Asean's continued success hinges on bringing tangible benefits to citizens: Tommy Koh

Professor Tommy Koh cautioned that Asean should not be seen by our people as an elitist organisation serving the interests of the urban elite and of big businesses.
Professor Tommy Koh cautioned that Asean should not be seen by our people as an elitist organisation serving the interests of the urban elite and of big businesses. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

SINGAPORE - The Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) must bring tangible benefits to its 630 million citizens if it is to continue to succeed in the next 50 years, said Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh on Tuesday (Aug 22).

He was speaking at this year's Asean Day reception to mark the regional grouping's 50th anniversary, where he also launched a book titled Fifty Years Of Asean And Singapore.

The collection of essays was written by Singapore diplomats, government officials, academics and civil society representatives who were involved in Singapore's Asean efforts.

Professor Koh had made a similar point in the book, cautioning that "Asean should not be seen by our people as an elitist organisation serving the interests of the urban elite and of big businesses".

At the reception, the retired diplomat gave a short speech on the achievements of the grouping in the last 50 years, and how it can continue to succeed in the next 50.

Asean's 50th anniversary is worth celebrating for three reasons, he said.

First, Asean has enabled its 10 member-economies to grow, to prosper, and to integrate into a single Asean economic community.

Second, it has been a force for peace in the region.

Professor Koh noted that Asean has brought together all the regional countries, the major powers and other stakeholders, both economically and politically.

Third, Asean plays an indispensable role of being the convener and mutual chairman of important institutions and forums.

But Asean cannot rest on its laurels and must constantly reinvent itself to stay relevant and competitive in a world facing technological revolution, said Professor Koh.

"The future of Asean depends very much on whether we are able to maintain our unity, independence and neutrality," he added.

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who was the guest of honour at the reception, said that Asean's founding fathers had recognised that this spirit of unity would allow their countries to grow and prosper.

But being part of Asean means countries must not think only of national interests, but also posit them against regional interests, he said.

"We must accept that regional existence sometimes means painful adjustments from just thinking in our national hat, within our respective countries," he added.

"We are still going to need this spirit to ensure that Asean remains united, credible and relevant in the next 50 years," said Dr Balakrishnan.

Both he and Professor Koh said that Singapore's future is inextricably intertwined with Asean's, and noted that Singapore will chair Asean next year (2018).

Dr Balakrishnan thanked Professor Koh and his co-editors for highlighting the efforts of Singapore's pioneers at making Asean a success.

The two other editors are the National University of Singapore's Centre for International Law associate director Sharon Seah, and former Institute for Policy Studies deputy director Chang Li Lin.

The book is being sold at all major bookstores, at $98 for its hard-cover edition and $38 for its paperback edition.

Said Professor Koh: "We wanted to use this book to explain to fellow Singaporeans why Asean is important to Singapore."