After the pandemic
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - June 20, 2020 - 12:00am

The social and economic landscape of our region is being totally redrawn by the new coronavirus, but are our politics agile enough and our diplomacy engaged enough to meet the challenge?

The question was unanswered at an otherwise illuminating discussion organised by the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) with the Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS) at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and the New York South East Asia Network.

Gwen Robinson, president of the FCCT, senior fellow, at ISIS and editor-at-Large at the Nikkei Asian Review; Danny Quah, dean of the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore; Michael Vatikiotis, author and Asia director at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue; and Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director at ISIS at Chulalongkorn University provided the broad strokes of a tour of the horizon facing the region.

I’ve been extraordinarly lucky to have lived in Malaysia and Thailand as well as the Philippines, and to have worked in nearly all of the Asean member countries. I am still constantly surprised at the odd relationship that the Philippines seems to have with its own region. People in the Philippines generally have a much more global outlook, with an eye to our former colonial masters to the east and the oil wealth in the Gulf in particular. I was delighted to have a conversation about Qatari society with some women I met in a mosque in Cotabato for example. But then I was flabbergasted that a Liberal Party activist in Manila started to make a case that the Philippines’ sat more naturally as a Latin American country than an Asian and should therefore be a member of Mercosur rather than Asean.

Trying to make sense of it, I got in touch with Noel Morada, senior research fellow, Asia Pacific Centre for R2P, School of Political Science, University of Queensland, and a veteran of track 2 diplomacy.

“I think that your impression is correct about Filipinos in general not identifying as South East Asians…Exposure to South East Asia culture is not easily accessible in the Philippines,” Morada told me. The shallowness of knowledge goes both ways, he also mentioned that, like me, he has Thai friends who don’t think that Filipinos are SEAns because we are viewed as too American/Western oriented.

The fact is that despite the colonisation of the Philippines by Spain and the United States, neither they nor the Latin American nations would reciprocate the sense of fellowship to the same extent as some Filipinos might. Like it or not, whether or not you know much about them, the links with our closest neighbors run deep.

The idea of “geography as destiny” came up in the online discussion organised by the FCCT, when Quah gave an overiew of the dynamics around South East Asia around COVID. But it was to argue that one of the consequences of the pandemic is that “density is destiny.” He predicted out that post-COVID, people will re-think the extraordinary pull of big cities. In the past, he argues, we were drawn to the way cities have people working close together, “throwing out ideas serendipitously, cheek by jowl. That is no longer going to be on offer.”

Personally, I think that while the pandemic certainly provides a push, rural areas, at least in the Philippines, still don’t provide enough of a pull factor and it will require much more reform and investment of the agriculture sector to bring people back to the countryside. It’s something that every government since 1986 has tried to run with, but fallen short.

Quah’s grim assessment of the pandemic is that “COVID-19 provided a blank slate on to which humanity could write the worst of its fears and the most egregious of its instincts.” Similarly Vatikiotis said the outbreak had been “bad for democracy, good for conflict” in the region. It was in this context that he made the only mention of the Philippines in the discussion with regard to the conflict with the New People’s Army and the way the military was called out of barracks as well as the threats of violence to enforce lockdown measures.

There is still no light to be seen at the end of the coronavirus tunnel. Danger still lurks darkest where people live in close proximity, such as informal settlements, public housing, prison populations, US aircraft carriers, old people’s homes, and gated communities.

The pandemic has redrawn the map of where power and influence in the world lies. Whereas in the past smaller countries such as in South East Asia would look to big powers for leadership in emergencies. The events of the past few months have shown that where once the USA was “the benevolent hegemon” now its leadership “has left the building. It faces internal strife, has no appetite for multilateral collaboration and is busy dealing with great power rivalry.”

Asean is going to have to take the initiative in maintaining international trade, keeping lines of international finance open, building up systems for regional public health and working out how to recover international travel and tourism.

Robinson’s research among the worst affected sectors such as migrant workers and poor focused on the increasing starkness of what was already dramatic social inequality, due to COVID-19. The impact to the informal economy of south east Asia has dealt a severe blow to the most marginalised people. The best case scenario is that the region abandons the global “fetishising of how superstar winners emerge from squirrelling away all the gains to be made from all the inefficiencies in the system.”

Could the pandemic provide an opportunity to push for resilient (that is: more equal) societies that strengthen the “weakest links?” Most social activity has been confined to the internet and the push has already begun to accelerate to transform digital infrastructure which, ideally, would also reduce economic inequality, whether people live near or far from a city centre.

It all amounts not only to better governance and people-focused politics, but also the importance of deepening knowledge about Asean in the Philippines. Morada suggests Asean “should seriously push for having a mandated South East Asia course in schools.  Cultural exchanges through academic exchanges (students from ASEAN taking a semester or one-year field experience in a SEA country).  Academic exchanges among tertiary level or higher education institutions.”

If ever there was a time for neighbors to coordinate, this unprecedented global crisis is it.

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