Why It Matters

Winning hearts, minds in Asean

The success of Asean benefits Singaporeans economically and politically. Few, however, may be aware of it, Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh hinted in a new book, 50 Years Of Asean And Singapore, which he launched on Tuesday.

The chapter he contributed points to the need to explain to Singaporeans why the 10-member regional group, which turns 50 this year, is important to the country and should matter more to them.

There are several reasons.

First, Singapore benefits immensely from trade with Asean, which is the world's sixth-largest economy and is poised to become its fourth-largest by 2030. Last year, Singapore's trade with Asean amounted to $295 billion, a quarter of Singapore's total trade with the world.

Second, Asean has many ingredients of growth that Singapore does not have on its own. For instance, Singapore has 5.6 million people. But with Asean, the population soars to 630 million, a vast market with huge potential. About 60 per cent of Asean's citizens are estimated to be younger than 30, a group that can fuel robust economic growth.

Singapore also benefits from being in an economically strong neighbourhood. Professor Koh noted that Asean has enabled its member economies to grow and prosper, and to integrate into a single Asean Economic Community.

Politically, Asean has been a force for peace and stability in the region, by drawing together all the regional countries, the major powers and other stakeholders.

But "the need to anchor Asean in the hearts and minds of its citizens" is crucial for the continued success of the grouping, Prof Koh wrote. Its integration must bring tangible benefits to the people of Asean, and not be seen as the preserve of big businesses and the urban elite.

As Singapore chairs Asean next year, it can strengthen efforts to win the hearts and minds of the ordinary citizens of Asean.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2017, with the headline 'Winning hearts, minds in Asean'. Print Edition | Subscribe