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October 07, 2017

Edited Transcript of Remarks by Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan at the SMU Institute for Societal Leadership Societal Leadership Summit, 6 October 2017

ESM Goh Chok Tong
H.E. Susilo Bambung Yudhoyono
Mr. Ho Kwon Ping
Mr. Ratan Tata
Distinguished guests

Ladies and gentlemen

I am honoured to be here.  This is a very opportune moment for us to celebrate ASEAN’s 50th Anniversary.

I would like all of you to reset your clocks and imagine what it was like in 1967, when ASEAN was conceived.  When the first five founding members of ASEAN got together – Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand – their vision was to create a zone of peace and prosperity in Southeast Asia.  While it is easy for us to say peace and prosperity now, it was practically a miracle that these five states could come together and envision ASEAN then.

Let us go through the circumstances in 1967.  It was just two years since Singapore had been ejected by Malaysia.  Malaysia and the Philippines had ongoing territorial disputes over Sabah.  Indonesia had vehemently opposed the formation of Malaysia, and there was a violent Konfrontasi.  In fact, just a stone’s throw from here is MacDonald House, where there was a bombing and lives were lost.  And the two Indonesian marines who were responsible for it in 1967 were put on trial for murder.

It was a miracle that the five states and their political leaders were able to overlook ongoing difficult and sensitive issues, and instead to commit themselves to a longer-term vision of peace and prosperity in our part of the world.

In fact, the domino theory at the time held that non-Communist Southeast Asia would fall like dominoes in the face of a progressive expansion of Communism.  Remember that the war in Indochina was in full bloom at that time.

In other words, this was a region that confronted instability, tension, bilateral and regional problems, and very low levels of economic development.  The per capita GDP in Singapore at that point in time was just slightly over 500 USD.

I set all this out so that we hopefully will be able to both appreciate the vision of the founding members, and give a fair hearing to the achievements of ASEAN over five decades.  ASEAN required each member state to be able to set aside bilateral issues and focus on long term strategic development and regional economic integration.  My predecessor, Mr S Rajaratnam said on the occasion of the founding of ASEAN, “If we do not hang together, we will hang separately.”  It was this ability to look long term, to look beyond the immediate, and to look beyond bilateral issues that made all the difference.

ASEAN’s development over the past 50 years has been spectacular.  Former rivals have become friends and partners.  We have been able to work together effectively to enhance economic integration.  Think about the work that has been done to expand free trade within and beyond ASEAN.  We have expanded collaboration in defense, disaster relief, and protection of rights of women and children.  We have a lot to be proud of and to celebrate.

Over the decades, ASEAN has also been able to initiate a robust regional architecture of diplomatic fora and economic platforms.  I am always humbled and amazed at every ASEAN Summit, which is followed by the East Asia Summit.  We are able to bring together Leaders not just of the ten ASEAN Member States, but also of the United States, China, Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India, Russia and beyond.  It is improbable and humbling that ASEAN is able to set the stage for discussion among so many other states from different regions, some of them continental-sized economies.

Amidst the current global climate of anti-globalisation, rising protectionism, xenophobia, and nationalism, ASEAN has in fact become even more relevant, because we remain a region that is fully committed to a rules-based multilateral system and an open financial, economic and trading system.

Today, ASEAN represents 8.8% of the world population.  We have about 634 million people.  If you compare us objectively with growth prospects in many other parts of the world, ASEAN is a bright spot.  Our combined nominal GDP today stands at 2.6 trillion US dollars.  This means that if ASEAN was a single political and economic entity, we would be the world’s 6th largest economy.  But that’s not all.  60% of the population in ASEAN is estimated to be below the age of 35.  In a world of falling fertility and increasing aging, having a young population of 634 million people – which is the population of Europe – and still growing from a relatively low base, means that ASEAN has immense potential in the decades to come.

So it is a testament to the vision and courage of ASEAN’s founding fathers, that we have arrived here five decades later, and are able to look within ASEAN and say, we generally have succeeded.  We have built a zone of peace, stability, prosperity, and high economic growth potential and dynamism for the decades to come.

Having said all that, I also want to take head-on some of the criticisms and comments that have often been directed at ASEAN.  We are often unfairly compared to the European Union, sometimes even to the United Nations.  But we are fundamentally a very different entity.  Think about it: there is no other regional organisation in the world that encompasses as much diversity as ASEAN.  Think about the differences in size: Singapore is smaller than the island that is in the crater of Lake Toba in Sumatra.  Think about the differences in economic development and per capita GDP across ASEAN.  Think about the differences in political structures of governance amongst the ten member states of ASEAN.  Think about the differences in demographics.  These differences are enormous.  No other regional organisation in the world has as much diversity and divergence, and as many differences as ASEAN.

Consequently, that is why ASEAN has to work on the principles of consensus and, equally, non-interference in domestic affairs.  In effect, every single member of ASEAN has a veto right.  And the point I would like to make today is that giving every member of ASEAN a veto right is a design feature, not a bug.  It is a design feature which is necessary in order to allow ten sovereign states with such wide differences to work together effectively.  We need to operate on this principle of consensus.  We need to have mutual respect for sovereignty, non-interference, and independence of each and every single ASEAN Member State.  That is the only basis on which we can come together, build a common platform, and act together.

Now let me also be equally frank: we are being tested.  This is a very challenging time.  Let me cite two issues head-on.

First, the South China Sea.  There has been a whole tsunami of commentary and discussion on this issue over the past few years.  It is a complex issue involving competing territorial claims.  Anyone who has been in government, or is a lawyer, or has been a negotiator, will know that territorial claims cannot be resolved in a hurry.  They include by definition deep undercurrents of nationalism, sovereignty, and legitimacy.  No leader can lightly wish it away.  It is also worth remembering that the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea are not just between ASEAN and China.  Even amongst the members of ASEAN, there are ongoing territorial claims and disputes.

So it is and it will always be difficult and challenging to achieve a common position and common cause.  But the point here is that ASEAN as a whole, as well as individually, all have a common interest in maintaining peace and stability, freedom of navigation and overflight, and in upholding a system of international law.

We have seen encouraging progress.  ASEAN and China have adopted a Framework for the Code of Conduct, and we will shortly be embarking on substantive negotiations for the Code of Conduct soon.  In the meantime, we have also succeeded in implementing confidence-building measures, such as a hotline between foreign ministry officials, and a commitment by all ten ASEAN Member States and China to observe the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea in the South China Sea.

All these confidence-building measures lower the temperature and calm the waters, and enable us to make common cause and to make progress, whilst acknowledging that the underlying difficult issues are not yet solved, but that is no reason to stop, or to have conflict and tension.

Let me deal with the second ongoing sensitive crisis: the situation in Rakhine State.  This is a complex, inter-communal issue with deep historical roots.  It goes back more than a century.  And it touches on all the factors that I have mentioned before: culture, religion, history, politics and economics.  Again, we must be humble, and appreciate that there are no neat, quick-fix solutions.  We must therefore understand that it is quite obvious that there will be differences in perspective even amongst ASEAN Member States, including Myanmar and the other nine ASEAN Member States.  This is not an issue that will be resolved tomorrow, or even next year.  Remember that it’s been there for more than a century.

Having said that, it doesn’t mean that we should give up and say nothing can be done.  In fact ASEAN can and should play a positive and constructive role.

You may have heard about our attempts to publish a common ASEAN position last week.  The Foreign Minister of Indonesia, Ibu Retno, went to Nay Pyi Taw three weeks ago.  I was also there subsequently, two weeks ago.  I sat down with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and I told her very frankly that I knew it was a difficult and politically challenging situation.  We should bear in mind that the key winners in such a crisis are not moderates, but extremists.

Because in fact there is a standard playbook by which the extremists operate.  First, commit an act of violence, the more egregious the better.  Second step, stick a religious label on it, so that you can invoke a larger audience to be sensitised to the issue.  Third step, provoke an overreaction.  When you do that, it is not that first act of violence, or even the immediate damage, loss of lives and property that matters.  The real agenda is what the extremists call to “eliminate the grey zone”, which means inflaming a situation so that moderates are forced to take sides.  Extremists work by inflaming the situation, aggravating tensions, and leaving no space for moderates, leaving only shouts of anger and incitements to violence.  In such a situation, you realise that you have in fact fallen into the extremists’ trap.

I’ve taken some time to set all this out so that you understand why we are trying to be a voice of reason, caution and moderation, in the midst of a very difficult situation.  It is true that ASEAN was unable to forge a common statement.  Nevertheless, it is also true that there was universal agreement within ASEAN on several points:

First, that the violence has to stop, and it has to stop now.  And that means not just the initial violence, but also the reactive violence has to stop.

Second, there are real people suffering, and we need to make sure humanitarian assistance reaches all communities regardless of race, language or religion.

And third, amongst ASEAN Member States, we agreed that we need to support Myanmar in identifying a viable and long term solution to the root causes of this conflict, while appreciating that all this has to happen even as Myanmar is undergoing a democratic transition.

These are not easy quick-fix solutions, but there is a need for us to take a principled, moderate, careful and deliberate series of actions.  As I told the United Nations last week, as a physician, I am always reminded that the first principle is “do no harm”.  So before you even embark on any operation, you must make sure that what you are proposing does not cause harm to the patient.  Or if you are going to embark on the operation, be keenly aware of the side effects.

I’ve cited these two examples so that you understand that ASEAN has achieved a lot, we will continue to be challenged, and it is important for cool heads to prevail.  And that the ASEAN Way of consensus, of quiet intensive diplomacy, and of taking a long-term approach is still fundamentally correct.

We are now confronting a new revolution: a digital revolution.  One in which computing, communication, collection of data, the ability to analyse data, and to deploy artificial intelligence will be crucial.  And, since I’m a doctor, I would like to remind you that not only have we decoded the genome, we have now reached the point when we can edit the genotypes of any human, animal, plant, virus, or bacteria.  For all of human history, the ability to edit the genome and therefore to change human nature has never been available.  We are now on that threshold.  So when people say that we are now living in a new world, in uncharted territory, it used to be an overstatement: “Brave New World”.  But my friends, we really are living in a brave new world.  And in this brave new world, the ways we live, work, play, communicate, mobilise, and organise our societies, are going to be completely transformed.

Now there is a lot of political anxiety for middle-class jobs and middle-class wages.  Much of the political angst and pushback against globalisation and trade which you see all around the world – in America, Europe, and Asia – is in fact a reflection of a deeper social anxiety regarding the direction of our societies and the prospects of distribution of opportunities within our societies.

We should remember from earlier technological revolutions that during the early phase of every technological wave, the people and the countries that are able to capitalise on the new technologies make enormous profits and gain enormous political and military advantage.  The reason we speak English today is because the industrial revolution began in England.  The question now, as a new digital and biological revolution begins, is which will be the societies who will get it, and make enormous strides, advantages and profits in the early phases.

In every technological revolution in the past, the initial gilded age, when you see greater inequality because the few people who get it make huge profits, is usually followed by a golden age and the rise of a new middle class, because the new technologies are getting democratised and commoditised.  We saw this in the aftermath of the 2nd World War, with the G.I. Bill, which spread education across a wide swathe of American society, the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, and the reconstruction of Japan and Germany.  That’s why the first fifty years after the 2nd World War were a golden age for the new rising middle class.

We now need to focus our eyes and look into how we can build a new golden age for a new middle class capable of taking advantage of the technological opportunities which are unfolding in front of our eyes.  The difference, however, in this new revolution, is that it is occurring much faster than before.  The world lived through an agricultural age for more than 8000 years.  The Industrial Revolution was only about 250 years.  You had time for generations to cope with the change in jobs.  Today, we live in an age when every one of us will have two or three jobs.  Universities, educational institutions, and training systems will have to adapt so that every one of us is prepared for the next job.  That’s why in Singapore, we have the Committee on the Future Economy led by Mr Heng Swee Keat and SkillsFuture, and we keep pushing the leaders of our universities, that you know the university model as we know it is the last industrial revolution, in fact it’s the tail end of the feudal age.  We need to quickly transform ourselves so that we can distribute opportunities more fairly and more widely, and if we can do that, we can achieve peace.

Let me come back to ASEAN, and in particular to introduce the panellists for the next session.

ESM Goh Chok Tong, as our Prime Minister, saw the expansion of ASEAN from six to ten members, and the establishment of the ASEAN Regional Forum, the first major regional forum that was initiated by ASEAN for dialogue to achieve peace and stability within and beyond our region.

ESM Goh also saw the foundations for the ASEAN Economic Community, which has brought tremendous opportunities and benefits to all citizens in ASEAN Member States, laid during his time, including the signing of the ASEAN Free Trade Area in 1992 and the commitment to closer integration following ASEAN’s recovery from the Asian Financial Crisis.

H.E. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, as Indonesia’s leader, has probably done more than anyone else at a most critical period of transition in Indonesia.  His leadership at that point in time made a huge difference to Indonesia’s democracy and economy, and to its reconciliation in Timor Leste and Aceh.  All this would not have happened without your leadership.  And anyone who makes a huge difference to Indonesia makes a huge difference to ASEAN.

President Yudhoyono witnessed the adoption of the ASEAN Charter in 2007, as well as the setting up and expansion of the East Asia Summit.  Today, it is the premier Leaders-led forum in the region for strategic dialogue.

I look forward to your views in the panel discussion that is about to follow.

Finally, let me end by commending the Institute for Societal Leadership for hosting this Summit and SMU for your role in helping to develop future leaders for ASEAN and the region.

The challenges of tomorrow will require leaders, institutions and societies that are able to work together to overcome real thorny bilateral issues in the short term, and also have a long term vision and are able to generate the imagination and goodwill to create real solutions for the future.  So we need to continue to promote collaboration and dialogue, especially amongst our young future leaders.  Given that 60% of ASEAN is below the age of 35, never be embarrassed by your youth.

In a few months’ time, Singapore will be taking over the Chairmanship of ASEAN.  I hope that today’s forum will give us the opportunity to reflect on the lessons of the past, the opportunities of the future, and how to get there.

Thank you all very much for your attention.

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