The ASEAN Way: its future and Singapore’s role

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by Shawn Seah

It was mentioned in Straits Times by Lee Kuan Kew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) dean Kishore Mahbubani that ‘When ASEAN was born on the 8th August 1967, it was destined to fail’.

Today, ASEAN has just celebrated its 50th anniversary, and everyone in ASEAN will probably agree that it has been a remarkable achievement. ASEAN has created peace and stability in the region and this peace dividend has led to economic prosperity and well-being in Southeast Asia.  As a whole, ASEAN is made up of 633 million people. If it were a country, it would be the 7th largest in the world by population and is projected to be the 5th largest economy by 2020.  There are 3 points about ASEAN that are worth noting.

Firstly, given its most diverse community in the world, ASEAN has succeeded against all odds; it is amazing to see that it is hanging together peacefully as a community. The ASEAN model is very different compared to the European Union (EU) model for one reason: the EU model aims to create a tight, legalistic organisation. In my opinion, it was a mistake to have such a restricted model. Here in ASEAN, we have the ASEAN way, which is to have a looser rather than tighter arrangement to bring countries together.

ASEAN also has a unique demographic that resembles Singapore, given its vast difference in race and religion, which has always been a challenge to ASEAN unity. Hence, in ASEAN, we have a culture of ‘consultation’ and ‘consensus’. Over the past 50 years, the ASEAN’s members have evolved a capacity to talk to each other, resolving differences and reaching a common agreement. It is also very impressive to see how ASEAN member states do not force each other into agreements. Instead, they have the ASEAN minus model, which allows member states to opt out of the agreement until they are ready to be part of the ASEAN agreement.

Secondly, ASEAN countries have been through many ups and downs and it has always been very resilient throughout economic crises, political transitions and even natural disasters.

A most vivid example was the 2004 tsunami that affected ASEAN countries. Then, ASEAN nations came together to provide aid to the affected countries, helping them deal with the immediate aftermath of the disaster, as well as long-term reconstruction efforts. Today, most of the cities affected by the 2004 tsunami have been rebuilt.

There are also global challenges, a shift in geo-strategic balance and uncertainties, globalisation, cyber-security and terrorism. These are significant challenges across the world. However, given the resilience ASEAN community, ASEAN managed to turn these challenges into opportunities for the region. The rise in China and India is a huge opportunity for ASEAN to develop itself as a relevant geopolitical entity. The signs are already there – China’s the ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative involves ASEAN as a core part of its strategic vision, which spells plenty of opportunities arising from this shift in strategic balance in the region.

Thirdly, with Singapore is the chair for ASEAN 2018, the organization will have two main focuses.

First, resilience and second, innovation. Resilience is necessary given today’s threats of cyber-security and terrorism.  There is a need for an integrated effort between ASEAN member states to develop a collective mechanism to tackle the problem. This is not something that any country, especially a small one like Singapore, can deal with along.

Concerning innovation, ASEAN has also progressed significantly through time, from being an exporter of commodities to developing and catering to a larger, middle-class market. Now, ASEAN is entering a new phase of innovation.

For example, developing an integrated digital payment system in Singapore and Thailand on mobile phones. Also, with ASEAN’s rapid urbanisation, developing smart cities in ASEAN is crucial. In order for such a development to happen, a workforce that is comfortable with such innovation is key. Hence, in the next few years, the people in the work focus will be the youths of today.

This is why during the recent ASEAN Leader’s Conference held in London for the ASEAN students in the United Kingdom, it was pleasing to see that ASEAN has many youths who have strong aspirations for the ASEAN community. A point was brought up during the conference, which was that with innovation and automation, people may get displaced from their jobs if they do not have the right skills to keep up with the rapid development. One of the participants suggested that she should start volunteering in her country to teach the less educated community on digital technology to provide them with the ability to catch up with the rapid change in technology in the hope that they will be able to pick up new skills

Given how much ASEAN has progressed over the years, it is no doubt a remarkable achievement. ASEAN has the important ability to bring the region closer together, creating important relationships and synergies across various ASEAN nations. Having interacted with some of the international participants from the ASEAN Leader’s Conference 2018 in London, I am optimistic about the outlook for ASEAN and I believe that the work of today’s youths will make a great change in the ASEAN community.

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Photo credit: Rappler

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