Unity in Diversity: The ASEAN Identity

The concept of identity is complexly intertwined with language. People who speak multiple languages often struggle with defining their identity, as language is a core part of one’s identity, playing an intricate role in their development and sense of self. This is especially a problem for ASEAN member states which are home to the highest percentage of multilingual citizens in the world. So what does it truly mean to be ASEAN?

The Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN) is a region which encompasses ten countries, each with a different national language: Burmese, Khmer, Lao, Malay, Mandarin Chinese, Indonesian, Tagalog, Thai, and Vietnamese. Besides these main languages there are still thousands of indigenous, local, and regional languages spoken collectively among the member states (Setiawan, 2020). For example, Indonesia alone has 718 regional languages and more than 13,000 different ethnic groups, while there are a reported 150 languages in the Philippines (Hutapea, 2020). 

Traditional Indonesian dance from different cultures and ethnicities (Image Source: Pixabay)

Being multilingual is part and parcel of life as a Southeast Asian. Most kids grow up using their nation’s official language, pick up regional languages along the way from their parents, and finally formally learn English at school. As such, linguistic diversity plays a huge part in forming one’s identity. 

Languages play a huge role in uniting the thousands of ethnic groups and people in a nation. One example is Bahasa Indonesia which was officially declared the national language in 1945 to ease communications between the country’s many provinces (Pramuki, 2018). Just like how ASEAN was formed to unite Southeast Asian nations, Bahasa Indonesia acts as a unifying tool for thousands of ethnic groups with different socio-cultural and linguistic backgrounds, as well as a means of communication between regions. The language embodies the values of Indonesia’s national motto – Bhinneka Tunggal Ika – which means ‘unity in diversity’. 

Another example is Thailand. Thai, or more commonly known as Siamese Thai, is the country’s official language and spoken by more than eighty percent of the population. This predominantly monosyllabic tonal language has roots in Pāli and Sanskrit origins, and more recently contains thousands of loanwords from Khmer and English (“Thai Language”). Furthermore, its neat and pleasant language structure is an accurate reflection of the gentle nature of Thai identity. 

Regional languages are also vital in preserving our rich cultural heritage and traditional customs. Most Southeast Asians speak the local language more than the official language on a day-to-day basis. In the Indonesian island of Kalimantan, Bahasa Banjar or Banjarnese holds the title of lingua franca (Hestiyani et al., 2010). After Tagalog, Cebuano is the second largest cultural-linguistic group in the Philippines, and is spoken by thousands of people in the Philippines (Blake, 1904). 

Primary languages spoken in the Philippines (Image Source: Translators without Borders)

Hence in this highly globalised world, it is more crucial than ever that we actively advocate for the preservation of regional language. Without proper linguistic preservation, particularly among the younger generation, these languages will become extinct. As drivers of change, young people must be aware of the importance of maintaining our national heritage, in order to ensure Southeast Asia remains a region that celebrates both unity and diversity. 

Thus, ASEAN is more than just a political or socio-economic forum. It is a social construct whose identity is rooted in the rich languages, culture, and post-colonial legacy of its member states. Looking forward, the question of linguistic sustainability in a multilingual society and maintenance of indigenous language is concerning. Hence, while the use of English and national languages act as an important unifying factor, we must continue to foster greater awareness of Southeast Asian local languages in order to celebrate the region’s unique identity. 

by Siti Mahsadinar Zams
Mahsa was born and raised in Indonesia, but later moved to Sydney and attended high school there. She’s currently studying International Relations in Tokyo, and loves to travel and learn new languages. You can usually find her sipping an unhealthy amount of iced green tea lattes, reading a book, or debating politics. 


– Blake, F. R. (1904). Differences between Tagalog and Bisayan. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 25, 162-169. doi:10.2307/592556
Hestiyani et al. (2010). Tata Bahasa Praktis Bahasa Banjar [Practical Grammar of Banjar Language]. Kemendikbud.
Hutapea, E. (2020, February 22). Indonesia Punya 718 Bahasa Ibu, Jangan Sampai Punah! [Indonesia Has 718 Mother Languages, Don’t Let it Get Extinct!]. Kompas. https://edukasi.kompas.com/read/2020/02/22/21315601/indonesia-punya-718-bahasa-ibu-jangan-sampai-punah?page=all
Pramuki, B. (2018). Sejarah Perkembangan Bahasa Indonesia. N.p.
Setiawan, B. N. (2020, May 05). A call for a more robust language policy in ASEAN. ASEAN Today. http://www.aseantoday.com/2020/05/a-call-for-a-more-robust-language-policy-in-asean/.
Thai language. (n.d.). Brittanica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Thai-language

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