S'pore's history highlights importance of regional unity

London daily newspaper Evening Standard runs the Brexit story on its front page on June 24.
London daily newspaper Evening Standard runs the Brexit story on its front page on June 24.PHOTO: EPA

It was interesting to read Mr Charles Tan Meah Yang's thoughts behind his decision to vote that the United Kingdom leave the European Union ("Voted to Leave, inspired by 1965 Separation"; Tuesday).

He drew parallels with Singapore's exit from Malaysia in 1965.

However, Singapore's exit from Malaysia in 1965 was involuntary, and the circumstances then were vastly different.

South-east Asia was, in no way, a developed neighbourhood.

While we had great leadership to steer us out of challenges, Singapore has never denied the need for regional stability and growth.

The nations around Singapore also recognised the need to avoid conflicts and to forge mutual economic cooperation. Thus, Asean was established in 1967.

Regionalism is, at best, a constant work in progress, requiring unity of purpose, political will and a healthy measure of give and take. Isolation, protectionism or nationalism is not the answer.

Brexit (British exit from the EU) should not be seen in the light of Singapore's exit from Malaysia but, rather, on Singapore's need for a stable and economically viable Asean.

How would Singapore fare without Asean? Singapore, like London, is a regional business hub.

Should Singapore leave Asean, would our hub status remain and would we be more secure?

Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Jakarta would become potential candidates for hub status because of their obvious size and influence.

Regional entities like the EU and Asean are not perfect, but they provide a better basis for cooperative economic development and regional stability.

What is needed is political sensitivity and recognition that there are those who may not enjoy the fruits of regionalisation and open borders.

Regionalism is, at best, a constant work in progress, requiring unity of purpose, political will and a healthy measure of give and take. Isolation, protectionism or nationalism is not the answer.

We should not compare Brexit with Singapore's exit from Malaysia. Rather, the issue is Singapore and the other countries in South-east Asia recognising their need for one another.

Brexit, sadly, failed to recognise the fact that globalisation requires a united Europe over narrow national interests.

Michael Seah Swee Lim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2016, with the headline 'S'pore's history highlights importance of regional unity'. Print Edition | Subscribe