'Proactive Asean is key' amid power shifts

Challenge will be in finding its strategic place, says Sultan of Brunei

ASEAN must work proactively to shape its future in the face of renewed major-power rivalry and weakening confidence and trust in the region, the Sultan of Brunei said.

Speaking at the 34th Singapore Lecture, organised by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah noted the rise of China and India as economic drivers of Asia as the United States has remained engaged in the region.

"With the shift of the relative economic weight towards Asia, political power also follows correspondingly. New major and middle powers are emerging," he said, adding that the changes in relationships between these powers would influence the strategic landscape.

"The challenge for Asean will be finding its strategic place in this new configuration," he said at the lecture, a platform for statesmen and thought leaders to share their knowledge.

He also alluded to the rival territorial claims in the resource-rich South China Sea of China, Taiwan and four Asean states that have created tensions in the region, particularly in recent years.

"Historical and political divides still continue to fuel nationalistic sentiments between countries," he said.

"Difficulties in meeting economic commitments and unresolved maritime disputes are risking the region's potential," he warned.

"It is crucial that we address and resolve regional problems or issues through peaceful dialogues and initiatives."

The Sultan called for an open and inclusive arrangement, with countries in the Asia-Pacific rallying around Asean.

Apart from external challenges, Asean also faces an internal need to become more competitive and innovative to grow and prosper.

He stressed the need for the grouping to be a "people-oriented" organisation where its peoples have "a sense of regional belonging" through projects such as "new social media and cultural and educational exchanges amongst our youth".

"A successful community should not only be layers of structures and endless acronyms, nor as a vehicle for government officials to meet," he said.

Instead, it "should reside in the hearts and minds of our people - our youth and women, farmers and fishermen, and the many small and medium businesses forming an essential part of our economies", he said.

The Brunei ruler, who arrived here on Sunday, was on a three-day state visit to strengthen ties with Singapore.

He was hosted to lunch yesterday by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, with several younger Singapore ministers attending.

The Sultan also visited Singapore Armed Forces facilities, with Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen as his host.

He met Royal Brunei Armed Forces personnel attending courses here during the tour.

In conjunction with the visit, two memorandums of understanding (MOUs) were signed between Singapore and Brunei yesterday.

The first is between the Monetary Authority of Singapore and its Bruneian counterpart, Autoriti Monetari Brunei Darussalam, and covers financial cooperation in areas such as capital market development, capacity building and the exchange of best practices, said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement.

The second MOU expands cooperation in broadcasting. It will see closer collaboration and greater sharing between the two countries, including the exchange of information officers and journalist visit programmes.

salim@sph.com.sg