Adopting Asean identity not right for Singapore

Associate Professor Farish A. Noor ("Singapore's South-east Asian potential"; Monday) and Mr Chan Cheng Lin ("S'poreans should develop a S-E Asian identity"; Thursday) have suggested that Singapore develop a South-east Asian identity.

While it is good for Singapore's foreign policy to initiate Asean engagement, we should be careful about tying our national identity and loyalty to Asean.

Asean is primarily an organisation that seeks to create a platform for cooperation and dialogue among member states.

It functions on the basis of the Asean Way, where member states agree not to intervene in one another's domestic issues, thereby building up trust and goodwill to facilitate peace and cooperation.

In this respect, Asean is the very opposite of the European Union. Rather than trying to promote regional integration and identity,

Asean seeks to defend the independence of each state's culture and practices, while seeking areas of cooperation and mutual benefit.

States remain independent and realistic in seeking to advance their national interests within the platform.

Asean is, therefore, more a foreign policy tool than any serious attempt to form a coherent South-east Asian identity.

It neither demands nor requires any particular form of fealty similar to that which we, as Singaporeans, owe to Singapore, since it does not act in the interests of every state without discrimination, but rather, based on the different objectives of its members.

If Singapore were to be invaded by an external, non-Asean power, it remains to be seen if fellow Asean members will enter the fray to protect its sovereignty.

In fact, such fealty may be to Singapore's detriment, as we may end up forgoing our national interests under pressure from the majority of other Asean states on the basis of a South-east Asian identity.

As much as we should increase our understanding and cooperation with other Asean member states and promote regional growth and stability, we must ultimately maintain our own national interests and sense of identity as citizens of Singapore, for it is the home and country to which we ultimately belong.

Ng Qi Siang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2015, with the headline 'Adopting Asean identity not right for Singapore'. Print Edition | Subscribe