Asian leaders must be far-sighted and exercise leadership not just within their own countries, but also show greater cooperative leadership for the region to realise its full potential, said Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.
Countries must look beyond historical legacies and work together to build a peaceful and prosperous "Pacific Century", he said yesterday at the annual Jeju Forum held on the South Korean resort island.
"To escape the shackles of history will require enlightened, strong and far-sighted leadership which shares a common vision of Asia's new order and collectively exercises political will to overcome complex challenges together for the common good," he said.
Asian leaders and governments face tremendous pressure trying to meet their peoples' aspirations while securing their political legitimacy, noted Mr Goh.
"There is sometimes a temptation to externalise problems... But simply kicking the can down the road cannot resolve these issues which have the potential to create even more problems for future generations. They (the leaders) have to bear the burden of these historical legacies even though they have not personally experienced them," he said.
Asian leaders, therefore, should have the vision and courage to take bold steps to ensure regional peace and stability, Mr Goh said, instead of "merely safeguarding national interests alone in a zero sum game".
He said one such bold decision was the landmark deal struck between Japan and South Korea last December to resolve the longstanding issue of Korean women forced to work as sex slaves for the Japanese military during World War II.
Both countries showed great determination to resolve the difficult issue and they can now move forward to build trust and reconciliation.
"History has shown that collective wisdom and open-minded leadership can bring about extraordinary outcomes," he said.
"Many leaders before us have led the way in demonstrating how to break free from the burden of history for a better future. These leaders may be criticised for taking a bold step or for not pandering to domestic expectations, but history will be the judge of whether this was the right move," he added.
Mr Goh also cited Asean as a good example of cooperative leadership, describing how 10 South-east Asian countries, including Singapore, had come together to work as a group.
"While we are 10 very different countries in geographical and population size, economic and social structure, and political governance, we do not lose sight of our common goals - reduce poverty, narrow developmental gaps, and improve overall well-being of our peoples," he said.
Member states had made efforts towards "fitting the different pieces of the Asean jigsaw puzzle together" and former foes became cooperative partners in the process.
Asean is now set to work towards reaping the benefits of having an economic community of 620 million people and a market of over US$2.6 trillion (S$3.6 trillion).
"Asean may not be perfect but it is a good example of what we can achieve if we are determined not to remain mired in the past," he said.