As globalisation stirs anxieties worldwide, Second Minister for Defence Ong Ye Kung is optimistic that South-east Asia can benefit from the tide of technology and openness.
Speaking to participants of the Southeast Asian Young Leaders' Programme at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue yesterday, he said Asean states have long been free traders. Major civilisations - Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic and Western - have deep cultural imprints in the region, yet it has never been at war, he said.
"That, I think, has got to do with our DNA for embracing diversity, being able to co-exist despite differences in culture and religion. That's a very strong point for South-east Asia, especially in this era."
But three conditions should be in place for the region to ride the wave of globalisation, said Mr Ong, who is also Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills).
One, it must be united through Asean and maintain its neutrality, factors that have enabled South- east Asia to prosper over the years.
Mr Ong noted that by 2030, Asean will become the fourth- largest economy, "provided we band together".
He noted that Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines are each expected to have gross domestic product of over US$1 trillion (S$1.4 trillion) by 2030, putting them in the ranks of the world's top 32 countries.
"I hope Singapore will get there, but we are constrained by our size," he said. "If we can collectively leverage the common market of South- east Asia, diplomatically and internationally, if we can have a united collective voice, we can play a big part in international economics."
Two, Asean nations must continue to embrace diversity, feel comfortable with their own cultures and not feel compelled to emulate others, even as the world globalises.
Three, each country has to tackle the potential social dislocation that will arise as a result of globalisation.
Education and lifelong learning are key, said Mr Ong. He hopes Asean states can work together to prepare the next generation for the future and exchange ideas on how to innovate as a region, and how the people can know one another better.
"A new era of technology is driving the way our economies work, which will in turn drive security concerns," he said.
New players such as Netflix and Uber have disrupted traditional business models, and states are trying to reassert their control.
Still, Mr Ong sees free trade agreements continuing to play a role. They set out rules and the framework for countries to work with one another in trade and investment - in some cases even setting labour and environment standards.
Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh