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The EU-ASEAN Socio-Cultural Cooperation


by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Sameer Kumar


While the other two communities of ASEAN—the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) and ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), stress political and economic cooperation respectively, the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) reflects on the ASEAN’s social agenda of poverty eradication and human advancement. Since the last 40 years, EU has been a strategic partner of ASEAN supporting its community building process. Keeping ASCC as the central actor, this paper looks into the past, present and future of ASEAN-EU Socio-Cultural cooperation, as evidenced through Blueprints, Plan for Action, and other policy documents. A section is devoted to the Malaysia-EU relations. This chapter is concluded by looking at some of the recent challenges the ASCC is facing and possible ways these could be addressed.

Here is the pre-print of the paper later published in the book EU-ASEAN Relations: Perspectives from Malaysia, Pages 27-38. Published by Asia-Europe Institute and supported by Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Malaysia.


The association of EU (originally EEC, then EC) and ASEAN have come a long way since 1977, when their relations were formalized at the ministerial level. Today, there is a deepened existing cooperation and enhanced dialogue in addition to expanded financial support. An increasing number of citizens from both regions travel between them for cultural, business, academic, and other reasons. Although ASEAN Socio-Cultural community is fairly new in its conceptualization, it remains an important agenda item in ASEAN-EU cooperation. ASCC adds a ‘human’ component to the ASEAN community by committing itself to improve the quality of life through people-oriented, people-centric activities that are environmentally friendly and geared towards the promotion of sustainable development.  Being the two major regional organisations in the world, the EU and ASEAN share ‘a common DNA’ and are thus considered to be natural partners (EEAS, 2017b). Both these organisations share the same goals of peace, stability, and prosperity for its citizens and addressing issues through multilateralism. 

The three pillars of the ASEAN Community do not work in isolation, but rather collectively to make ASEAN a stable, safer, more prosperous, sustainable, and peaceful region. Making opportunities accessible to all without the barriers of religion, language, gender, or other social and cultural backgrounds is embedded in the ASEAN Vision 2020, Declaration of ASEAN Concord I and II, and the Hanoi Plan for Action (HPA). Socio-Cultural cooperation is crucial to ASEAN, as it juxtaposes normative or identity regionalism with its functionalist role. The very idea of an ‘ASEAN Way’ for diplomacy, for example, has constructivist roots in the Malay culture of consultations and consensus (musyawarah dan mufakat). By and large, ASEAN has been successful in establishing a ‘prototype regional identity’, which itself is a phenomenal success given its extreme diversity, and the fact the young nations of this region were involved in a difficult and complex nation-building process during the Cold War period. 

ASEAN Socio-Cultural Cooperation

Although socio-cultural cooperation was featured in both the Bangkok declaration of 1967 and in the 1997 Vision 2020 document of the ASEAN, it was not until the adoption of the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) in 2009 that such a cooperation between ASEAN nations was formalized. Adopted as part of the Cha-am Hua Hin Declaration on the Roadmap of ASEAN Community (2009–2015) at the 14th ASEAN Summit, the blueprint aims to improve the quality of life of its people through cooperative activities and through the promotion of human and social development. With the formation of ASCC, ASEAN expanded its dimension of cooperation, which hitherto had been mainly in the areas of economics and political security. 

Another aspect of ASCC is engagement with civil society to create a common ASEAN identity. ASEAN nations and ASEAN itself have several projects that involve the media and events (i.e., cultural events or competitions) to create a kind of regional identity amongst its people. Although not specifically an ASEAN-sponsored event, the Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) held recently in Kuala Lumpur (19–30 August 2017) is one such example, where the region with all its diversity nonetheless feels a sense of unity. Such events undoubtedly fan the feelings of common regional identity. The ASEAN Foundation, as an ASEAN body, has been instrumental in bringing this sense of identity. This foundation is working with strategic partners to promote awareness about ASEAN through its varied culture and heritage. 

ASCC goals are achieved through the cooperation in the areas of education, sports, culture and arts, information, labour, youth, women, civil service, science and technology, and providing for the region’s human capital needs. Plans are worked out for region-wide cooperation and implementation in the areas of social welfare and development health, disaster management, transboundary haze pollution, the environment, rural development, and poverty eradication. There is a regional agreement, for example, on disaster management and emergency response and the Peatland Management Initiative for the sustainable management of peatlands in addressing the haze problem. 

The implementation of the first ASCC Blueprint (2009–2015) saw significant progress in the advancement of human development, social justice and protection, environmental sustainability, and a general reduction in the human development gap. Policy and legal frameworks for the elimination of violence against women and children and a declaration on non-communicable diseases have seen increased commitment. During these years, the ASEAN nations saw a rapid decline in poverty levels, an increase in primary education enrolments, and a decrease in maternal mortality rate, among others. The ASCC Scorecard developed by ASEAN Secretariat in association with S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies confirms this positive level of achievements. The Scorecard has 208 indicators across 5 broad segments to measure and reflect how far the goals and targets of ASCC pillar have been achieved (Secretariat, 2016a).

With achievements in the implementation of the roadmap for an ASEAN community (2009–2015) and the formal establishment of the ASEAN Community on December 31, 2015, the goal for ASEAN nations is now to have greater regional integration, set through its post-2015 vision and guided by the ASEAN Charter.  The current ASCC Blueprint 2025 seeks to consolidate the progress made by the earlier blueprint so that its benefits can be secured. Amongst these benefits is the necessity to protect lower-income people, who tend to be more vulnerable to both the vagaries of nature and human-induced disasters. While addressing issues of social protection, the community also needs to address more recent concerns of migration, extremism, and climate change (Secretariat, 2016b). 

Taking inspiration from the year’s theme of “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World”, the ministers of all ten ASEAN member nations met on 8 March 2017 in Iloilo City at the 17th ASCC Council meeting under the chairmanship of the Philippines, and extended strong support for the realization of the SocioCultural community under thematic priorities which included a renewed stress on a people-oriented and people-centred ASEAN.  The 17th ASCC also took stock of the implementation of the ASCC 2025 Blueprint through the various sectoral ministerial bodies under the realm of the ASCC. These include AMRI (Information), AMCA (Culture and Arts), ASED (Education), AMMDM (Disaster Management), AMME (Environment), COP (Transboundary Haze Pollution), AHMM (Health), ALMM (Labour), AMRDPE (Rural Development and Poverty Eradication), AMMY (Youth), and AUN (ASEAN Universities Network), among others.

ASEAN-EU Socio-Cultural Cooperation

The 2007 Nuremberg Declaration underlined the EU and ASEAN’s mutual resolve to build strong regional organisations in accordance with the UN Charter, and to further deepening of its dialogue relations by sharing their experience of community building. The declaration reiterated their resolve to combating the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and recognising that climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the world today. Although there had been several discussions of cooperation on economic, political security, energy security, and Socio-Cultural cooperation in the past (i.e., Bali Concord II, Vientiane Action Programme, etc.) between the EU and ASEAN, the Nuremberg Declaration was perhaps the first most elaborate action plan to increase cooperation between the two regions. There was a resolve to work closely in addressing the growing concern of the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, SARS, disaster management, increasing people-to-people contact though cultural exchanges, interfaith dialogue, etc., and expanding cooperation in S&T, education, arts and culture, etc.

In April 2012, the foreign ministers of ASEAN and the EU adopted the Bandar Seri Begawan Plan for action, building on the ASEAN-EU cooperation from 2013–2017. The plan provides support for higher education in ASEAN, backing for the AUN (ASEAN University Network), S&T, environmental policies, sustainable development, and disaster response. A proportionate sum of the EU financial contribution, which runs into several million Euros, supports the implementation of the ASCC blueprint. Two supports provided by the EU to ASEAN need special mention here. The first is the READI (Regional EU-ASEAN Dialogue Instrument) Facility which provided 4 million euros from 2011–2014 and supported policy dialogue, study visits, and exchanges in areas such as ICT, S&T, and Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR). A further support for human rights in ASEAN comes in the form of READI-HRF. This facility was a two-year EU initiative from August 2015–August 2017 to support the policy development process with particular respect to human rights, with major beneficiaries (human rights bodies) being the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human rights (AIHCR), the ASEAN  Commission on the Promotion and the Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC), the ASEAN Committee on Women (ACW), and the ASEAN Committee on Migrant Workers (ACMW). Another initiative by the EU is EU-SHARE (EU Support of Higher Education in ASEAN Region) which aims to strengthen ASEAN higher education, thus contributing to the ASCC. The current duration of the project is 4 years (January 2015–January 2019) and a sum of about 10 million euros has been committed to the initiative. However, it also remains crucial that for the benefits to reach the citizens, the integration initiatives need to be sustained. Hence, there are discussions to support projects like these on a more long-term basis. In order to contribute to reducing regional disparities, CLMV countries receive special attention from the EU with extra allocations of resources.

There has been significant cooperation in higher education, where scholarships under schemes such as Erasmus+ are provided to both scholars and students to carry out studies and research in the EU member states. Specific foundations such as Alexander Von Humboldt promote educational cooperation between Germany and rest of the world, including ASEAN nations.

As all member nations of EU are also members of the UN, ASEAN-UN relations deserve a mention. During the 14th ASEAN Summit, a commitment to the attainment of UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was made.

MDGs are a set of 8 goals that includes, amongst others, the resolve to reduce extreme poverty and improve general well-being by 2015. MDGs were replaced by SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) in 2016, which now include 17 global goals with the aim of transforming the world by 2030. The common goals of ASEAN’s Vision 2025 blueprints and the SDGs make ASEAN recognise the importance of creating synergies for implementing respective agendas within the ASEAN-UN framework. During 2015, ASEANUN set out to develop an Action Plan (2016–2020) for a comprehensive partnership between the two organisations.

EU nations as members of UNESCO have been involved in cooperation through the Framework Agreement for Cooperation developed in accordance with the ASCC blueprint, in the seven priority areas of common interest, namely education, STI, disaster risk reduction, environmental sustainability, social and human sciences, culture and communication, and information. An ASEAN-UNESCO Indicative Joint Programme for Action (2014–2018), which forms part of the Framework Agreement, is periodically reviewed. The ASEAN Secretariat (DSG, ASCC) and UNESCO office in Jakarta have been the designated focal points for the implantation of the framework (Secretariat, 2013). In October 2016, the two parties met and reviewed the progress before setting three priority clusters for joint activities, namely education and culture, communication and information, and environment and STI. 

ASEM’s (Asia-Europe Meeting) Socio, Cultural and Educational pillar, coincides with the goals and aspirations of ASEAN’s Socio-cultural community. In this regard, ASEM’s only institution, ASEF (Asia-Europe Foundation) in Singapore has worked as a ‘cultural broker’ in inter-regional co-operation (Le Thu, 2018). ASEF was founded in 1997 as an outcome of an agreement during Ministerial Declaration of the 1st ASEM Foreign Ministers' Meeting (FMM1). The foundation runs several programmes including initiatives in Cultural Mobility, Environment and Education.

The new ASEAN-EU Plan for Action (2018–2022) has now replaced the Bandar Seri Begawan Plan for action (2013–2017) (EEAS, 2017a). The plan seeks to enhance cooperation in the area of education and culture by having student exchanges, institutional collaborations, facilitating increased interaction with AUN (ASEAN Universities Network) and EU member states, and promotion of cultural understanding between the two regional blocs. The plan also proposes cooperation to counter the challenge of pandemics, EIDs and other potential health threats, promote the rights of women, children, the elderly, persons with disabilities and migrant workers, looking for ways to improve dialogues in crisis, and disaster management and address global environmental challenges. The EU plans to work with the ASEAN Commission on the Protection of the rights of Women and Children (ACWC) and ASEAN Committee on Women (AWA) to promote gender equality, women living with HIV/AIDS, and reduce gender-based violence, among others.

EU-Malaysia Socio-Cultural Cooperation 

The 1980 EU cooperation with ASEAN is the principal framework for cooperation with Malaysia.  Since the opening up of an EU delegation in Malaysia, there has been increased cooperation, and dialogues on shared interests and issues have been regularly held. The EU has a comprehensive environmental cooperation with Malaysia that covers areas such as green technology, renewable energy, and sustainable forest management. In order to facilitate Malaysia in moving towards a green economy, the EU holds annual policy dialogues with the relevant ministries in Malaysia. Climate change is a serious issue, and the EU is providing support to Malaysia in order to reduce its carbon footprint, thus doing its part to keeping global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. Other projects backed by the EU include support for small producers of batik and biomass industries, and the protection of peatland forests. Scientific collaborations between the EU and Malaysia (and ASEAN) is provisioned though Horizon 2020 (2014–2020), EU’s instrument for funding research in Europe and elsewhere. EU’s earlier FP7 (2007–2013) programme significantly benefited Malaysian scholars and institutions. During this period, 15 Malaysian scientists received the prestigious Marie Curie Fellowship. The EURAXESS-ASEAN network provides further opportunities for Malaysian researchers to network with thousands of researchers from Europe and the world over, in addition to providing opportunities conducting research and studies in the EU. Through EIDHR, the EU provides financial support to CSOs to promote human rights and democratic reforms. With SUHAKAM, it has held an annual seminar on human rights on 9 December, the International Human Rights Day. In accordance with the UN’s Child Rights Convention, EU’s Humana Learning Centers provide education to marginalized or stateless children in Sabah (Commission, 2017; EEAS, 2017c).


The people of the Southeast Asian region have been interacting with one another over the last two millennia. The Indian (Hindu-Buddhist) influence over its kingdoms of Srivijaya, Shailendra, Majapahit, Champa, Khmer, Pagan, Ayutthaya and others, and later the arrival of Islam in the fifteenth century gave Southeast Asia a certain degree of ‘region-ness’. The porous boundaries and the various feudal arrangements between kingdoms meant unceasing interaction between its people (for trade, etc.), leading to the cross-diffusion of cultures. Add to these the tropical climate, cultivation of rice, folk migrations, common language families, etc. that further bind the people and hold the region together as a collective. Hence, the formation and strengthening of ASEAN as an organisation was a natural progression of its historical lineage and ecological similarities. The crises in the region during the Cold War period, especially between 1979–91, provided ASEAN with a renewed sense of unity. ASEAN today has emerged stronger and is coming even closer with the establishment of the Community in 2015. 

The EU has been a strong supporter of ASEAN socio-cultural initiatives and has significantly contributed in making Southeast Asia a more peaceful and prosperous region. However, in order to make ASEAN a more “peoplecentred” or “people-oriented” community, the future direction has to take into consideration the new challenges that the region is facing. A person in ASEAN today is expected to live 15 years longer than in 1967. Conversely, the population has grown 3.4 times in these 56 years. All these pose new challenges to the national governments in meeting the needs and aspirations of their people. The challenges are enormous, ranging from combating the threat of emerging infectious diseases and transboundary haze to more effective disaster management to policies to reduce and ultimately eradicate poverty amongst its people. As just one of the steps, for people to be more productive, more investment in education, TVET, and lifelong learning are required. Several such measures need to be meticulously executed so that the benefits directly reach its people. With the drafting of the ASEAN–EU Plan for Action 2018–22, opportunities for deeper cooperation remain bright.   

Interaction amongst people through sports, tourism, cultural events, academic exchanges, educational credit transfer, and effective use of online and offline media needs to be enhanced in order to promote ASEAN awareness. Such an effort would also bring an increased sense of a common identity percolating down to the masses. 

If there are two aspects that could drive ASEAN forward, it would be innovation and accommodation. Innovation through Science and Technology (STI) R&D would spur growth, leading to sustainable prosperity in the region and thereby bringing a general sense of happiness among its people. Through accommodation, we would learn to respect others’ cultures, ideas, and beliefs. 

ASEAN, which still remains top-down or inter-governmental, is perceived as needing to reach out to the people. The genuine involvement of CSOs plays an important role here, otherwise the idea of a people-centred ASEAN would remain more rhetorical than a reality. Community-building should remain an ongoing process, and the ASCC Blueprint 2025 is undoubtedly a guiding light for the next decade and beyond.


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Last Updated: 26/02/2019