Asean members need to express beliefs without fear or favour

Geostrategic neutrality will always be an aspiration for countries, especially small states (Asean must strive to remain cohesive amid global tensions: PM Lee; Nov 16).

Switzerland is a fine example of a small state that is probably the closest thing to a politically "neutral" one.

But there had been instances when it was forced to take sides to protect its national interest, including signing a defence alliance with an expansionistic France led by the great General Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 19th century.

Here in South-east Asia, the five Asean founding members inked the Zopfan (Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality) declaration in 1971 to keep the region free from interference by outside powers.

Yet at least two of them fought against the communists during the Vietnam War.

Today, former enemies have become close members of a bigger Asean family.

But some longstanding concerns remain, especially amid the revival of big power rivalry that can fracture regionalism, as shown in the community's failure to issue a joint statement for the first time at its summit meeting in Cambodia in 2012.

To keep all historical baggage under lid, Asean has long sought to manage such complex ties among key players in the region, including those from outside South-east Asia, via its programme of dialogue partnerships.

But seeking to be friends with everybody does not mean being cowed into compromising one's sovereignty, as even the Swiss have shown.

After all, we are living in a multipolar world where certain countries appear increasingly keen to raid the global commons for their chauvinistic agendas.

Such lawless behaviour is really quite unprecedented, and complicates traditional notions of neo-colonialism.

Suffice to say, Switzerland and Singapore/Asean are located on different continents and theatres of rivalries among traditional and non-traditional actors whose objectives span national and international boundaries.

Nevertheless, Asean and its members can continue to draw some inspiration from the Swiss model of neutrality.

This includes promoting a conducive atmosphere for international dialogue and cooperation where every participant, including rivals, can articulate his beliefs without fear or favour.

For Asean centrality to survive if not thrive, the group must develop more teeth and bite individually and collectively to ward off those seeking proxies for their self-serving cause.

It will be lost if Asean treats its centrality as largely an entitlement.

Toh Cheng Seong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 03, 2018, with the headline 'Asean members need to express beliefs without fear or favour'. Print Edition | Subscribe