The Fifth Southeast Asia Forum, Kuala Lumpur, 4 October 1993
I would like to thank the Institute of International and Strategic Studies for its untiring and continuous efforts to bring together, through this and other forums, the reflective community of the region. It is always such a community of people, the people of thought and reflection, who nurture the ideas and propound the visions which eventually shape and determine the course of human affairs.
In the beginning, Asean was but an idea and a hope. Our founding fathers saw it and it was good. By virtue of their collective commitment and statesmanship, they transformed that idea into reality. For there were not many people who believed that Asean could survive, let alone thrive. Mutual suspicions, jealousies and rivalries characterized the atmosphere of relations between the nations of this region from as far back as we can remember. Instead our founding fathers ventured to look far beyond their immediate interests in order to forge a better future for their children. This is what we have inherited, a thriving and prosperous regional community an island of optimism in the midst of global economic gloom and uncertainty.
Politically, Cambodia constituted the first major test of Asean solidarity. Our detractors had predicted that, post Cambodia, Asean would falter. Instead we continue to move from strength to strength. Asean's institutional base has been fortified. We have raised further our levels of political and security consultation and cooperation. And, in addition, we are now poised to launch our economic agenda.
Indeed, for Asean to maintain its relevance in a world currently dominated by the forces of economics, we have no choice but to place that economic agenda at the top of our priorities. At present, even the most ardent Aseanists will readily concede that we did not accomplish all that we set out to achieve in the economic sphere. Sometimes we set our targets rather low, preferring to exercise what we termed prudence, fearing failure if we set our sights too high and too far. Such was the case with the time frame we set for AFTA. Sometimes we moved ponderously slowly. It took us nine years to establish a modestly endowed Secretariat, and another fifteen before we decided to upgrade it. Sometimes we moved not at all, such as with our ill-fated potash and diesel engine projects. But then, even the most detached observer will also readily concede that our shortfalls pale in comparison with our achievements. Indeed, they are of little significance given the constraints we had and the challenges we faced in our efforts to strengthen cooperative regionalism in this part of the globe.
The task of the present generation is to continue the unfinished agenda of our founding fathers. Asean was first envisaged an association for the ten nations that constitute Southeast Asia. Four have yet to join us and stand among us. We should redress this deficiency expeditiously. But we should not move with unseemly haste.
The time is certainly propitious for this. Southeast Asia is no longer divided by ideology. The rehabilitation and reconstruction of Cambodia, to which the Asean countries will contribute significantly, also provides another opportunity for forging greater intimacy and cooperation. And most important, in Yangoon, in Vientiane, in Hanoi, and hopefully in Phnom Penh, Asean has begun to appear an attractive and eminently sensible proposition.
Most assuredly, an Asean Ten yields many advantages and benefits, not only for the states in the region itself but also for those who have important interests in the region. An expanded Asean, with a population a third larger than it has now and totalling a little less than a tenth of the world's and with votes almost double what it possesses in international fora, must surely be a more empowered and influential Asean.
In a world where even the wealthy nations seek to sustain and enhance their prosperity through cooperative associations with their neighbours, the non-Asean states of Southeast Asia may also find it desirable to do the same through participation in Asean. With economies opening up to the world and ranging in size from just half a billion US dollars per year to 10 billion US dollars, it would certainly make a lot of sense.
In fact, one should not be surprised if there is a great explosion in the intensity of our economic and trade links when the Asean mantle covers all Southeast Asia. The differences in the levels of our development and in the structural characteristics of the Asean and non-Asean economies increase our complementarity and hold considerable promise for enhanced intra-regional economic activity, even if they impose some limits as well. It will be a symbiotic and mutually rewarding relationship for all concerned. We will each operate from our respective strengths, be they inexpensive labour, investable capital, resource reserves, financial services or industrial know-how.
Our end goal must of course be shared prosperity for all. There cannot be two Southeast Asias, a "rich" Southeast Asia and a "poor" Southeast Asia. None of us would like to see the prevailing situation persist, where Asean grows twice as fast as the other states in the region collectively. There must be only one Southeast Asia, a dynamic vigorously growing Southeast Asia that moves with the rest of the soaring economies of East Asia. Participation in Asean can perhaps make this passage easier.
But important as the engagement and membership exercise is, the enlargement of Asean is not the end. For how well the larger Asean is able to acquit itself in regional and international affairs will be the crucial issue for all countries in the region. The challenges will be many -- institutional, intra-regional and extra-regional. In many ways, it will be a reinvented Asean, a new Asean, though if Asean increases in membership slowly the newness will be less apparent and less felt. If the Asean circle is complete within the next few years, it will in effect mark the beginning of Asean II.
If for much of its time Asean I essentially oversaw a post-colonial, Cold War environment in the region, Asean II will be addressing the post-Cold War challenges of the late Nineties and the 21st century.
The new Asean that we envisage, the Asean of one Southeast Asia, must be our vehicle to achieve prosperity in the region. Pragmatism and common sense have brought the Asean that we know into being, but the regional compact must henceforth be reinforced by a commitment to common shared values and ideals. A compact that is purely based on pragmatism and expediency would be hollow. It would not have an enduring quality, a true claim on the loyalty and allegiance of entire peoples and generations.
Our regional order must first be based on the reassertion of universal and timeless human values. The dignity of man must be respected and not trampled with. His perpetual struggle to reach beyond himself in the realm of the mind and the intellect, and his desire to express his innate creativity, must be given adequate support. These things are so fundamental to humanity, that it must transcend ideological considerations and political arrangements. By saying this, we consider all posturings and preachings which claim a monopoly of truth or right in regard to human values as irrelevant or even futile. The performance of whatever social and political arrangement we desire for ourselves must be measured in terms of its adherence to these universal values, so that the failings of any particular regime must necessarily be its failure to live up to its own ideals. Thus no act of brutality or suppression by a government against its own people can ever be justified and excused.
But we do not live by universal ideals alone. We have specific cultures and traditions inherited from the past, some representing the collective wisdom of ages, which need to be revitalized and harnessed in our progress towards the future. To be viable for our times and for the future we need not have to be deracinated, or uprooted from our traditions. Revitalized and reinvigorated, our traditions can in fact provide us strength and direction. Revitalization of tradition, however, does not mean resurrecting past hatreds and prejudices, the dire consequences of which we are witnessing in many parts of the world today. What it does mean is purification of the tradition from the harmful accretions which render it incompatible with the multicultural and plural character of our region. We must embrace the diversity of this region as a source of strength, rather than conflict. As the Indonesians proclaim: Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, we can achieve solidarity within diversity. He, in Malaysia, we say "Bersekutu Bertambah Mutu," adding on to the same idea the notion of enrichment, as the result of the coming together of diverse elements . Others in the region too have sayings expressing the same conviction.
Translating these noble ideals into living realities require some measure of courage and openness. The old mindset, which thrives upon suspicions and jealousies, is a major obstacle. In the course of forging closer cooperation and realizing the potentials of inter-linked economies, we sometimes hear discordant voices, belittling these efforts and casting aspersions on our motives and intentions. This region will become more integrated at an accelerated pace, and prosperity will reach areas which have in the past been shunted aside or ignored. New dynamic growth centres will emerge, challenging the supremacy of the established ones. This is an irreversible process which one can only ignore at one's own peril. Events in the world, such as the conclusion of the Uruguay Round, and our own efforts in this region such as AFTA and the many growth triangles, will intensify competition and creative rivalry between neighbours.
It is with this potent combination of the idealistic and the pragmatic, the competitive and the consensual, the material and the cultural, elements that we move together to forge the one Southeast Asia.