Today, Asia stands out as a bright spot in the current global climate. The economic centre of gravity has shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Some have extrapolated from this to predict that the 21st century will be the Asia Century. I think it is early days yet. It is nevertheless true that Asia faces a historic opportunity. When I was the prime minister of Singapore, I played my part to help maximise Asia's potential. Singapore concluded free trade deals with the United States, China and Japan, major players that we believed to be critical to the success of the region.
Much of Asia's growth will be driven by China and Japan. India also has the potential to be an economic heavyweight. Even leaving India aside, East Asia has more people to produce and consume goods and services than any other region. Yet the total GDP (gross domestic product) for East Asia is only around the same level as Europe's. Its GDP per capita (US$8,000 or S$10,700) is less than a third of Europe's (US$27,000). We should aspire to reach Europe's current GDP per capita by 2050. That is in another generation's time. That is the level of prosperity we should seek for East Asia.
But the quest for economic prosperity cannot be divorced from peace and stability. They are two sides of the same coin.
What bold moves can Asia take in its quest for peace and prosperity? What are the big hurdles?
Harnessing Asia's potential
IN MY view, there are two deficits or hurdles to overcome first.
The first is the deficit of trust and confidence among the Asian nations. This lack of trust is deep and historical. It stands in the way of greater cooperation between countries. It also gives rise to heightened nationalism and protectionism. For Asia to fulfil its potential, countries need to work together, not separately, towards shared prosperity.
The second is the lack of a shared strategic vision for Asia. We have strong national leaders but each has his own nation-centric dream. China has its Chinese Dream; Japan dreams of being a "normal" country; South Korea longs for reunification; India pursues a "Make In India" economy.
Only Asean has a shared vision of an Asean Economic Community. Our leaders have yet to articulate a long-term shared strategic vision of Asia which can galvanise our diverse peoples to aspire towards. Without this, even if countries want to score goals as a team, they do not know where the goal post is.
These two deficits can be overcome. Other countries have faced and fixed similar problems. We can learn from them.
The European nations have put aside centuries of war and conflict to form the European Union. Despite longstanding French-German enmity, reconciliation between France and Germany was the main driving force behind a peaceful and prosperous united Europe.
Closer to home, South-east Asia was a turbulent region before Asean was born. It was once described as "the Balkans of the East". The countries were divided into communist and non-communist. There were armed conflicts, like the Indonesian-Malaysian Confrontation in the 1960s and the Cambodian-Vietnamese War in the 1970s.
Hence, the five South-east Asian nations got together to form Asean in 1967. They had strong leaders with a clear unifying vision for the region. Later, Brunei joined. And after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the six Asean members reached out to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. They joined the Asean family subsequently. It was a strategic exercise in the building of trust and confidence.
The Asean way
THE Asean countries shifted away from guns and artillery towards mutual accommodation and peaceful negotiation to settle their differences. Where necessary and appropriate, border disputes are resolved through third-party mediation and the rule of law.
Recent examples include the Pedra Branca dispute between Singapore and Malaysia, the Sipadan-Ligitan dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia, and the Preah Vihear temple dispute between Thailand and Cambodia. These were intractable sovereignty issues where no government could be seen to give way. They were resolved through third-party adjudication by the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
In the case of Pedra Branca, the ICJ decision brought closure to a longstanding historical dispute that turned, in part, on the question of Singapore's effective sovereign administration and control of Pedra Branca over Malaysia's claim to its historic title. The ICJ awarded Pedra Branca, where the lighthouse stands, to Singapore but the other rock outcrops to Malaysia. Both countries did not get everything they wanted, but they accepted the outcome and moved on. This took considerable political will from both sides. Today, Malaysia and Singapore enjoy a warm and constructive relationship. They have agreed to build a high-speed railway between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, a distance of some 350km.
To take the first step in building trust and confidence, we need to look squarely at our history, recognise each other's role, and reconcile before we can join hands and walk towards the future.
THIS year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Unlike Europe, Asia has not satisfactorily resolved the legacy of the war. It is an opportune moment for Asian countries to show leadership in building trust and confidence. We should seize the moment and launch Asia's quest for a peaceful and prosperous future. Miss it, and the wounds of war history may fester for many generations.
I read a recent letter by some scholars of Japanese studies who called for Japan to "show leadership by addressing Japan's history of colonial rule and wartime aggression in both words and action". Some of the phrases concerning the war past struck me as being perceptive. They said that "the process of acknowledging past wrongs strengthens a democratic society and fosters cooperation among nations". I would add that this must be heartfelt, leaving no room for doubt.
The same letter praises Japan for the many good things it has done in the 70 years since World War II. It has maintained peace with its neighbours and provided generous aid to developing countries. Such contributions should not go unrecognised. These are things to celebrate.
(Japanese) Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe has pledged to uphold the past apologies of previous governments. He has expressed deep remorse and repentance. He is a strong leader. Only a strong leader can rein in nationalist sentiments and open the way to greater trust with its neighbours.
It is important to learn from history. But it is just as important to put aside historical issues, and move forward for the common good. Reconciliation requires that contrition goes hand in hand with acceptance. It takes two hands to clap. If one party offers the olive branch, the other party must be willing to accept and move on. Only then can we close the chapter on history.
To use a driving analogy, while we should check the rear-view mirror from time to time, we should focus more on the road ahead.
I, therefore, welcome the ongoing efforts by both Japan and China to reconcile their differences and to resolve outstanding bilateral issues. The positive atmospherics in the recent meeting between Prime Minister Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping was a good start.
Here, both countries can perhaps take a leaf from (Indian) Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi's (book). He visited China last week. He told reporters after meeting (Chinese) Prime Minister Li Keqiang: "I stressed the need for China to reconsider the issues that hold us back from realising the full potential of our partnership." He added: "I suggested that China should take a strategic and long-term view of our relations." Of course, China will expect him to do likewise.
Indeed, Prime Minister Li responded: "For the true arrival of the Asian Century, it must be seen whether China and India… will be able to overcome the difficulties facing us and steadily achieve the goal of modernisation so people can live well." This is not only true for China-India relations but also for the relations among the key East Asian countries today.
A vision for Asia's economy
INCREASED trust among the Asian countries is an important and necessary step for Asia to prosper. But it is not sufficient. It must be followed up by a common vision of peace and prosperity.
I suggest East Asia articulate what this common vision is. Perhaps, the Nikkei Conference can take the lead in a bottom-up movement. We can consider the longer-term vision of forming an East Asian Prosperous Community by 2050. This will give impetus towards greater economic cooperation and integration. It will mobilise regional resources in a more efficient way, through a single market and production base. It will unleash the massive potential of East Asia and its 2.2 billion people.
This vision needs to be supported by strong values and principles. We need to foster a culture of consultation and cooperation, and respect for the rule of law, and not the rule of might. Like Europe and Asean, Asian countries will need to eschew wars and embrace a Code of Conduct to resolve their differences. Territorial disputes should not be allowed to derail our progress. The benefits of continued peace and cooperation far outweigh any economic gain from resources in the areas under dispute.
Another important value is that of inclusiveness. All countries must benefit from the vision of a prosperous economic community. Countries which are not as developed, or those with smaller economies, must be pulled up and not feel vulnerable or threatened by the larger and more developed economies.
ASIA holds much promise, yet its tumultuous history tells a cautionary tale. Individually, each of us is in good shape. Yet Asia's potential can be fulfilled only if all countries in the region cooperate and achieve prosperity together. The bigger countries must set the lead.
We now have new and strong leaders in these bigger countries. If they take a long-term strategic view for their countries and Asia, and exercise regional statesmanship, we can overcome the current deficit of trust. The key to Asia's quest for peace and prosperity is political will, confidence, trust, vision and the courage to take the initiative. We in Asia, our leaders and our people, have a collective responsibility to foster shared peace and prosperity.
The future is in our hands.