Friday, December 30, 2011

The ASEAN Avatar

Recently I heard a BBC report on the Canadian debate over their national animal.  Canada has had the beaver (not the Bieber) as its national animal since the 1970s, but a movement has started to replace it with the more assertive (and aggressive?) polar bear.   This report led to think what the appropriate anthropomorphic symbol for ASEAN should be.

ASEAN already has an emblem, ten rice stalks bound together in unity.  This is a very appropriate symbol, as the united strength of the rice padi stalks is much stronger than that of any one stalk, symbolizing ASEAN consensus. Rice is also common to all of the ASEAN nations.

Unfortunately, the rice stalks are also inanimate.  Other entities have animated symbols:  the United States has a bald eagle, Russia has a bear, China has a panda (or more frequently, a dragon), and France has a chicken.   The EU even has Europa, so a political entity does not have to be a nation to have an avatar.  Hence in political cartoons and other media, other countries and entities have animated avatars, but ASEAN can only be represented as a plant, strong but passive, not engaging with others. 

Obviously this reflects several historical factors, mostly driven by the relative recent nature of ASEAN’s formation and the great diversity of its membership.  Thus, it is harder – but not impossible --  to formulate “ASEAN” traits that should be embodied in a symbol.  So we’ll try.

As an initial matter, cultural and religious issues prevent using a human as the embodiment of ASEAN.   For example, political cartoonists in Singapore avoid drawing caricatures of Singaporean politicians due to local sensitivities. 

Thus, we are left consider animals as potential symbols of ASEAN.  They should be common in the region and represent positive traits of its peoples:

Cat – because dogs and pigs do not have a great reputation in Islam, and mice are associated with disease, these common animals are disqualified.  Cats are common throughout the region, smaller animals that can nevertheless inflict damage when acting in unison.  However, the “herding cats” metaphor would be an inappropriate way to describe the ASEAN way of consensus.

Duck – another popular cartoon animal, ducks are common in ASEAN and are also peaceful, helpful animals.  Being edible might be a drawback, although that never stopped France from using a chicken as its symbol.

Lizard – these small animals are also common in ASEAN, and usefully eat insects.  However, they are also (wrongly) associated with being slimy, not a positive image.

Monkey – also common through ASEAN (even in urbanized Singapore), monkeys are intelligent and work well in groups.  However, the fact that monkeys are closely related to humans yet sub-human may make this animal an uncomfortable choice.

Frog – frogs commonly live in rice paddies and also eat insects.  They are quite vocal and numerous; whether these are positive or negative traits depends on your point of view.

Water Buffalo – this would be my choice.  The water buffalo is a peaceful animal, although with the ability to defend itself with its horns. It is common to ASEAN, laboring in the rice paddies and providing milk and ultimately meat to its owners (the old Far Eastern Economic Review used to have a tiny water buffalo commentator in its political cartoons).  The downside is that the water buffalo is a large and slow animal.

At the end of the day, emblematic symbols and animals are the result of popular sentiments about countries and entities. These sentiments (and perhaps the exhaustion of political cartoonists who don’t want draw 10x anything to depict the ASEAN countries as a group) will determine what is used to depict ASEAN.  Although seemingly trivial, these things are the stuff of creating an ASEAN Community.