THE MINISTERIAL MEETING ON THE ASEAN-MEKONG BASIN DEVELOPMENT COOPERATION, Kuala Lumpur, 17 June 1996
This is a meeting of great practical significance. We are not here just to conceive a vision but to act in concert. The task before us is to bring into fruition the vision of the founding fathers of ASEAN that Southeast Asia would one day emerge as a single entity. There must not be two Southeast Asias, one rich and one poor. Genuine regional cooperation means that we must be prepared collectively to alleviate the structural problems to development in the Mekong sub-regions. Thus in our meeting today we hope to formulate the guiding principles for the creation of building blocs for that eventual integration of Southeast Asia.
In this regard ASEAN has indeed come a long way. We have progressed from a mere quest for regional stability to active combined actions to generate growth and economic prosperity. We have created instruments, ranging from preferential tariff to industrial complementation schemes, to forge economic integration and eventually a region of free trade by the year 2003.
We must therefore formulate the modus operandi for the realization of our medium and long term goals. This meeting will have to focus on what we intend to do in the coming months and years. It is imperative that we formulate the guiding principles of cooperation derived from our common cultural heritage and our experience in creating a peaceful, stable and prosperous regional community.
Economic collaboration within ASEAN is already progressing at a steady pace especially in overlapping areas i.e. the growth triangles. However we need to accellerate this pace and extend it to ASEAN neighbours. Enriching our neighbours will be one of our objectives in the coming years. We must map out priority areas and sectors. We need to identify specific projects for immediate implementation especially those that can become the catalyst for the undertaking of larger ones. While the role of governments will be to take the lead in conceiving these projects their actual implementation must be largely the task of the private sector. The private sector will not only spur growth but will also cement expanding regional interdependence. As such we must establish a framework to draw in the participation of the private sector in this venture of regional integration.
The ASEAN initiative to develop the Mekong Basin manifests our resolve to come together and implement massive projects whose scale is beyond the capacity of a single nation to underwrite. It is a mighty economic venture with profound social and cultural ramifications. It will become a vehicle to draw in our neighbours in mainland Southeast Asia into the mainstream of ASEAN growth. From time immemorial our rivers and seas had been our means of transportation and served as the veins for our thriving trade and culture. Today we are revitalizing the ancient modes of doing things and transforming them into sophisticated and powerful economic, social and cultural engagements for today and the years to come. And we believe that the success of the Mekong Basin development cooperation will inspire the setting up of similar ventures elsewhere in the region.
But our goodwill to come together and our imagination to conceive this project will come to nothing unless we are willing to commit ourselves to what is necessary for their implementation. Finance and resources is a vital ingredient and without it no venture can take off. Resources can be generated from within and without. It is indeed timely for us to consider establishing a fund for the development of the Mekong sub-region. This meeting is an appropriate forum to deliberate on such issue including the formula for contribution. Perhaps we should consider the seed money for this fund to be provided by ASEAN on a pro-rata basis. Such a move would make manifest ASEAN very own confidence in the economic potentials of this sub-region and our commitment to the well-being of its people. Investment in that area is a proposition that is economically sound but above all a moral imperative in the spirit of "persaudaraan serantau" or Southeast Asian brotherhood. Wealth carries an inherent moral obligation. Transposing this idea to regional collectivity would mean that the more prosperous among us should facilitate the successful transformation of less developed economies. In any case there is more prosperity and greater benefits to be derived from neighbours who are equally prosperous. Prosperous neighbours will have a stake in ensuring that peace and stability prevails in the entire neighbourhood.
But besides money there are other equally important requirements for success of such projects. We must be fully committed to facilitate trans- border movements of goods, services and people. The "Friendship Bridge" that spans the Mekong provides a vital and much needed link between Laos and the rest of the region. But without freer movement of people and goods the full potential of this bridge will not be realised. Enabling rules and procedures for easy movement across the bridge should now be in place if the enterprise we are about to embark upon is to be really successful.
While we can provide the initial momentum for the development of lesser developed areas in Southeast Asia their sustained growth would inevitably require continuous flow of foreign capital. All ASEAN countries that have been enjoying high growth in the recent decades have been able to be so due to substantial foreign capital. An ASEAN move to invest in lesser developed areas will generate the confidence in the business sector to participate in projects and business ventures which earlier were considered as being too risky. This in turn will enable the sub-regional countries to attract more foreign direct investment. But these trade and investments should result in the growth of sustainable societies. Our concept of development should respect the sub-region's tradition and culture, land, space and water. The Mekong, after all, is one of the world's great life-sustaining resource. The great challenge for Southeast Asia is to make certain that the sub-region's societies benefit from this regional cooperation without suffering from adverse ecological, social and demographic consequences.
We must have the resolve to ensure the success of such projects such as the joint development of the Mekong basin. Its success not only will accelerate regional integration but will serve as a model for a new pattern of relationship among nations. It will have a tremendous impact on conventional ideas especially in issues pertaining to regional security. We must cease to think of our neighbours as rivals or prey and begin to look upon them as our partner in progress. The economic realities are so altered that we must think afresh old assumptions. Rather than dissipating our energy and resources in perpetual competition we should establish a web of regional cooperation and synergy in trade, industry and finance. Borders are necessary as long as we live in a world of nation- states. But borders must cease to separate our people. Borders must be transformed into enclave of cooperation and engagement between people and nations. The progress of various growth triangles and with new ones being conceived signify that ASEAN has reached psychological maturity. Suspicion has been supplanted by trust and confidence.
Psychological maturity, mutual trust and confidence will enable intra-ASEAN interaction to move on to a higher plane, beyond interaction as nation-state and far beyond economic sphere. Even our ability to attract direct foreign investment is also contingent upon a stable domestic political environment, a credible administration of justice, market friendly economic policies, a transparent financial system. As interaction among our people deepens and as they gain greater familiarity with the diversity in social and political systems it will certainly result in greater degree of openess, tolerance and understanding. Southeast Asia will remain a multicultural society. Diversity will be a pivotal characteristic . But despite all these we will share a common bond of civility, dynamic and powerful enough to have an impact beyond our own region.