining now; all could have been averted if we didn’t find pleasure in torturing and abusing our maids in the first place.

Somehow this has marked an end to yet another bitter “fight” between our two countries. The timing could not have been any sweeter as it coincides with the ongoing SEA games. And oh yes, it was exactly when our football team was playing Indonesia’s in Gelora Bung Karno.

My point is this, the perceived relationship between lovely neighbours in this ASEAN region is still one big funny mystery. For most Malaysians at least, apart from assuming that the West is our enemy, we also see our neighbours as bitter rivals. Though the relationship at government level looks good but on the ground, ASEAN is nothing more than a sports meet once every four years.

Proof can be seen every time our dearest football team plays either Indonesia or Singapore. Twitter will be full of name-calling and curses, not forgetting Facebook and the blogosphere. The fact that #Malaysiacheatlaser trended first on Twitter in December 2010 is hopefully enough to substantiate that.

I don’t have to mention that in most universities I have visited, most Malaysians are prouder to befriend Europeans or Americans rather than South-east Asians, and vice versa.

The thing is, no matter how many times our leaders meet to discuss ASEAN, the mood on the ground is different. Or even worse, the ground doesn’t even know it needs to be ready for ASEAN. It feels like United Kingdom and the European Union all over again.

The fact that a union as big as Europe may soon be the downfall of the member states that it was designed to support, is a sad fact. However, it is even sadder for Malaysians or South-east Asians to overlook ASEAN as a big entity for mutual benefits just because the EU is not perfect. Goes without saying, it is saddest when, on top of that, we brawl, verbally or physically, with each other.

After all, we are separated by this thinnest of lines called boundaries. I am not an expert and cannot lay out the specific benefits we will get from ASEAN, but it is undeniable that ASEAN can be a powerful platform. The fact that a single entity such as the EU is crumbling should not deter us from giving this kind of entity a more serious try.

I am not writing to ask all of us to start producing posters and banners and start picketing to lobby for our respective governments to strengthen ASEAN. But it is utterly important for us, Malaysians, aside from the friendly banters, to start perceiving our ASEAN neighbours as friends. A tad of nationalism is healthy, but a tad too much of it is very destructive. Fact is, the EU was suggested because of the damaging nationalism in Europe, among other things.

With all the on-going formal efforts to strengthen ASEAN by our leaders, it is good to solidify them by starting to prepare the mood on the ground. Even if the ASEAN summits and community forums can go on without support from the ground, it is a sad thing that the people are still split after 47 years of ASEAN.

We can start stitching up the splits by looking up to Indonesia instead of Brazil as our football bros; idolising Singapore’s good economic management instead of Hong Kong’s; and admiring the beauty of Ann Thongprasom (go Google) more than Scarlett Johansson.

After all, they are all our neighbours.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.


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