This week around Asia

Al Gore Takes on Donald Trump

This is a weekly blog by Associate Editor Ravi Velloor offering his take on events around Asia and those that affect the region. It is exclusive to The Straits Times digital edition.

Disheartened by US President Donald Trump’s move to pull his nation out of the climate change accord? Hold your horses a bit.

This week, I sat listening to former US Vice-President Al Gore speak on climate change at an opening address to the annual Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity, which has emerged as a key annual item in the Asian diary and just had its 12th avatar.

Mr Gore, deputy to former President Bill Clinton and the man who lost the presidential race to Mr George W. Bush because of the infamous "hanging chads" of the Florida vote, offered the reassuring insight that Mr Trump couldn’t stop the movement for sustainability and climate protection in the United States even if he wanted to.

Mr Gore is a fascinating politician. While his claims of having been one of the pioneers of the Internet are met with some scepticism, there is little doubt about his concern and interest in the environment. 

He has flown in a helicopter, peering down at melting glaciers in Greenland, and travelled to Miami, Florida, to capture on film octopuses and ocean fish swimming on the city’s roads because rising ocean waters have caused frequent flooding in the city of millionaires.

Big states like California and New York, he noted in his speech, were pushing ahead on sustainability. That’s no small thing. If it were an independent nation, California would be the world’s 6th largest economy. US companies also were fully aware of the sustainability question, and acting upon it. Elsewhere, some of the world’s worst polluters are also taking action. 

Former US Vice-President Al Gore (third from left) arrives in Hyundai Motor's Grandeur hybrid to give a lecture at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, South Korea, on June 1, 2017. The Nobel laureate was in South Korea on a one-day visit to attend a forum and had informed the organisers beforehand that he wanted to travel in an eco-friendly car. PHOTO: EPA/YONHAP

(I noticed that, as Mr Gore had indicated accurately, hours after Mr Trump’s announcement, the Governors of California, Washington and New York announced a "Climate Alliance" of US States committed to upholding the Paris climate agreement and committed to aggressive action on climate change.)

Mr Gore pointed out that like Jeju, which has declared that only electric cars will be sold on the South Korean island from 2030, India was poised to make similar moves.

Also, what’s comforting is that alternative, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are swiftly approaching, or have succeeded in, gaining "grid parity" with coal, the traditional fuel. 

“People ask me, ‘are we going to solve this crisis,’?... my answer is, ‘Yes’!”


Mr George Yeo’s speech at a panel on middle powers was a reminder why Singapore, and Asia, misses the voice and counsel of this sage-like politician, whose last ministerial responsibility in the Singapore Cabinet was foreign affairs.


Focusing on the Korean question, Mr Yeo, who lost office in the 2011 election when his Group Representative Constituency was voted out, had his audience rapt with attention as he sketched out the modern history of the Korean Peninsula, the Superpower rivalry that had caused its division, his insights into the North Korean nation and its leadership, and the humanity of some of its key members. 

Now Chairman of Hongkong-based Kerry Logistics, Mr Yeo’s conclusion was that Pyongyang will be amenable to serious talks, when, like Iran, it had crossed a “certain threshold” in its nuclear programme. 

Equally importantly, the North Korean issue will be settled only when the US and China agree on some key matters.

“I have come to perceive Pyongyang as a very rational power,” he told the Jeju Forum. “They always wanted to deal directly with the US and they will never give up the nuclear card, because it is the only card that they have.” 

Think about it!


Its foreign policy quite at sea in the midst of an uncertain US - its military ally, and a testy and assertive China - its top trading partner, South Korea is looking at widening its options.


The panel I appeared at was structured around the future of South Korea-Asean Relations. The keynote speaker, Professor Shin Yoon Hwan of Sogang University and President of the Korean Association of South-east Asian Studies, offered an idea: that Asean broaden its membership to include South Korea!

It is time, Prof Shin argued, for Asean to stop seeing itself in mere geographical terms. He also points out that at Asean’s birth, Sri Lanka had been offered membership. His point is that if Sri Lanka, in South Asia, could have been considered then, why not South Korea today!

Prof Shin made several other points, but one I thought rather interesting was that his country should be more open to immigration from South-east Asia. Of course, this will not happen too quickly.

Like the Japanese, the Koreans in their own way are rather insular people. That said, anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of South Koreans with spouses from South-east Asia is rising. 

What is more, some 6 million South Koreans visit Asean every year, the bulk going to Thailand and the Philippines. That means about one in nine South Koreans travel to an Asean country yearly! Not bad. Clearly, there is a certain comfort level between the two.

I left the Forum musing that sometimes people outside Asean see it as more of a success than those inside it. Why else would Seoul cast a longing eye upon it!

Until next week, then...