SINGAPORE - Globalisation is a double-edged sword that has stirred up anxiety even as it opens up opportunities, but Second Minister for Defence Ong Ye Kung is optimistic that Southeast Asia is well-poised to reap its benefits.
"I think a place like Southeast Asia, a place like Singapore, can benefit a great deal, provided we manage the downsides and are able to work together to leverage on the upsides," he told a group of young leaders from the region on Sunday (June 4), at a breakfast on the sidelines of the annual IISS Shangri-La Dialogue.
Asean states, by nature of the region's history, are free traders, said Mr Ong. They have always been part of major trade routes, and, even today, half the world's trade comes through the Malacca Straits.
This means major civilisations and religions - among them Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam - have deep cultural imprints in the region. Despite this, noted Mr Ong, Asean has never been at war.
"That I think has got to do with our DNA for embracing diversity, being able to co-exist despite differences in culture and religion. That's a very strong point for Southeast Asia, especially in this era," he said.
But for Southeast Asia to ride the wave of globalisation, three conditions must be in place, said Mr Ong.
Firstly, it must band together through Asean - the regional grouping that turns 50 this year - and maintain the region's neutrality. This is why Southeast Asia has done well over the years, said Mr Ong.
This growth continues: by 2030, Asean will become the fourth largest economy - "provided we band together", he said.
And four Asean states - Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines - are each expected to exceed a gross domestic product of US $1 trillion by 2030, bringing them into the ranks of the top 32 countries in the world.
"I hope Singapore will get there, but we are constrained by our size," said Mr Ong. "If we can collectively leverage on the common market of Southeast Asia diplomatically and internationally, if we can have a united collective voice, I think we can play a big part internationally."
Secondly, Asean must continue to embrace diversity.
"We have to be comfortable with our own culture. We don't have to feel compelled, even as the world globalises, to emulate others," said Mr Ong.
He cited the Nanyang style of art, a unique blend of East and West, created by pioneer Chinese artists who brought their Western art knowledge back to the region, adding influences from Balinese and Chinese art.
The third condition is that each country tackles the potential social dislocation that will arise as a result of globalisation.
This has already started, especially in the face of digitalisation. Those who lack relevant skills are at great risk of unemployment.
"That's where my other portfolio comes into play, in education and lifelong learning," said Mr Ong, who is also Education Minister (Higher Education & Skills). "I think this is something that all governments have to work on. The way we teach the new generation, the way we interest them in whatever domains they might have a talent in... the way we expose them to digital technology from a young age is critical in preparing our next generation."
He hoped to see Southeast Asian countries work together on this, and exchange ideas on how the region can innovate.
Mr Ong during the breakfast on Sunday decided to give the young leaders a reprieve from the security issues that had dominated their past two days at the Shangri-La Dialogue, choosing instead to take on trade and technology.
But economic measures and initiatives - from the Asean Economic Community to the Trans-Pacific Partnership - unite and bridge countries, forming an important part of the security architecture, he said.
The world is at a turning point, he said: "A new era of technology is driving the way our economies work, which will in turn drive security concerns."
He examples of how technology and new players - from Netflix to Uber - has disrupted traditional business models. This has made it challenging to protect industries, and all over the world countries are trying their best to reassert their control now that rules can be easily bypassed.
But while technology is shaking up the world, this does not mean initiatives like a free trade agreement have no part to play. These, said Mr Ong, still set out rules and regulations, and lay the framework for countries to work with each other - in some cases even setting labour and environment standards.
"These continue to be important, but we need to be cognisant of the fact that technology is pushing the boundaries, and what we have on paper, over time, sometimes has become obsolete," he said. "So let's not underestimate that we live in a world today where there's an invisible hand of technology always pushing the boundary for freer trade, for globalisation, for us to be more connected."