It’s May 1998 and the Rupiah has collapsed. There are race riots in Jakarta. Chinese-Indonesian owned businesses are being targeted.

In Solo, some 556km to the east of the capital, Sumartono Hadinoto, a Chinese-Indonesian businessman is worried. He knows something is wrong. The city is eerily silent. Within hours, his home-cum-office is attacked, looted and set ablaze. He manages to escape an angry crowd by scrambling through a hole behind his compound.

Ten years later, when I first meet and interview him, the memories of ’98 are still raw. But Sumartono is an optimist and a firm believer in “paying it forward.”

Mobilizing his fellow Chinese-Indonesian businessmen friends, he raises funds for ambulances and public health campaigns.

He also mentions casually that Solo has been lucky: its Mayor, a young reformist politician has done a great deal to rebuild confidence in the shattered city.

Fast-forward to 2017 and that Mayor, Joko Widodo, is now President of Indonesia.

I find myself back in Solo, meeting with businessmen to discuss its creative industries.

Suddenly, a five-foot-tall, hijab-wearing lady steps forward as if to ask a question. Instead, Ibu Haryani (I managed to interview her afterwards), a sixty-one-year-old schoolteacher turns to the audience, microphone-in-hand and started singing.

Her song, a traditional Javanese melody called “Asmoro Dono” (“Falling in Love”) managed to silence the rambunctious crowd momentarily. It certainly made an impression on the guests from the Philippines and Myanmar.

Later, at the Pondok Pesantren Assalam, a well-regarded Islamic residential school, I was awed as the demurely-dressed female teenage students fired-off a series of remarkably probing questions about ASEAN.

It’s a sequence of events so extraordinary that even now, I remain a little stunned by it all.

But then again, this is the strange beauty of Southeast Asia: a cerita (or story), like this can happen.

If you’re lucky enough: you can witness them up close.

That’s what Ceritalah is about.

Roughly, it means “tell me a story!” or “what’s up?”

It’s colloquial – the kind of thing you’d hear yelled across a coffee-shop.  I’ve learnt that one “cerita” inevitably leads to another, until I’m enmeshed in a thick gauze of memories and often, some very tall tales.

I’ve been writing this column now for well over twenty years. Its genesis was in Malaysia, my home.

But it began moving as I realized that storytelling knew no boundaries, that you couldn’t make sense of Southeast Asia until you spent time traveling through the region.

In an era of Brexit and Trump, with celebrated pundits having failed so miserably, Ceritalah ASEAN is storytelling from the ground-up. I’m not here to impose my views on the world.

Most of the time, you’ll find me out on the road, notebook and pen-in-hand, leaning across to my interview subject and saying “Ceritalah…”, especially in the region’s secondary cities.

Why? Let’s face it, Southeast Asia’s capital cities are alike: the same gigantic shopping malls with the same tedious brands, the same massive traffic jams and the same dreary, so-called “cosmopolitan” elites.

By comparison the region’s secondary cities have more character.

You’ll learn more about the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam from spending a day in Davao, Manado and Bach Ninh respectively.

Change, the kind that alters nations, often starts in these cities.

To me, it is no accident that the current Presidents of Philippines and Indonesia were once Mayors of Davao and Solo respectively.

Also, as 2016’s events have shown, the populist wave that is sweeping the globe has eroded the power of the capital cities and their self-serving elites.

ASEAN must wake up, if it’s to make any real difference. Its achievements – as it celebrates its 50th anniversary – are modest.

It has created only limited benefits for its 600-million strong population, especially its unskilled labourers.

Even the vast cohorts of SME business people that I meet regularly in my travels are trying to figure out what the grouping and its much-vaunted AEC can offer them.

Indeed, you get a sense that ASEAN, as an organisation, rolls on to satisfy a coterie of smug metropolitan elites.

Meanwhile, genuine people-to-people ties remain elusive. In the absence of leadership from governments, it behoves civil society to push the process of regional integration.

That is what I am trying to contribute to via Ceritalah ASEAN: to increase the regional knowledge and networks of ordinary Southeast Asians, especially in the secondary cities.

Because at the end of the day, it’s our ceritas, our stories, that bind us together, that make us human.


Karim Raslan is a well-known Southeast Asian commentator and columnist. Follow Karim on Twitter: @fromKMR | Instagram: fromkmr

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.