The year is 1968. The Republic of Singapore is barely three years old, it suffers from high unemployment and a stagnant economy, and racial tensions were still high.
Amidst all these pressing issues, why did Goh Keng Swee feel it was important to set up an research institute to study our neighbours?
Delicacy of perception
Explained Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong:
"In the Cabinet paper proposing the setting up of ISEAS, Dr Goh pointed out that 'We know more about Melbourne than we know Medan, more about the English Channel than the Sunda Straits'."
Lee was speaking at the 50th anniversary of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies-Yusof Ishak Institute on March 13. He added:
"In Dr Goh's words, Singapore had to acquire a 'delicacy of perception'...a 'delicacy of perception' of the affairs in the region."
Perhaps Goh was referring to the fact that the first fabled generation of Singapore's leaders were mostly Western-educated, and therefore had not spent much time in the countries that surrounded Singapore.
But how could you run a country without knowing your neighbours well?
It was with this aim in mind that ISEAS was set up.
Independent thought needed
But although Goh came up with the idea, he insisted that ISEAS had to be developed outside the government's umbrella.
The way he saw it, government officials would be too bogged down by immediate concerns, while academics could more easily consider wider regional issues from a long-term perspective.
An institute that operated separately from the government could provide the government with alternate insights on the same issues, providing a different perspective.
So when ISEAS was created by an Act of Parliament in 1968, it was as an autonomous organisation.
Know thy neighbour
50 years later, ISEAS has come a long way.
The leading research centre in Southeast Asia, it has produced more than 2,000 books and journals and is the largest scholarly publisher of research about Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific.
Lee concluded his speech by repeating Goh's words:
"And we need this delicacy of perceptions not just amongst Ministers and government officials, but also amongst the intelligentsia, our financial and business community, our media, and Singaporeans of many professions who need to know our region in order to work, do business, or just to know how to get along with neighbours and partners."
Considering the vast differences in history and culture that remain between Singapore and its neighbours, every little bit of work to bridge the gap can help.
Top image courtesy of ISEAS.