Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Speech and Question and Answer Session at the 15th ASEAN Lecture, 'ASEAN: Next 50', at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 5 December 2017

Published date05 December 2017
Publication titleASEAN Tribune

5 December 2017 (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore) Dr Tang Siew Mun, Head of the ISEAS ASEAN Studies Centre; Excellencies; Distinguished Guests; Ladies and Gentlemen;

1 First, I think we're all here … we're celebrating ASEAN's Golden Jubilee this year. I was just having a chat with my mentor, Professor Tommy Koh, and he revealed that this is also his Golden Anniversary. In fact, he got married on 5th August 1967 - three days before ASEAN came about; so it's fitting that we start by paying tribute to him and his wife. Tommy, as you know, has been an incredible pillar of diplomacy and foreign policy, not only for Singapore. For ASEAN, you know, he also drafted the ASEAN Charter, and of course you know about his work at UNCLOS, and the Rio Conference … I mean, he truly is a polymath of our times. So thank you Tommy for being here; you just made my job harder.

2 But, these are interesting times to be alive. So much is happening in the world, and perhaps the way to start is by asking some questions: Why was ASEAN formed 50 years ago? What role has it played in the last 50 years? What does the future hold in the next 50 years? And what does this often-bandied term 'ASEAN unity and centrality' - what does it really mean? And how will it be enacted? So we start with those series of questions.

3 ASEAN is at an inflexion point today, and not just because it's 50. It's at an inflexion point because the world as a whole has changed, and we are living in very uncertain times. Let's just do a quick scan of what's happening in the world.

4 First, the geostrategic balance has changed, and changed dramatically. Never before in human history have two billion people suddenly come online; connected to the global economy at the same time. Never before in human history have hundreds of millions of people been raised from abject poverty into a rising middle class. We've seen this transformation occur since 1978 in China; 1991 in India. And rising economic power must inevitably mean increased diplomatic and military clout. We know that the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; and in fact, some Western commentators mistakenly proclaimed the end of History - as if the liberal world order was an inevitable end of this process. We all know this was mistaken. Japan - do you remember Japan in the 80s, that could say no? And in 1991, the bubble burst, they ran out of demographic steam. Demographics is also at play in Europe; and today Europe confronts existential questions of identity as it grapples with large-scale immigration. And we have witnessed extremism, terrorism becoming ubiquitous across the world. It's not just a Middle East phenomenon. And America - the hyper-power that underwrote the liberal rules-based world order as we know it since the Second World War - is now engaged in a major bout of legitimate political questions, questioning its own role in underwriting this world as we know it. So there's no question that the entire geostrategic balance, and many of the assumptions and presumptions that we took for granted, no longer apply today.

5 The second big change is that the global consensus for free trade, economic integration and globalisation is fraying. We have witnessed populism and nationalism all over the world. It's gained traction in political campaigns, and we witness the rise of populists both on the right and on the left. Free trade has been unfairly blamed for legitimate middle class anxiety over jobs and wage stagnation, when actually the real problem - or the real phenomenon - is the fact that there is an ongoing digital revolution. Every time you get a new revolution - a new industrial revolution, or now a new digital revolution - we know that the first few entrepreneurs, the first few states that get it, make enormous outsized profits and therefore accrue enormous power; and that in these initial phases of a revolution, in fact, you see increased inequality. And it takes time for a Gilded Age to pass, and to become a Golden Age - when you get a rising middle class that has been able to master the new technologies behind the revolution. So the point is, there is middle class anxiety. Economic and political institutions are being questioned as never before, and the jobs of today are at risk of becoming obsolete. The real challenge is not to build walls, or not just to redistribute accumulated past wealth. The real challenge is to ensure that our people have the right skills for the new jobs; that the new means of production are democratised and commoditised so that a new middle class can rise and no one is left behind.

6 The third thing that has changed is that our global world order is being reshaped by the emergence of non-state actors and transboundary challenges, including terrorism, cybercrime and climate change. These are phenomena which are not confined to neat geographical boundaries, and they don't operate within the usual concepts of the Westphalian nation state. The only way to deal with these transboundary global threats, in fact, is to mount a global consensus and global action, whether you're dealing with cyber, climate or terrorism. And a case in point for us in Southeast Asia is the returning fighters from Iraq and Syria, where we know ISIS has lost ground. We saw some more returning fighters in Marawi, in the Southern Philippines. And there are other potential hotbeds for terrorists in our region. Closer home, we even saw a Singaporean in an ISIS recruitment video. And even our concern about the problem in Rakhine State is also related to our anxiety that this becomes another sanctuary, another hotbed, for extremism and terrorism. So the implication here is that these types of problems cannot be solved purely locally, and no single country can solve them alone. More and more collective effort will be needed to tackle these challenges. And the global multilateral processes that Tommy was so engaged in - the law of the sea, climate change, looking after the natural heritage of mankind - all these things, in fact, become more salient. That's why Tommy, you can always be proud of the fact that you were ahead of the curve. And we need that approach - that multilateral mutual respect, interdependence and cooperation. We need these approaches more than ever before.

7 Finally, ASEAN herself has had to contend with our own internal challenges. The 10 ASEAN Member States are highly diverse, in terms of our political, economic and social systems. In fact, I believe we may be the most diverse grouping in the world. You have 10 very different countries - difference in size, difference in population, difference in religion. We've got political systems that range from absolute monarchy, to democracy, to military arrangements. I really don't think you'll find a more diverse group of countries. And much has been asked about this ASEAN habit of consensus - of seeking consensus - and whether this is a bug or a design feature. And my point is that in fact, it is a design feature. It is designed because of the great diversity within ASEAN, and consensus is a necessary fail-safe. It ensures that every member - regardless of our size, regardless of our politics, regardless of the state of our economic development - every member has an equal voice. Or another way of expressing it - every member has a veto. Consensus forces us to take an enlightened long-term view of our own national interest vis-à-vis the larger, long-term regional interest. And in a sense, that somewhat slower, that more laborious process of achieving consensus nevertheless allows us - in my opinion - to achieve more sustainable solutions. Because you know that when we've signed, everyone has thought through it, worked through the implications, and has agreed to stand by it. So consensus is a design feature, and is the foundation of ASEAN unity. The fundamental question however, whenever events and challenges arise, is to what extent can we make the optimal trade-off between pursuing our own national interests versus the broader, long-term regional interests.

8 Despite the challenges that we face - both internally as well as externally, that I've outlined - I remain optimistic that our prospects are bright for the next 50 years.

9 Let me bring you back on a journey, or rather on the journey that we have made in the last 50 years to understand why I retain that sense of optimism. Think about 1967. In fact, it was a time of great geopolitical instability. There were even conflicts within the original five Member States of ASEAN. In 1967, it was just two years after we had been ejected from Malaysia. There were still territorial claims between the Philippines and Malaysia. The Konfrontasi between Indonesia, versus the formation of Malaysia, was not fully resolved yet. We even had Indonesian marines on trial for a terrorist bombing in MacDonald House in Orchard Road. So to imagine - that at the zenith of the Cold War, with the conflict in full force in Indochina - that this unlikely motley crew of five could get together despite our very fundamental differences, actually was a major achievement.

10 It is also worthwhile remembering that this original five really consisted of non-communist Southeast Asia. And by getting together and therefore having those first critical two to three decades of peace amongst ourselves, and time to invest in our infrastructure, invest in our people, and to prove that an economic model of openness, of trade, of liberalisation works. In fact we were ahead of the curve. Today, you call it globalisation. Today virtually every region of the world operates on that, although as I have said earlier, there are some questions about the limits of globalisation. And we must give credit, due credit, therefore to ASEAN for simply preventing war amongst the original members. And in fact, subsequently when we included Vietnam in 1995, Laos and Myanmar in 1997, and then Cambodia in 1999; the point I want to make is that...

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