Bandung is now the coolest city I’ve been to in Southeast Asia.
I don’t mean in a cultural way (although the district of new coffee shops I visited felt extremely hipster), but in terms of temperature. Though the weather forecasts proclaimed 22 degrees celsius, the constant breeze arriving from the mountains ringing the city meant that walking around was reminiscent of Amsterdam in spring.
I was there for the fifth edition of the ASEAN Youth Volunteer Programme organised by the National University of Malaysia (UKM), which in previous years was held at their campus in Bangi and partner universities: the Institute of Technology of Cambodia in Phnom Penh and the University of the Philippines in Manila. This year their partner was the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) and for the fourth time I spoke to the fifty successful volunteers (from an applicant pool of 2000) from across the ten countries about the importance of taking the initiative to define what their country – and ASEAN – should be about.
The themes will be familiar to a reader of my column: that the policy decisions of any polity should not be dominated by a small clique making decisions affecting everyone else without accountability or checks and balances; and that accordingly, young people have a particularly important role in speaking up and using available opportunities to define the temperament and policymaking of their nation, or in this case ASEAN.
As usual it was the Filipino participants who took the initiative in the interactive session, lending weight to my point that some countries possess a stronger practice of speaking up than others: a product of both cultural traditions and national institutions. One mentioned the recent problems in Mindanao, and I suggested he talk to his new Indonesian friends about Aceh: and that sparked a wider conversation about how to manage people within a country who might want to live in a different way from the majority.
Volunteers from several countries raised other themes derived from recent trends: the proliferation of populist leaders and fake news, and in particular concern that some ASEAN leaders are using a clever mix of state apparatus and social media to deliberately mislead people. I was glad that they were questioning, and it is a credit to UKM (which processes the applications) that they now have the opportunity to further develop their sentiments as they attend workshops, complete modules and work with communities on disaster risk reduction over the next few weeks. (I did urge them to also enjoy the SEA Games on telly where possible, and to cheer on the Timor Leste athletes as they seek entry into ASEAN.)
One of the activities will take them up to Tangkuban Perahu, a stratovolcano where you can see smoke, including yellow sulphur being emitted from its caldera: a phenomenon unseen in Malaysia. This geological feature unsurprisingly has a human legend: as its name suggests, it is supposedly an upturned boat, built by giants to prevent an incestuous marriage between mother and son in an Oedipus-like Sundanese saga.
Back downhill, the angklung seems to be a defining feature of present-day Sundanese culture, and at Saung Angklung Udjo, a training centre and performance venue for people to learn, play and craft the rattling instrument, I enjoyed pieces in musical scales on the gamelan never heard in Malaysia, young boys and girls participating in ancient dances of pre-Islamic origin (to which there is no apparent stigma attached), to pop songs designed to involve the tourists.
The audience demographic told another story of human interaction, for the majority of them were from Holland: English was the fourth language after Sundanese, Dutch and Indonesian to be spoken by the emcee. Those who fought the colonial masters during the struggle for Indonesian independence probably did not imagine that seventy years later, their descendants would form such an important contributor to the economy.
Ten years after independence, Sukarno hosted the Asian-African Conference in Bandung, in which “colonialism in all its manifestations” i.e. from both capitalists and communists was condemned, and where a ten point declaration on the promotion of world peace and cooperation was signed. At the Gedung Merdeka – now a museum where the conference took place – they claim that the conference paved the way for so many more countries, including the Federation of Malaya, to gain independence in the decade after.
One day, perhaps we will more plausibly be able to claim that programmes like UKM’s ASEAN Youth Volunteer Programme did so much to make ASEAN a meaningful entity improving the lives of its citizens.
First published in Conservatively Speaking Freely, themalaymailonline.com and theborneopost.com, 05 August 2017