Asean should be self-reliant, members help one another

It is natural for a country to look after its own interests in the rough and tumble of regional politics.

It is on this premise that great powers from near or far engage countries, dangling the carrot that they want.

Economic disparities among countries make expectations hard to manage. The less-developed nations hope to jump on the express bandwagon to up their economic lot.

The handouts by great powers, with or without strings attached, are too enticing to pass up. Hence, it is natural that countries will be forced to take sides when giants feud in the region.

Therefore, Asean should embark on a self-help regime that redistributes capital among its member countries - an Asean infrastructural development fund, perhaps.

Where basic infrastructure is most wanting in the less-developed members of Asean, the more progressive economies should give priority in investing in them.

After all, there is no lack of capital, talent and technology among the developed members as they are already investing further afield. Why not keep some for neighbouring countries?

This will make the less-developed economies in Asean less beholden to the great powers. Asean will also be more united.

Besides, drawing from the same fund to develop competing territorial claims, such as the southern seaboard of Peninsular Malaysia facing Singapore, will assuage hardline positions as joint developments benefit all parties.

While the United States and China tussle for influence in the region, some quarters have suggested that perhaps we should invite Japan, Russia and India to counterbalance the two major powers' influence (Singapore's neutrality is its strength, by Madam Lily Ong; Nov 24).

It was not long ago that South-east Asia was carved up by the then colonial powers and remained abjectly poor for generations.

It is unfathomable that any foreign power will serve the region's collective interests. Letting more powers join the fray will complicate relations even more.

Thus, Asean should be self-reliant.

We are at the cusp of a new awakening in the region. We command a huge market with a burgeoning middle class to boot.

If we can pool our resources and distribute economic wealth more evenly among the 10 members, no "carrot" from near or far will divide us.

Lee Teck Chuan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2018, with the headline 'Asean should be self-reliant, members help one another'. Print Edition | Subscribe