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24 Jan, 2015

How Brunei can use its God-given wealth to make ASEAN an Abode of Peace

Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar — The theme of this year’s ATF is “ASEAN – Tourism Towards Peace, Prosperity and Partnership.” After a long time, the word “peace” is mentioned in an ASEAN tourism theme slogan. That should strike a chord in Brunei, the only ASEAN country whose full name also includes the word “peace” — Brunei Darussalaam, or Brunei, Abode of Peace.

By population, Brunei is the smallest as well as the richest of the ASEAN countries. Over the years, it has sought to play an active role at ASEAN tourism meetings. The former Director-General of Tourism Brunei Sheikh Jamaluddin is a former chairman of the ASEAN Tourism Marketing Task Force.

Unlike other ASEAN countries, tourism is not very important to the Bruneian economy but it will be in future. Oil & gas exports drive the economy today, but when they run out, its rich rainforests will be a major tourism drawcard. This economic diversification programme has been under way for many years but galvanised following the recent drop in oil prices.

Brunei is also a devoutly Islamic country where people greet each other with the words “As Salaam Ulaikum,” which means “May peace be upon you”.

Converting greetings of peace into a state of permanence is set to be one of the biggest challenges facing the multi-cultural ASEAN region and its vibrant travel & tourism industry in the coming decade. After the integrated ASEAN Community takes shape in 2015, the population of ASEAN will be divided roughly between 46% Muslims and 42% Buddhists.

Today, the peoples of the two faiths live largely in peace. But certain elements outside the region are working overtly and covertly to ignite internecine conflict and strife. The Islamic world knows well who these people are and the tactics they use. The ASEAN countries confront an overarching need to ensure that the region does not fall victim to these designs.

Buddhists and Muslims have many shared values. One of the most prominent is the common call to refrain from consuming intoxicants, especially alcohol. True Buddhist and Muslim believers do not consume alcohol. The Buddhist Lent, a period of meditation and solace, is very similar to the month-long fasting period of Ramadan. The five-times-a-day prayer is similar to the meditation techniques of Buddhism. The once-in-a-lifetime Islamic pilgrimage, the Hajj, is very similar to the increasingly popular Buddhist circuit covering the holy spots of Lumbini, Bodhgaya, Varanasi, Nalanda, and many more in India and Nepal.

Buddhists and Muslims need to bond around these shared values. To build and cement these bonds will require a sustained, well-coordinated effort that will fit perfectly with the objectives of the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community blueprint. Public events, conferences, exhibitions can be held around the region to unite Buddhists and Muslims around these common themes. Young people, business leaders, educators, academics, NGOs, the media and many other sections of society can work together to organise lecture series, awards schemes, workshops, concerts and other such activities backed up by published articles, TV documentaries and social media campaigns.

It will have to be a region-wide campaign conducted with the same persistence and consistence as any advertising campaign.

It will be expensive. And that’s where Brunei, Abode of Peace, comes in.

Brunei has the resources to set the ball rolling. The campaign cannot be conducted in isolation, nor can it be done in an ad hoc, one-off fashion. It will have to be ongoing, well-designed, well-led, well-organised and well-coordinated.

If eminent members of the Thai and Bruneian royal families can potentially lead the effort, there is no shortage of well-meaning, qualified people within ASEAN region who will back it, in either a personal, professional or institutional capacity.

What is going on in Europe and the United States is a warning sign of the highest order. Asia and ASEAN, home to the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, Indonesia, are the next targets of the troublemakers.

ASEAN can either resort to wishful thinking and assume that it will not happen here. Or it can try and put out the fires later. Both will be losing propositions. Like thwarting any medical virus, prevention is better than cure.

If Brunei wishes to truly remain an Abode of Peace and help preserve the entire ASEAN region as an Abode of Peace, it will have to help safeguard and preserve the peace.

Peace is what both Islam and Buddhism preach. Converting it into practise will take time, effort and resources. Time is running out. Eventually so will the resources. And ASEAN will rue not having done enough to prevent and pre-empt a looming crisis.