ASEAN as a Multi-Religious Organization: Where to go?


Master of ASEAN Studies


Southeast Asia (SEA) is a community of divergent identities composed of five major religions (Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, and Hinduism).  The socio-religious diversity is a potential challenge to ASEAN integration given that the member states’ domestic laws, most especially the Islamic countries which are primarily adherent to their customary laws reflected in Qur’an, should be considered before putting it in a regional agenda.  Religious pluralism is evident in SEA.  In mainland SEA, the major religious orientation is Buddhism (Mahayana and Theravada).  In maritime ASEAN, Christianity dominates Philippines with only a minority practicing Islam.  However, Islam is very visible in other insular countries such as Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia.  Religion offers a powerful leverage to the national agenda most especially in Islamic countries. Dr. Imtiyaz Yusuf argued that “the real importance of ASEAN integration will go beyond economic and trade issues.  In terms of religious profile, 42% of the total population of ASEAN will be Muslim, 40% will be Buddhist and the rest divided among Christians and other religious minorities”.    

But then again, no one, or nothing can universalize religion.  Culture, as a way of life, stems back from the primordial practices of the people which are mostly derived from their religious orientation.  Even international laws on regional organizations can never impose a universality of religion.  How much more if we consider ASEAN as a multi-religious organization?  

Harmony, cooperation, an integration are the highest form of ASEAN’s existence but member states still put primacy on their respective national interest and sovereignty over regional integration.  At this point, I dare argue that countries are being more realist, by keeping up their national interest secured and sovereignty uncompromised, rather than succumb to institutional liberalism that entails a perilous step to their national objectives and sovereignty though it might present a diplomatic and economic development.  

Religion contributed to the breadth of diversity in ASEAN as it has profound implication to contemporary governance and administration – resulting to the ‘push and pull’ factors in the regional integration.  The supra-national character of ASEAN renders any national interest limited.  To address this challenge, the organization needs to consider diplomatic compromise in decision-making process as an option to make regional guidelines which will encompass the interest of the member countries and the organization as a whole.          



Muqbil, Imtiaz. (2012). “ASEAN Religious, Cultural Harmony as Critical as Economic Integration”. Travel Impact Newswire. Available from: a href=""> religious-cultural-harmony-as-critical-as-economic-integration-prof-yusuf> [Accessed 3rd  October 2016]

 Pimoljinda, Thanawat. (2013). Ethno-Cultural Diversity: A Challenging Parameter for ASEAN Regional Integration. Atlantis Press. [Burapha University]. Thailand.  

 Mahiwo, Sylvano D. (2013). Module 4: Religions and Philosophy in ASEAN Society. University of the Philippines (UP) Open University, Philippines.


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Tags: ASEAN, Asia, Religion, Southeast


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