ST (Senior Political Correspondent, Yasmine Yahya): Some people do believe that ASEAN is not much more than just a talk shop – not much progress is made over the years…
Min: Yes, that’s the usual throwaway line.
ST: So what can Singapore do to make sure that things really proceed?
Min: Well, the first thing is that ASEAN is not just a talk shop. And that is why I wanted to illustrate, first of all, that ASEAN is a dynamic, vibrant, growing, young region; and in the decades to come, full of opportunities. It has enormous economic implications for us in terms of jobs, opportunities for our companies to expand to, as well as – at the strategic level – Singapore’s role and Singapore’s relevance to our neighbours, and even on a global scale. So that is the first thing – there is no doubt that ASEAN is crucial for our economic prospects and jobs for the future. That is the first point.
The second point, going beyond economics, is that all this potential will not be realised if we don’t have peace and stability in our part of the world. And again, ASEAN is a crucial pillar for us to maintain peace and stability in this part of the world, in order for us to fulfil our potential.
The third point of course, is the point we have made on multiple occasions – that collectively, the ten of us have a voice on the global stage. Every year, leaders from the US, China, India, Japan, South Korea – in fact even North Korea attends the ARF - Australia and New Zealand, attend Summits convened by ASEAN. We act as a central and safe platform, an inclusive platform, for the major powers of the world. And they come because they want to, they come because they find it relevant, they find it useful to meet all the ASEAN leaders as well as to have discussions amongst themselves with respect to both global and regional opportunities. So if you just look at it in terms of economics, in terms of the maintenance of peace, and if you look at it in terms of our collective voice and relevance on the world stage, it is indispensable. ASEAN is absolutely indispensable.
I think the usual point about talk shop and sometimes the apparently slow pace with which things are implemented actually relate to a design feature of ASEAN, which is that we can only move forward in implementing plans, or indeed even making statements, if there is consensus. And the reason why we need to have consensus instead of a simple majority voting procedure is because ASEAN consists of ten members who are so very different – size, history, geography, culture, economic structure, even political systems. And in such a disparate grouping, the reason for insisting on consensus is to give everyone that sense of security, that sense that their interests would not be overridden. And although it may mean that things take longer to evolve, what it does mean is that when consensus is achieved, you know that it has the support of everyone and you can make progress. So it is what I would call slow and steady progress; and if you look over the span of the last 50 years, there has been significant progress on all those fronts as I mentioned just now.
If you look at it in terms of economic growth over the last 50 years amongst all of us, if you look at it in terms of the maintenance of peace and stability in our part of the world, there has been no major conflict amongst ASEAN Member States in the last 50 years. And then if you look at the fact that the rest of the world – the major powers of the world – still see value in engaging ASEAN, meeting with ASEAN, and looking for opportunities and launching projects which are of mutual benefit to major powers as well as to ASEAN, if you look at it from that point of view, there is no question that we have made significant progress in the last 50 years.
ST: Touching on peace and stability, one major issue that we are going to have to look at is the situation in Rakhine State.
Min: Well, that is one of many. We can go through the challenges facing ASEAN; that is one. Actually, you should take a step back - at the strategic level, what are the major changes which have occurred in the world which would have an impact on ASEAN? And for this, I would refer to the speech I gave two, three months ago where I shared the major trends which have led to us now being at what I believe is an inflexion point.
Number one, the geo-strategic balance of power is changing. We all know about the rise of China, you have the rise of India, you have Europe having to cope with both the challenge of Brexit as well as the debates on immigration and its political direction, you have got the United States with the new administration emphasising “America First”. So the whole geo-strategic structure and balance is in a process of major alteration. So that’s one big thing.
The second thing is, we are also living through a digital revolution that’s transforming jobs and economies all over the world. It’s not possible to isolate or cut yourself off from the impact of the digital revolution on jobs, and this certainly confronts us in ASEAN as well.
Then, the other big challenge is, if you look at the last 50 years, a lot of the economic progress that was made within ASEAN was based on the paradigm of greater economic integration, lowering trade barriers – basically on the paradigm of free trade. And yet, the global consensus which almost assumes free trade and the pursuit of free trade agreements as a norm… that global consensus is fraying at the political level. So that’s another big challenge that we confront.
And then the fourth point is that - actually the fourth point is not new - the fact that ASEAN will always face challenges – pulls and pushes on our centrality and on our unity.
So if you just add up these four factors: global geo-strategic balance of power, digital revolution, the consensus on free trade fraying, and the ever-present challenges on our centrality and our unity, we are at what I believe is an inflexion point. So that’s at the strategic level. Then you ask, okay in that case, what are the specific issues that arise from that? And that is where you have got issues like you mentioned, the situation in Rakhine State, which is within ASEAN. Earlier we had the South China Sea issue; and we are still negotiating the RCEP which reflects this question about the consensus for free trade and economic integration. So the point I am making is that we are not going to be short of issues that will arise from these strategic changes and challenges. So the way I look at it, first, is not to be surprised – not to let it distract us from the fundamental direction in which we need to go, but to deal with each issue as it comes. I should mention that the other set of issues – which are maybe not so much on people’s attention; but we still have transnational challenges like terrorism, the threat of global pandemics, cyber security. These are all, what I would say, they are crises waiting to happen. In fact, in the case of terrorism, last year we have seen it in the Southern Philippines, Marawi. Part of the problem or the possible sequelae with the situation in Rakhine State, of course, is creating another sanctuary, another focal point, for extremism to develop in Southeast Asia. So the point is we are not going to be short of crises, major challenges, but we have to take it in our stride and we have to understand that these potential crises are arising because of global strategic changes.
ST: So what kind of role do you see Singapore playing as Chairman of ASEAN this year? How will we move our interests forward?
Min: Well, I would say the most important characteristic for Singapore, and the reason why people, I believe, trust us, is that they know we will be an honest broker. We call it as it is. We don’t sugar-coat things and we don’t stick our heads in the sand, but at the same time we don’t just complain or highlight that there is a problem. We actively look for solutions – and even if we can’t have a complete solution, at least don’t make it worse – and try to explore, at least, some preliminary steps which can improve the situation. So that’s our overall posture. With respect to the themes of our Chairmanship, we focus on two broad themes: on resilience, and on innovation. Resilience, well, first of all, if you look at it on a global level, you will realise that because we believe we’re living in such exciting times, the ability for all of us – individually and collectively – to withstand say economic or security-related or natural disasters or pandemics, being resilient in the face of crises and potential crises is absolutely crucial for all of us. Where ASEAN comes into this is the fact that if we can stand together, assist one another, especially at points of greatest need during the crisis, this would be good for the particular member state who’s confronting the crisis primarily, but also good for building confidence and unity within ASEAN. So under that theme, there are lots of specific programmes which we can share with you later.
Innovation, in a sense, is firstly acknowledgement of the digital revolution; acknowledgement of its impact on jobs and economic opportunities, its impact on especially small and medium enterprises throughout ASEAN. We believe that the way is to recognise that the revolution is going on, prepare ourselves individually and collectively in terms of infrastructure, in terms of training, so that our people and our businesses can ride this revolution. So under that theme, there is a slew of different programmes which are available.
ST: So as you tackle all these crises and challenges, you mentioned the need for consensus, that being an important feature of ASEAN. But we also want to end the year with some progress, right? How do you balance the two? What can Singapore bring to the table this year that would really help move things forward?
Min: Well, there are several things which we are working very hard on, which I hope we’ll see some progress on. First, let’s look in terms of economics. I just came back from India, you know we had the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit. All the ASEAN leaders who spoke up were very keen on trying to settle the negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, RCEP, by this year. It reflects first, our belief in closer economic integration within ASEAN, and between ASEAN and our Dialogue Partners with whom we already have existing free trade agreements. But the whole idea of RCEP, put it all together – this will be the biggest free trade agreement and free trade area, I think, anywhere in the world. It will be a free trade area in some of the most dynamically vibrant economies of the world. This is something which all our leaders have prioritised. I’m sure the Indian leadership heard that signal loud and clear. So that’s one big project.
The other significant project is that in March we will begin formal negotiations on the Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea. The first thing I would say is that, I think the situation is much calmer now. Second, there is goodwill and good faith on all sides to begin these negotiations. Now, we recognise that this will not be straightforward or simple. You’re dealing with sovereignty. Don’t underestimate the challenge. But the fact that we are about to embark on those negotiations is in itself a very positive step. So that’s another major undertaking.
Then the other thing, which in fact has already partially started, is the ASEAN Single Window. This is basically trade facilitation, so that the companies who want to export goods or make declarations of origin, and all the other documentation needed, can do so electronically, and do so seamlessly, and be a real manifestation of closer integration within ASEAN. So that’s the other thing which, like I said, has already started. It started in January this year. I would expect that more and more of the Member States will come on board, and I think that’s something in which we will be able to see significant achievement by the end of this year.
Another newer thing which we are launching is the ASEAN Smart Cities Network. You know the term Smart Cities or Smart Nation has been rather popularised the last couple of years. What we thought would be useful: by establishing a network, we can exchange best practices, we can compare facilitative policies. More importantly, we can look for opportunities for our start-ups and our enterprises – especially the small and medium enterprises – to interoperate, to look for greater opportunities both regionally and globally. So that’s another, in a sense, new project which we want to focus on, and even as we do this, there are also opportunities for us to engage with China, India, and with America to again expand opportunities on the digital front.
Now, some of these projects which I’ve highlighted are going on over and above the already - I’m not sure whether I can use the word – frenetic pace of all the other stuff we’ve been working on in the past few years. I should mention one other thing which we are hoping to see is in the space of e-commerce and e-payments. We know that the growth of e-commerce is one of the consequences of the digital revolution – if we can facilitate it further within ASEAN and again with the view to expanding opportunities for small companies. I was given the example of Fitson, one of our small companies. I think they deal with baby products, it’s a Singapore company. In fact, most of its business – I think more than 70% of its business – is online. Anyway, there are going to be many such small companies all over ASEAN, and if we can bring the nexus between the producers of products and services with the consumers – reduce the overheads, reduce the transaction costs – I think we will expand opportunities and have a positive impact on jobs for ASEAN citizens. So that’s another area which we want to work on. Similarly, we can interconnect, or at least make a start to interconnect some of our e-payment platforms. Again, by lowering transaction costs, lowering the hurdles for doing business with one another, this will have a positive impact. So as I said, all these projects are going on, on top of the pace of ongoing cooperation.
ST: If I could zoom in to the COC, what kind of work has already started? Have you started?
Min: Well, the framework was settled last year.
Min: So the framework in a sense gives you the chapters. Now, it is the much more difficult point of actually working out the details. You know, but basically, you must realise the whole point about the COC is that it’s not going to resolve the competing or overlapping claims, but it is meant to maintain the peace, prevent accidents, prevent misunderstandings and to prevent escalation to a situation where nobody wants to get into. But as I said, this is a very sensitive, very complex set of negotiations. I don’t want to jump the gun, I don’t even want to put a deadline on it because what is more important is that there is goodwill and good faith. And Singapore – at least for the next few months as the coordinator of ASEAN-China relations and as Chairman of ASEAN for the rest of the year – our role as honest broker, the fact that we ourselves are not a claimant state, I think it’s helpful. At the same time, everyone knows that Singapore stands for the rule of law, especially international law and the 1982 UNCLOS; and that we are prepared to – in our own quiet way – stand for and assert what we believe in, and to look for constructive ways to secure the peace.
Again, the COC must be looked at against the backdrop of the wide range of interactions and opportunities that already exist between China and ASEAN. The disputes and the differences are only one aspect of the much broader, deeper and mutually-beneficial relationship. ASEAN and China have now reached 15 years of strategic relations. In fact, we are working on a document to, in a sense, sketch out our vision for how ASEAN and China will relate over the next 15 years – we’ll say by 2030, what our vision is for that relationship. So you have to look at it in context – it’s important, in fact it is crucial, but it is not the sum total of ASEAN-China relations.
ST: If I could zoom in to the situation in Rakhine State, so that has become more and more dire, that international attention has also intensified. How can we move this forward in a meaningful way while maintaining consensus?
Min: Well, the first thing is to acknowledge that this is a very complex, long standing, and sensitive problem. I say that because in fact, it goes back to one or two centuries. When you are dealing with problems of this nature – long-standing, sensitive, it involves race, language and religion – always approach it with humility to understand that it’s not going to be amenable to a quick fix, so that is my first point.
The second point is to recognise the danger – and I have already alluded to it earlier – that the last thing Southeast Asia needs is another focal point where extremism, violence and terrorism takes root. So it is a clear and present danger, not just to Myanmar but indeed to all of us. So that is to recognise that it is a potentially dangerous and destabilising area. The third thing is we must also recognise – and by the ASEAN Charter, in fact even by the UN Charter – that it is the responsibility of the local government. In this case, the primary responsibility lies with the government of Myanmar to do its best to resolve this. And when I say resolve this, you can devolve it into several levels. Number one, violence on all sides has to stop. Number two, you have to make at least a start to a political solution because ultimately, you can’t solve it through violence, you can’t solve it through fighting. A political solution needs to be found and a political solution needs to be found by the stakeholders directly involved, by the communities directly involved.
The third thing is that in the meantime – whilst you hope that the violence will stop and in fact to be fair, I think the situation is calmer now compared to say the situation in August last year, and whilst you hope and you encourage a search for a political solution – humanitarian assistance needs to be delivered because there are people, real people suffering terribly and the attention of the world and indeed ASEAN’s efforts must be focused on delivering humanitarian assistance. And I’m glad we were able to. We continue to be engaged with Myanmar as well as Bangladesh, which is where most of the people have moved to, to deliver humanitarian assistance. So, it has to be done on all three levels. I don’t believe grandstanding and loud political pronouncements in themselves are very useful.
So in any statement or in any action, I just ask myself those three questions. Is it stopping the violence? Is it making positive steps towards a political solution or is it delivering humanitarian assistance? So I measure everything against those three questions.
ST: Do you see the Myanmar government becoming more amenable to the first two?
Min: Well, again, to be fair, as I have said, I think the situation on the ground is much better now. I am glad that they signed two agreements with Bangladesh –the most recent one was in January – and although I will not underestimate the practical difficulties in this road, both Myanmar and Bangladesh have committed to begin the repatriation process. Again, I don’t want to underestimate, you know, how difficult, how complex that is, but at least you know, agreements were signed – a start has been made. But that does not mean a political solution has been found. So again our role as Chair is to be an honest broker, to be able to speak to all sides. They know – I think Myanmar knows – that Singapore will not embark on political grandstanding. We will not say anything that is unhelpful or breaks down engagement between us and all the parties concerned.
At the same time it does not mean that we will paper over or ignore egregious problems or practices. Again, it is the ability to be an honest and constructive stakeholder. That’s always Singapore’s role.
ST: The dynamics within ASEAN could very well shift this year with elections in Malaysia for example (Min: Yes), do you see that having an impact if Mahathir comes back?
Min: No. I think first, we have to work with whoever is the government of the day. That’s the first principle. So the elections in Malaysia is almost certainly this year; the elections I think in Indonesia is next year, and we just have to operate on this principle. I am talking now from the Singapore perspective that we will engage with the government of the day. And regardless of who the government is, Singapore’s approach always is to look for win-win outcomes to further promote interdependence, to advance economic integration. We believe that if we continue to do this in good faith and with good will, everyone – and we hope everyone, regardless of politics – will see value in this kind of approach: win-win, interdependence, collaboration.
ST: You touched on this a little bit earlier, but I would like you to elaborate if you could, on how the major powers are also starting to have more of a presence in ASEAN, whether that’s advancing political or economic interests. How does that make things difficult?
Min: Wellfirst of all, I think we should be glad that we are relevant and are of interest to the major powers. And as I said earlier, the reason they are is partly because of this - they know that there are 628 million people in ASEAN. It is still primarily a young population and if you look at our statistics, there is much growth potential over the next two, three decades. That’s why they are interested in us. First, opportunities. Secondly, geography: because so much of trade flows through maritime routes, and the maritime routes between Asia and Europe flow through Southeast Asia, a trade-dependent world must pay attention to developments in Southeast Asia. So that’s the second reason they are interested. First, opportunities within ASEAN, and the fact that ASEAN is such a major conduit for trade. The trade within the world has been growing and we hope will continue to grow. So that’s my first point. So when major powers are interested in us, I see that well, that actually first is an index of success. Now, having said that, we believe that we want to help construct an inclusive, open regional architecture. What that means is, we want to have good, healthy constructive relationships with all the major powers and emerging powers. I think as long as we can keep our eye on that objective, again whatever we do is inclusive, it is open. We don’t want to be forced to choose sides. We are not looking to close doors. We want to be open to all. We believe that by continuing to operate on this principle, and by again creating greater and greater integration and interdependence, we believe that’s a formula for peace and prosperity for all of us.
ST: What can we look forward to at this weekend’s retreat (AMM Retreat)?
Min: Well, it will be the first chance for us to get together, just amongst the ten of us, to review our chairmanship priorities, to review some of the projects which I already have described to you, to decide on timelines – how quickly to do it, as well as to scan some of the potential problems which we anticipate. The whole purpose of a retreat is to give us more time to interact informally, brainstorm and to discuss things more widely and also at a more fundamental level without the glare of too much publicity.
ST: How stressful has it been for you, a lot of sleepless nights?
Min: No, no, no, I don’t operate like that. I am a surgeon. The most important thing that I tell my colleagues here – for both diplomats and for surgeons – is the ability to sleep. You must be able to sleep, fall asleep quickly whenever you can so that you have the energy and freshness to deal with the challenges or the crises that will erupt. The second thing is to always expect the unexpected, and the third thing is to have a great amount of patience and perseverance. So no, I never lose sleep.
ST: That’s good to hear. Actually that’s pretty much it on my side. Is there anything else that you would like to talk about?
Min: [Reference to infographic prepared by MFA.] Basically what I wanted here was first to show, you see the populations, you see the GDPs and then you look at the per capita GDP. Some of the other things which I may or may not have put in would be the demographic profile, and then we have also included the point about our investments in these countries. It is always amazing how Singapore is often one of the biggest investors in all of these countries. Or even if you look at China and even in India, we are a major investor in those economies and that’s why I wanted to make this point about free trade. I started off by acknowledging that there is concern. I think people are worried about free trade because they are worried about competition. And there is some element of concern, even here in Singapore, but I hope Singaporeans will look at the totality of it. For instance, in Singapore our trade is three and a half times our GDP. So, for Singapore, free trade is our lifeblood – if you give in to this protectionist impulse, we will lose big time. Because at that ratio of three and a half times our GDP, it makes us unique in the whole world; nobody else has that kind of ratio.
Secondly, if you look at our investments, China, India and ASEAN - we must want them all to succeed and to do well for the sake of return on our investments. The other figure I haven’t computed yet, but we must try, to get is how many jobs in Singapore depend on free trade. I think that number is going to be very high in terms of export of our good and services. Now this is not to wish away the problems of free trade. This is why free trade negotiations are so complicated, and that’s why governments need to negotiate on one hand and on the other hand, also be restructuring our economies domestically and preparing our people to cope, and to take advantage of the digital revolution. But the point I’m trying to make is that greater economic integration and the promotion of free trade is absolutely crucial for our survival even as we undertake restructuring and reskilling and skills future, and review our safety nets domestically. We got to do both you see. What I do worry about is people saying “I cannot cope so let’s shut the door” – that will be fatal for us. So that’s something, you know from a political perspective, that’s the strongest message the leadership has to convey to our people. We need to have the confidence to face the competition and know that we will prevail.
ST: From what you said earlier about what happened in India, it seems like ASEAN leaders are all on the same page on this issue right?
Min: Yes, I was very pleased to hear that and I hope that our Indian partners received that signal loud and clear. In summary, ASEAN is crucial to us.
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