Speech By Mr Goh Chok Tong, Senior Minister, at the Global Action Forum for Arab and Asian Dialogue, 27 April 2007, 9.30 am at the Ritz Carlton, Millenia -Asia and the Middle East: Towards A 21st Century Partnership

His Royal Highness Prince Feisal bin Al Hussein
Mr Saeed Al-Muntafiq, Chairman of the Young Arab Leaders
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

When Mr Saeed Al-Muntafiq saw me last October to suggest that Singapore hosts the inaugural meeting of the Global Action Forum for Arab and Asian Dialogue, I immediately agreed. His vision of building global partnerships across the world for young leaders is one that we in Singapore strongly support. I have always believed in the critical importance of promoting understanding between different regions, and building bridges across cultures. Hence, I had initiated ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting), FEALAC (Forum for East Asia-Latin America Cooperation) and two years ago, AMED (Asia-Middle East Dialogue). Singapore is pleased and honoured to host this Global Action Forum.

2 But really, Asia and the Middle East are old friends. We have had a long and fruitful history of exchanges, stretching back two thousand years. In addition to the famous Silk Road and Spice Route, Arab traders helped to establish the Maritime Silk Route. These served as major conduits for the flow of trade, people, ideas and religious beliefs. However, during the last century, contacts between Asia and the Middle East weakened. Asia was focused on internal developments and the Middle East paid more attention to the West. But the world has changed post-September 11, and with a rising Asia, these ancient links are being revitalised.

3 My theme today is how Asia and the Middle East can come together to build an exciting future. I will examine the factors which propel this partnership and explore how it can be deepened.

A Surging Asia

4 In recent years, Middle East countries have redirected their attention to a surging Asia, whose growth is led by China and India.

5 China has grown at an average of 9% over the past 10 years. Analysts expect China to grow by at least 8% per year over the next decade. I am a regular visitor to China and, in fact, have just come back from Beijing last night. China's leaders have the wisdom and will to do what is necessary to sustain China's growth and ensure political and social stability. I am optimistic about China's future.

6 India, too, has seen rapid growth since it began to reform its economy in 1991. Over the past three years, India grew at 8.4% per year. Indian leaders are confident that this growth rate can be sustained, and even surpassed in the coming years. Indeed it can, as India has a large pool of talent and a burgeoning services sector. It is now strengthening its manufacturing sector and proceeding with Special Economic Zones.

7 Strategically positioned between China and India is ASEAN. I have said elsewhere that ASEAN is like the body of a jumbo jet being lifted by the wings of China and India. But ASEAN is aspiring to be more than just a fuselage. ASEAN is remaking itself into a powerful engine of growth. ASEAN countries are working towards an ASEAN Economic Community by 2015. This will be an integrated market and production zone, with free flow of goods, services and investment. We are finalising an ASEAN Charter, to be signed in Singapore this November. This will transform ASEAN into a more effective rules-based organisation sharing certain core principles and values. These moves will revitalise ASEAN.

A Confident Middle East

8 Just as Asia is surging forward, so too is the Middle East. Recognising that the Middle East is an important player in the global strategic balance, Asia has stepped up efforts to engage the Middle East and understand the region better.

9 High oil prices give many Middle East countries immense capital to invest. They are building massive infrastructure and investing in new sectors to diversify and grow their economies. Asian countries can participate in these projects and contribute to the growth of the Middle East region. Likewise, Middle East countries can contribute to Asia's growth.

10 Over the last three years, I have travelled far and wide in the Middle East - from Egypt to Jordan, from the Gulf States to Iran, and from Israel to the Palestinian Territories. I have also been to several Maghreb countries. Having a first-hand feel of these countries and meeting their leaders face to face have been invaluable. What I have learnt is that the reality is very different from images conveyed by the media. There are many positive and inspiring developments there.

11 While the Middle East faces significant political challenges and serious security threats, remarkable transformations are also taking place. Beyond the images of conflict and violence reported by the media are impressive developments and real improvements made to the lives of ordinary people. A confident Middle East is emerging, one that is brimming with dynamism and vigour.

12 The Middle East leaders I have met are acutely aware of the strategic shifts in the global economy, and the impact on their countries. They are reforming their economies and reducing dependency on oil. At last month's Arab League Summit in Riyadh, Arab leaders agreed to work towards establishing an Arab Free Trade and Customs Union by 2008, which will eventually lead to a Common Arab Market in 2014. This development will transform the Middle East. I hope this Common Arab Market will link up with the ASEAN Economic Community.

Renewing the Asia-Middle East Partnership

13 Over the past decade, trade and investment between the Middle East and Asia have quadrupled. This will continue to rise. Asia's dependency on the Middle East for energy will also continue to grow. Some analysts have described the revival of commercial linkages between Middle East and Asia as the setting up of a "New Silk Road".

14 To me, the renewed partnership being forged between Asia and the Middle East goes beyond the single dimension of commerce. It embraces multiple fields, including politics, culture and people-to-people relations.

15 What is propelling this interaction is the belief that Asia and the Middle East can benefit by consolidating our friendship and cooperation. Although there are significant cultural differences, we also share similar interests and common challenges. We do not have deep historical baggage or ideological barriers preventing us from developing closer ties. We can benefit from sharing experiences and working together.

16 For the rest of my speech, I would therefore like to reflect on three key challenges which both our regions face.

Reconciling Tradition with Modernity

17 The first challenge: how to reconcile tradition with modernity and change.

18 In Asia, events over the last 200 years can be viewed as part of a long struggle to cope with modernity, which was initiated by contacts with the West.

19 Chinese humiliation under the exploitation of Western colonial powers forced the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty, ending more than two millennia of imperial rule. Through subsequent movements and revolutions, the Chinese people wrestled with the challenge of modernising and strengthening their country, while preserving their traditions and culture.

20 In Japan, the appearance of Commodore Perry's "black ships" in 1853 catalysed the start of the Meiji era. This brought a sweeping programme of modernisation, which made Japan a world power at the beginning of the 20th Century.

21 The Arab experience has not been entirely different. Napoleon's naval expedition to Egypt in 1798 was the first major Western incursion into the heartlands of the Middle East, bringing with it Western power, influence and technology. It also triggered a long struggle in the region between preserving tradition and embracing modernity - a dilemma which has preoccupied young Arabs and other Middle East reformers for nearly two centuries and which continues to preoccupy them today.

22 The common driving force of developments throughout Asia and the Middle East has been the profound desire of its peoples to catch up with the West, whilst preserving their own core values and culture. There is no easy formula to determine where the fulcrum between tradition and modernity lies, but it is nevertheless a critical challenge that we must all address.

Maximising Human Resources

23 This leads me to the second challenge: the need to maximise human resources.

24 In the past, a country's economic power was determined by comparative advantages in land and natural resources. In a globalising world, the quality of talent and skills is the key competitive advantage for any country. Human capital will determine who runs ahead of the pack.

25 Today, almost half of Asia's population is under the age of 24, while more than half of the Middle East's population is in that age group. A young population is a huge asset provided it is properly trained. If we are able to maximise their potential, they will become a formidable force driving growth and change in our countries.

26 Education is the key.

27 This is certainly the experience of Singapore. Apart from people, we have no natural resources, hinterland or agriculture. Our education system is therefore customised to maximise the potential of each child and prepare our boys and girls to be useful, productive and responsible citizens. For example, Muslim students going to madrasahs must study and attain minimum standards in subjects like English, Mathematics and Science. That way, the madrasahs fulfil their role of imparting religious knowledge to students and at the same time prepare them to make a living in the modern world after leaving school.

28 Many Middle East countries are already investing heavily in human resource development. They are doing as much "people-drilling" as they are "oil-drilling". Dubai has set up a Knowledge Village to serve as an education and training hub while Qatar has set up an Education City. To contribute to human resource development in the Middle East, Singapore has recently worked with Jordan and Qatar to establish two regional training centres under AMED.

29 In Asia, as the experiences of Taiwan, China and India have shown, we have benefited from sending students to study overseas. Many Middle East countries are doing likewise. A Saudi Minister told me that Saudi students, in addition to the West, are increasingly going to China, Japan, Korea, India, Malaysia and Singapore. When I asked him if they were concerned that these students would return with new and liberal ideas, he replied that there would be tensions but this would ultimately be good for Saudi Arabia. It was necessary to "embrace the world", he added.

Managing Political Challenges and Security Threats

30 Finally, we must manage the political challenges and security threats in our regions.

31 Fortunately for Asia, the geostrategic landscape remains relatively positive. However, two regional hotspots bear watching: North Korea and cross-strait relations.

32 The Six-Party Talks - comprising the US, China, Japan, South Korea, DPRK and Russia - are helping to contain and manage tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The recently-concluded deal for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear programme in exchange for economic aid and normalisation of relations with the US was a breakthrough. We hope that the uncertainty over the implementation of the agreement can be overcome.

33 Next, cross-strait relations. There is a growing contradiction between economic forces that are integrating Taiwan's economy with the mainland, and political developments in Taiwan which are pulling it away. In the run-up to elections in Taiwan - Legislative Yuan elections later this year and Presidential elections next year - cross-strait relations could become tense. The possibility of miscalculations should Taiwan push things to the brink cannot be discounted.

34 The Middle East, too, continues to grapple with serious challenges like Iraq, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

35 The situation in Iraq defies any easy solution. The clock is ticking away. All the parties in Iraq, the US and Iraq's neighbours must work together to restore security so that the right conditions can be created for stability and development. If Iraq descends into chaos, it would destabilise the Middle East. Iraq would also become a breeding ground for terrorism, with repercussions for not just the Middle East but also the entire world.

36 Iran has a long history and a rich culture. The Iranian people are conscious of their nation's place in the region and proud of their history and civilisation. I visited Iran for the second time last month. I mentioned to Iranian leaders that I saw Iran emerging as a regional player. Just as China has made efforts to assuage its neighbours that its emergence is peaceful and beneficial to the region, Iranian leaders should play a constructive role to help bring peace and stability to the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. I also encouraged Iran to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and build confidence with the international community. We hope that the impasse over Iran's nuclear programme can be resolved peacefully.

37 Next, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The recent Mecca Accord that led to the formation of the Unity Government in Ramallah represents a step forward. We welcome the resurrection of the Arab Peace Initiative by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and the unanimous support by the Arab Heads of State who attended the Riyadh Summit. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has not rejected the Initiative and has welcomed a meeting with Arab leaders. He is meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas fortnightly. Clearly, much more work remains to be done. We hope that a just and durable peace in the Middle East can be achieved.

38 Finally, overlaying these regional challenges is the threat of terrorism. Terrorism is both an immediate and long-term global threat. The recent suicide bomb attacks in Algiers and Casablanca are a grim reminder that all civilised countries in the world, not just the Middle East and Asia, must unite to fight this global scourge.

39 The war against terrorism must be waged ideologically, as well as with armies and security forces. However, the battle for the hearts and minds of young Muslims must be fought by Muslims themselves. It is very encouraging that leaders like King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah II of Jordan and King Mohammed VI of Morocco are spearheading the ideological fight. The international community can help by supporting the moderate voices of Islam to defeat the extremists and terrorists.

40 Let me conclude.

41 The destinies of Asia and the Middle East are becoming intertwined. The future of our two regions lies in our own hands. I would like to see young leaders like you shaping this future. Action Fora like this one is a good way of doing so. Use the next two days well to strengthen the foundations of the 21st Century Partnership between Asia and the Middle East.

Thank you.

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