17 Nov 2017
MFA Press Statement: Remarks by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong at “ASEAN@50: IN RETROSPECT” Seminar on 16 November 2017 in Bangkok, Thailand
REFRESHING ASEAN’S PURPOSE AT 50
1. At 50, a man starts to feel his age. As an organization, ASEAN must not. For it not to age and die like a human being, ASEAN needs to refresh itself with a strong sense of purpose. This is the task for current and future ASEAN leaders.
2. ASEAN started life as an unnatural geopolitical construct. It was forged by leaders seeking first and foremost to survive the high noon of Cold War politics. They did not want Southeast Asia to be balkanised by external powers. This singular focus brought the ASEAN 5 together.
3. The five founding members were distinctly different from each other – distinct peoples with different histories, political systems and external alignments. But the leaders embraced a shared vision of a stable, united and prosperous Southeast Asia.
4. When the Cold War ended, ASEAN set its sights on strategic growth. Brunei in ‘84, and later, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar joined ASEAN in the ‘90s. The newer members brought greater differences. Enlargement created its own strength in diversity, but also new challenges in integration. We set about building an ASEAN community.
5. We started with the ASEAN FTA to cut intra-ASEAN trade barriers and attract foreign investment. The FTA brought modest benefits to the member countries. Singapore was a strong supporter; in fact, I broached AFTA with then Thai PM Khun Anand in July 1991.
6. The Asian Financial Crisis did not stop us. To weather future financial shocks and boost the region’s attractiveness to investors, we had to go beyond tariff reductions. At the 2002 ASEAN Summit, I floated the vision of an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). This new sense of purpose invigorated ASEAN and added impetus to regional integration.
7. The AEC was formally established in 2015, five years ahead of schedule. Similarly, the political-security and socio-cultural communities were added to create new dimensions of integration beyond economics.
8. As a result, a cohesive ASEAN played a role in the larger Asian theatre. “ASEAN in the driver’s seat” became the mantra. The “ASEAN Plus” concept brought in our three Northeast Asian neighbours. To maintain an open architecture, the East Asia Summit was birthed to keep major powers focused on the region. We welcomed Australia, New Zealand, India, and later, the US and Russia.
What next for ASEAN
9. We can be quietly proud of the accomplishments of ASEAN. But at 50, can it refresh itself with a new sense of mission? Can ASEAN keep the regional architecture intact and relevant, amidst new stresses?
10. To have weight and influence, ASEAN itself needs to be successful. This requires three elements: robust internal growth, regional integration, and strong collective leadership.
11. First, how can we generate internal growth? Today, ASEAN is blessed with a young and growing population. With a population of more than 600 million and a combined GDP of US$2.5 trillion, ASEAN has the potential to be a significant economic force in Asia. But will it fulfil or squander this potential?
12. Education reform is key. So start by investing in our young and emphasising skills formation and life-long learning. Our ability to thrive and meet the challenges of the future economy requires a workforce pushing the frontiers of science and technology. Every year, China produces 4.7 million STEM – that is Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine – graduates; and India, 2.6 million.
13. I could not find the numbers for ASEAN. However, ASEAN Member States have more than one thousand universities that offer STEM courses. We must push bright young students towards STEM.
14. Second, how can we channel that growth towards regional integration? We must focus on future-oriented regional initiatives. Leverage on digital economy to build a SMART ASEAN Community. A digitally connected SMART ASEAN Community will have the market size to compete against China and India. To do this, ASEAN should strengthen the linkages between its member states’ tech ecosystems, to facilitate the exchange of ideas and solutions. One initiative in this area is the Global Innovation Alliance (GIA). Under the GIA, IE Singapore and Thailand’s C asean and Hubba (key community leaders within Thailand’s tech scene) have signed MOUs to link up tech hubs and start-ups from both sides.
15. Third, ASEAN must exercise collective leadership. In ASEAN’s earlier phases, there was a strong core of ASEAN-minded leaders who saw the world beyond the present and their own countries’ interests. They believed that their national interests were best advanced through a cohesive, stable and prosperous ASEAN. This requires trust at both national and personal levels, and a willingness to look out for each other.
16. If we can grow internally, link up through new technologies, and exercise collective leadership, ASEAN can be a central player in a changing world order. ASEAN can contribute to the stability of Asia as a neutral, non-threatening interlocutor between powerful regional and global protagonists.
17. The notion of ASEAN has always been strategic. To keep it so, an effective core of leaders who can inject a new sense of purpose is the only way for ASEAN to thrive in its next 50 years.
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MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS