The future of Singapore in Asean 3.0

26 Mar 2024

The Straits Times, 26 Mar 2024, The future of Singapore in Asean 3.0 

As the regional economies grow, Singapore must work harder to keep the same spot. We should also learn to understand the Asean psyche better.
Singapore became independent in 1965. If we go over the speeches of the first Parliament and the interviews of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his associates, we can glean from them the emerging strategy for a small state, which looking back has stood the test of time. Singapore said it “will be friends to all”, “we will even trade with the devil”. These remarks speak of the direction of foreign policy which is open and not aligned. The strategy was defined in action.
A small state needs and uses multilateralism. Singapore joined the Commonwealth in 1965, the United Nations in 1965, Asean in 1967 and the Non-Aligned Movement in 1972. We believed and still believe so strongly in the multilateral strategy that we helped to create new multilateral platforms such as the Asean Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Singapore was one of the founding members of Asean in 1967. Mr Lee in his memoirs said: “I did not set great store by the lofty aims of the group... The unspoken objective was to gain strength through solidarity ahead of the power vacuum that would come with the impending British and later a possible US withdrawal.”
Asean’s initial stage was marked by scepticism. But it has proven since to be a most useful regional grouping to promote the interests of its member states.
This community of 10 member states with a population of 662 million in 2023 has a combined GDP of US$3.2 trillion (S$4.3 trillion). By 2030 Asean’s GDP is projected to be US$6.6 trillion and its middle class to be 472 million-strong. The rise of its middle class spells markets and opportunities. But this will not be a one-dimensional middle class. They will be of different identities and multilayered identities. With Asean urbanisation and higher levels of education in the future, this will attract greater foreign direct investment flows. One optimistic estimate is that by 2030 Asean will replace Germany as the fourth largest economy in the world.
The 3 phases of Asean
Asean has gone through three phases : Asean 1.0, Asean 2.0 and Asean 3.0.
We are now in Asean 3.0.
Asean 1.0 began with five countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. The first 10 years were marked by a slow start. It was Vietnam’s attack and occupation of Cambodia that galvanised Asean member states to push back Vietnam.
This marked the beginning of Asean 2.0: fighting the issue at the UN, mobilising the international community to force Vietnam’s withdrawal from Cambodian territory and accept a UN sponsored election to decide on the government. The Cambodian issue took Asean working with the US and China 10 years to fulfil that goal. Asean jelled as a grouping.
For Singapore, our diplomats who fought the issue of Cambodia at the UN received valuable on-the-job training. We learned to communicate our message, to lobby and win widespread support for Asean’s cause. To Asean and to the global community we demonstrated a Singapore determination, organisation and effectiveness.
In the process the Asean members learned to work together and accommodate one another. Unlike the European Union, Asean never pretended to have a common foreign policy. We understood from the start that we each had different strategic perspectives. With time, we learned to understand each other better and to work around our differences.
The enlargement of Asean to 10 to include Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia made finding a common language and common perspectives more difficult. Issuing an Asean joint communique after each major meeting is harder.
But Asean gave its members and Singapore a larger voice on the world stage. More importantly, over the years, Asean member states were less likely to resort to force to resolve disputes among themselves. Asean brought stability to the region and presented an attractive market to investors. Internal domestic conflict was and still is harder to resolve. South-east Asia’s peace was underwritten by the US presence in the Asia-Pacific.
Asean has made progress on its long-term goals and areas of cooperation, says PM Lee
Asean 2.0 saw the long period when it fleshed out its framework for integration – both political and economic. The Asean Charter which entered into force in 2008 sealed the idea of Asean as a community. With the charter, Asean established the legal status and institutional framework, and the organs to boost community building. Asean codified its norms and rules and set targets for moving forward. The push for integration continues today.
Asean leaders in 2003 at the Bali Summit pushed for the establishment of three pillars – the Asean Security Community, the Asean Economic Community and the Asean Socio-Cultural Community. Asean aspired to build a community that is politically cohesive, economically integrated and socially responsible. How has it fared?
On the economic front, the Asean Trade in Goods Agreement has eliminated 98.6 per cent tariff lines; in 2021 total intra-Asean trade reached US$710 billion. Intra-Asean trade as a share of Asean total trade is 21.3 per cent. It may not seem as big because Asean’s total trade with external partners has grown. Also, the MNCs in Asean export their goods out of the region.
Building the Asean political community has been more challenging with new members. More diverse views on security were brought into the grouping given the different histories and political systems. A risen China exercising its strategic and economic influence, and the increasing tensions in the US-China relationship added to the complications. It is, in fact, amazing that Asean hangs together as a political community in spite of the differences on the South China Sea and, recently, Myanmar and the roles of the US and China in the region.
The Asean socio-cultural community looked at the “softer side” of integration, to ensure that as Asean develops, attention is paid to the protection of the environment and culture, equitable access to opportunities for all and gender equality. It has allowed the more developed Asean countries to provide assistance to the newer members in areas such as public health during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Asean 3.0
Why do I say we are now in Asean 3.0? It is a new era. Asean now faces a much more complicated external environment. The third post-Cold War order is shaping before us.
The first post-Cold War order was a short period when the US emerged as the sole superpower. It did not last long because of challenges from China and the EU. We saw the emergence of multipolarity, but clearly an asymmetrical multipolarity.
Since the Ukraine war the world has been faced with a division of a US-Europe alliance on the one side and a Russia-China alliance on the other. But there are a number of countries that wish to remain in the middle, in the third space, countries such as India, Singapore, Indonesia and some European, African and Latin countries. Countries in the third space are not non-aligned. They align with the US, China or Russia on some issues, but the alignment is not exclusive. The US-China relationship is rapidly unravelling and the competition is comprehensive. So, it is increasingly difficult for countries to avoid being caught in the rivalry.
In the third post-Cold War phase, there is a scene shift within Asean too. Some Asean member states are individually courted by the great powers strategically. China has for long cultivated Asean states. More recently, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines receive special attention from the US and Europe. These member states feel a sense of agency. What this will do to Asean cohesion and centrality bears watching.
Several Asean countries are doing very well because of the shift of supply chains from China to their shores. Vietnam, Malaysia and to some extent Indonesia and the Philippines are receiving new investments for tech diversification. There is a buzz in the start-up scene in Asean. Singapore leads in fostering the highest number of unicorns in the region. Indonesia is fast catching up and Vietnam is third. Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines are also nurturing their unicorns.
It is not a surprise then that in the midst of the intense Sino-US competition and the fluid changes in the international scene, Asean elite opinion is putting greater faith in Asean in a comparative measure of trusted actors as shown in surveys conducted by ISEAS – Yusuf Ishak Institute.
Asean has emerged for its member states as an important and influential actor in their own region.
What does Asean 3.0 stand for and what will drive this phase?
Many changes are taking place. Asean is probably still figuring out what they all mean. Asean is more fragmented than it has ever been and agreeing to one grand vision would be difficult. It has perhaps always been this way. A shared vision would be to see Asean countries reach a higher level of development, each country becoming middle-income and higher-income countries in the region. These visions are within reach. The strategic visions would be harder to reconcile, but with each issue, Asean member states try to work out a position for themselves.
When the West asks whither Asean cohesion, I think they are asking the wrong question. Of course, they can rightfully ask about Asean cohesion, but it is not the litmus test of Asean’s survivability or its use. No regional grouping can move lock step as if it were one country under one authority. The differences between France and Germany reflect the nature of regional groupings. Differences do arise and its effectiveness may be impacted for a specific issue, but the organisation moves on. It is not the end of the world.
Singapore’s role
Singapore’s future is rooted in Asean even as it is well connected globally and scans the global horizon. Our political leaders, senior bureaucrats and business leaders understand that. But it must trickle down in the civil service. And it is an awareness we must spread to our younger people.
As the regional economies grow and our neighbours move ahead fast as they are in the right niche and are energetic and eager, Singapore must work harder to keep the same spot and partner with everyone in the region.
What is Singapore’s role in Asean 3.0? It is the same as before, but we should learn to understand the Asean psyche better.
Singaporeans have many strengths, but patience is not one of them. I am made more and more aware of our strengths as we transit into new areas of economic activity and overcome crises, and it is leadership and Singaporeans that have made this possible. Singapore has learned to lead from behind. For the past decades we have seeded ideas, letting other AMS embrace the ideas and run with them. Our interests are congruent and that works. We should continue in this way. There is no need to claim authorship. A good idea has many fathers.
I am also aware of where our weak spots are. In Asean we are considered too transactional, results driven and impatient. We are often insistent on doing things a certain way because we want to do things in a hurry. We need to update the way we work.
Singapore believes technology, expertise and a blueprint is the solution to everything. Technology and expertise are necessary but not sufficient. We need to understand the other’s perspective. We must familiarise ourselves with the region’s geography, culture and history to be able to persuade the other party of the suitability of our recommendations.
We probably do not enjoy credibility in every area. For instance, we are interested in food security especially post-pandemic. But the agricultural nations of Asean must wonder what we can tell them as we are not farmers and, when we farm, we do hydroponics. We can and do offer systems thinking on supply chains.
Our diplomats who work the Asean circuit tell me that Singapore believes for every problem there is a solution. In the region some countries think there is no solution to their problems and the solution takes a long time to complete or worse, the solution stirs up more problems. In developing a self-awareness, we are not doing our regional partners a favour. We are doing ourselves a favour. We will work with even better results with this awareness.
I wish to conclude with a message for our young people in Singapore and especially those in the universities, polytechnics and ITEs. You should develop a curiosity and empathy and learn more about your immediate region, South-east Asia. You should not be afraid to engage and participate in the challenges and opportunities out there because that’s where your future lies.
Chan Heng Chee is Ambassador-at-Large and professor at the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, Singapore University of Technology and Design. This article is adapted from her lecture on March 22 at the NUS Global Asia Forum 2024, organised by the NUS Political Association.