The Association of South East Asian Nations is known not only for its huge economic clout but also for its cultural diversity. This is considered an asset in today’s globalised and pluralistic world, where diversity is seen as a source of strength. Or is it?

The 10 members of the Asean community collectively make a market in excess of 598 million people. This is nearly twice the population of the United States and more than the population of the European Union. Together, these countries cover a total land area of 4.5 million square kilometres, almost half the size of the entire US.

Asean’s combined gross domestic product exceeds US$2.06 trillion and total trade is worth more than $2.04 trillion. It is the fourth biggest consumer of US goods after Canada, Mexico and China.

If the grouping were a country by itself, it would rank ninth in the world for total GDP. Its trade pacts with Japan, India, South Korea and most importantly China will pave the way for a regional economic bloc that will rival the EU. It is a dynamic region, one whose economy is the fastest growing in the world.

The realisation of total economic integration and the emergence of the Asean Community by 2015 will establish the region as a single market and production base. This will greatly enhance the opportunities for business, trade and investment. Familiarity with the business and cultural environment of the region is essential to success in doing business there.

The cultures of the Asean countries are as diverse as their ethnic communities and historical experiences, though the histories of the countries overlap and interweave on countless fronts. With each country having a unique blend of ethnicities, religions, and languages, Southeast Asia is a sundry mix matched by few other areas on the planet.

The plethora of languages spoken in Southeast Asia is a testament to the diversity of the region. Each country has many native and regional languages. They range from the Sinitic languages spoken by the Chinese populations to the Tai languages, which include the national languages of both Thailand and Laos. Colonial languages, including French, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and English are also spoken.

Southeast Asia boasts immense religious diversity. In some places, native religions still exist. These religions are animist in style wherein everything is oriented toward the seasons and nature.

The civilisations and religions of both East and West have had lasting impacts. The largest and most universalistic religions of the world, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam and Christianity, are practised here.

None of the region’s cultures have been untouched by external influences. Even the most traditional societies have been impacted. Sunni Islam has put down strong roots in Malaysia and Indonesia. Theravada Buddhism flourishes in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. Buddhism and Confucianism are resurgent in communist Vietnam. The Philippines is the only Catholic country in Asean.

While foreign cultural influences have facilitated much change, the region’s own culture still shines through. The region has an indigenous culture that is alive to date. Common characteristics can still be identified due to the similar cultural origins of the various nations in the region, which housed a variety of animist cultures. The closeness of the rich cultures of China and India have helped mould the entire area. This is certainly an asset as they have long traditions and established contacts with these huge and fast-growing economies.

The growing integration of the region’s economies, primarily facilitated by Asean, is causing the convergence of cultures as well. The world view of each country is influenced by deeply held cultural and religious beliefs. The lesser developed Asean countries _ Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam _ practise Buddhism, which encourages acceptance of one’s fate and this has helped in overcoming adversity. These countries have coped well in times of uncertainty as compared to the more developed Asean countries like Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore.

Despite deep-rooted cultural differences, the countries share societal and social similarities. As in all social relationships, group consensus is important in all aspects of communication, and discussion takes place to achieve harmony in a collective manner. As a result, individuals identify themselves with groups and families.

In spite of the differences, there is a clear convergence of cultures too. Almost all Asean countries have experienced the same broad influences from China, India and Europe.

Similarities within the region include a forward-looking attitude, willingness to cooperate and seek consensus for the common good, and a conviction that “any human activity takes place in a broader context where causality plays a major role”.

All countries and their people are eager to improve their quality of life and welcome investment and business opportunities. English is widely spoken in all the Asean countries.

This can serve to solidify Asean relations with the newly emerging economies of the east, especially China and India, with whom they have had deep contact since early times. The diversity can also serve as a bridge with western nations with whom they have had more recent historical ties _ the Dutch in Indonesia; the French in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam; the British in Brunei, Malaysia, Myanmar and Singapore; and the Spanish and the Americans in the Philippines.

Yet, intra-regional trade remains a dream unfulfilled. Cultural differences continue to prevent the people of each nation from feeling part of the broader economic community. –Bangkok Post