Key issue is to build better lives in region

In the midst of the controversies arising from the ruling on the South China Sea dispute by the Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague ("Tribunal rejects China's sea claims" and "Avoid provocative statements or actions, urges US", both published last Wednesday; and "China warns of air zone over S. China Sea", last Thursday), what is at stake is not whether the rule of law should prevail or that history overrules.

It is the degree of improvement to the lives of the common people in South-east Asia that counts, and remains the most tangible.

Can the rule of law alone make a difference in their lives, or does it have to be combined with the forces of commerce to uplift lives for the better?

The Portuguese had been in Angola since 1483, but there was hardly any meaningful improvement to the natives' lives until the Chinese came. They built railway lines, miles of roads, ports and terminals, communications, utilities and healthcare, building more in 30 years than what Portugal did in 500.

So, likewise, however much or little the colonial governments had contributed since their arrival in South-east Asia, bringing their laws, can we perceive a momentum of development achievable via sheer force of commerce instead?

Can it be on the same scale as what China has transformed itself into in the past 30 years?

Even at half that pace, it will be quite a change for good for the 630 million people living in this corner of the world.

If the Philippines which, despite initiating the challenge at The Hague in 2013, can now offer a conciliatory hand to talk with China for mutual good ("Manila crafting measured response, allowing for possible talks"; last Thursday), let Asean countries also adopt the same spirit to sail through the storm of contention.

Let us get on with building better lives for the region, albeit always within a framework of good conduct and mutual understanding.

Cyril Seah Kwei Hiok

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2016, with the headline 'Key issue is to build better lives in region'. Print Edition | Subscribe