Asean keeps readers riveted at Big Read Meet

Cutting the Meet’s fourth anniversary cake are (front, from left) Meet pioneer Lum Pak Meng, speakers Moe Thuzar and Hoang Thi Ha, Meet pioneer Ong Min Yee, moderator Cheong Suk-Wai and Meet pioneers Tina Wah and Lim Mei Chuen.
Cutting the Meet’s fourth anniversary cake are (front, from left) Meet pioneer Lum Pak Meng, speakers Moe Thuzar and Hoang Thi Ha, Meet pioneer Ong Min Yee, moderator Cheong Suk-Wai and Meet pioneers Tina Wah and Lim Mei Chuen.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Most people would yawn if you tried to tell them about Asean, or the Association of South-east Asian Nations, whose members span the lands right below China and above Australia.

But the 85 readers of The Straits Times (ST) who turned up to celebrate the fourth anniversary of The Big Read Meet last Wednesday were riveted on the topic for over an hour by Asean political security expert Hoang Thi Ha.

"Asean is like the air you breathe - you will notice it only when it is gone," said the 37-year-old at the start of her incisive talk at the Meet, the popular monthly non-fiction book club which ST runs with the National Library Board (NLB).

NLB had chosen Asean as the theme for the second anniversary of its National Reading Movement this year.

Ms Hoang, who is Vietnamese, worked at the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta for 10 years before joining the think-tank Institute of Southeast Asian Studies-Yusof Ishak Institute here as a fellow last year.

She began by noting how skilfully Asean's six founding members, including Singapore, steered the region away from communism, turned it into an "oasis of peace" and nourished it with a big "spaghetti bowl" of partnerships with major powers such as China, Japan, the United States and India.

Noting that such "virtuous promiscuity" was Asean's way of ensuring it would not be swayed by any one power, Ms Hoang added: "Asean is often seen as 'talk only' and even 'do nothing', but when you keep people talking, at least they are not fighting."

Besides all that talking, she stressed, Asean members were working well together in countering terrorism, curbing human and drug trafficking and ridding their seas of pirates.

They had also boosted business by enabling their respective airlines to fly freely within their region of 640 million people, who need not pay trade taxes in six out of Asean's 10 member countries.

She thought that they should, however, collaborate harder to create more and better-paying jobs for their peoples.

Readers gasped when she told them that Asean had more than 1,000 meetings yearly, run by its about 700 agencies, and yet it would take at least a year for these to table anything for discussion.

It was also binning important projects because some members would not fund them. In one instance, she noted, they coughed up $300 million when $600 billion was needed.

From now on, she added, Asean would have to juggle three great tensions: being government-centred versus touching the lives of their citizens more meaningfully; focusing on individual interests versus the collective good; and forever planning and talking shop versus actually carrying out plans.

So, she wondered, was Asean's vision of being "one community" "new wine or old wine repackaged in a new bottle"?

To readers' questions on how Asean should deal with China and the US, she said first that China was bent on being Asean's "first and best" partner in deals.

But Ms Hoang, who used to attend a lot of China-Asean meetings, noted China's "discomfort with the smallest details", such that it did not want the name "Asean" displayed alongside China's on banners during joint meets.

As the US was still Asean's biggest foreign investor, she suggested that the best way to deal with its mercurial President Donald Trump might be to "give him something he wants", such as Vietnamese premier Nguyen Xuan Phuc's offer of billions of dollars to buy US airplanes in May.

Trainer and a Meet regular Shamimah Mujtaba, 61, said Ms Hoang's talk was brilliant. "To get that much understanding on Asean, we would normally have to go through a lot of documents. But we gained so much over 11/2 hours just by sitting there and listening to her."

Another Meet regular, entrepreneur Indranil Mukherjee, 48, who is the vice-president of the Internet Society Singapore Chapter, said: "To give an insider's viewpoint of Asean without taking a position on it, and to do so with great humour and political savvy to boot, is a difficult art, but Ms Hoang pulled it off so well."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 31, 2017, with the headline 'Asean keeps readers riveted at Big Read Meet'. Subscribe