Vivian Balakrishnan gave a lecture on what's ahead for ASEAN. Here's what you need to know

He hopes we can broker our way to the successful signing of two key trade treaties, and use tech to make our region more efficient.

Kayla Wong | Sulaiman Daud | December 05, 2017, 05:47 PM

Singapore has officially taken over chairmanship of ASEAN at the 31st ASEAN summit last month, our fourth time doing so.

The chairmanship is rotated on an annual basis among the ASEAN members, and Singapore last served in the role in 2007.

This year also happens to be the 50th anniversary of ASEAN's founding, and to mark its golden jubilee, Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan gave a lecture at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, attended by more than 200 business leaders, diplomats and academics.

Here are five things you need to know about his half-hour lecture so you can act knowledgeable about the region and what Singapore has planned for it as chair:

1.  ASEAN is at an inflection point because the world has changed.

Vivian began by stressing that major changes have affected the world in recent years, and Singapore and her ASEAN partners can no longer take the certainties of the old order for granted.

"The geo-strategic balance has changed dramatically. Never before in human history have two billion people suddenly come online, connected to the global economy at the same time. America, the hyper power that underwrote the liberal, rules-based world order as we know it, is now engaged in major legitimate, political questions that question its own role in underwriting this world as we know of. There’s no question that the geo-strategic balance and many assumptions will no longer abide today."

In particular, the digital revolution has contributed to economic anxiety, replacing the need for some jobs, and governments need to address those challenges.

"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, so that the new middle class can rise and no one is left behind."

2. A global consensus is necessary today

But in Vivian's view, no one state, or even one bloc can succeed alone against such threats. A global consensus has to be built to meet today's challenges.

"The only way to deal with these transboundary global threats is to mount a global consensus and global action whether you're dealing with cyber, climate or terrorism."

He gave two examples of such challenges, the returning ISIS fighters from Syria and Iraq and the Rakhine conflict in Myanmar. Vivian also gave a tip of the hat to former Ambassador Tommy Koh, who was present in the audience, for his work in building multilateral relations:

"More and more collective effort will be needed to tackle these challenges. And the global multilateral processes that Tommy was so engaged in; law of the sea, climate change, looking after the natural heritage of mankind, all these things in fact become more salient. And that's why, Tommy, you can always be proud of the fact that you were ahead of the curve."


3. Consensus is a design feature in ASEAN

In Vivian's view, if not for consensus, ASEAN would have become a collection of proxies or vessel states to the major states.

"Consensus forces us to take an enlightened long term view of our own national interests, vis-a-vis the larger regional interests, in a sense that (a) somewhat slower, more laborious process of achieving consensus, nevertheless allows us, in my opinion, to achieve more sustainable solutions — because when you sign everyone has thought through it, worked through the implications, and stand by it. Consensus is a design feature. And it is the foundation of ASEAN unity."

But it is imperative for member states to remain united and work for the greater good over short term national interests. He quoted PM Lee's "lifeboat" metaphor, which he used during last month's summit in Manila.

"As PM Lee said, ASEAN is a lifeboat for all 10 member states to come together, to work together, and to have our voice heard on the global stage."

4. ASEAN's past and its future

Vivian pointed out that ASEAN had a rocky start, as its five founding members had conflicts among one another when it began in 1967. That year, for instance, he noted that there were competing territorial claims between Malaysia and the Philippines, and the Konfrontasi between Malaysia and Indonesia had not yet been fully resolved.

In light of those events, he adds, the fact that ASEAN survived and thrived through those tough years is commendable:

"So imagine at the zenith of the cold war, with the conflict in full force, that this unlikely motley group of 5 countries could get together, despite fundamental differences was a big achievement...We must give (ourselves) due credit for simply preventing war (among) the regional members. It’s an achievement worth celebrating."

But in order to continue thriving in the future, ASEAN needed to adapt to external events, which it will always be affected by.

"The challenge is whether we allow these external tsunamis to overwhelm, to divide us, or whether we collectively build a bigger, stronger ship to allow us to navigate out of nature and to expand opportunities for all. We want ASEAN to be adaptable, and we want ASEAN to seize the new opportunities of the ongoing digital revolution, and to formulate innovative ways to deal with these new challenges."

5. Singapore's priorities for 2018 

According to Vivian, the three watchwords for 2018 are innovation, resilience and expansion (of trade).

Singapore, he says, hopes to foster greater innovation in ASEAN through supporting the development of a "smart city network".

"It will connect people and economies seamlessly. It will enable ideas and solutions to flow across the entire region."

However, we also hope to build "enhanced collective resilience" against threats like terrorism, extremism and cyber-crime, he says, because as technology develops, so too must security.

"We need to step up, and step up urgently on collaboration on cybersecurity, because you can't have a smarter world, you can't have e-commerce, you can't have seamless digital transactions if you don't have cybersecurity. It's the flip side of the coin."

Vivian also specifically cited the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) and the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) as examples of trade agreements we hope to lead in making progress on during our time as ASEAN Chair.

The signing of the RCEP alone will ensure greater economic integration between countries with over 3 billion people and a combined GDP of US$17.23 trillion. However, Vivian has loftier goals in mind, even beyond 2018.

"The longer-term aim is for an Asia-Pacific Free Trade Area."

Top image by Kayla Wong.

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