Parliament: Singapore should step up its engagement with Asean neighbours, says Low Thia Khiang


Singapore needs to deepen its ties with its Asean neighbours to correct the perception that it is an arrogant nation that looks at developing nations with a condescending eye, said veteran opposition MP Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC).

"Success breeds envy among neighbours, and this envy can turn toxic if our neighbours come to believe that our success is due to our taking advantage of their weaknesses," he told the House during yesterday's debate on the Foreign Affairs Ministry's budget.

Speaking on soft-power diplomacy, the former Workers' Party chief gave three suggestions for implementing what he called a "strategic shift" towards South-east Asia: Deepen engagement between governments to facilitate economic development in Asean, enhance networking between people, and turn to digital diplomacy.

Singapore should focus on the region to ride its rapid growth and ensure that it stays united, he said, noting how the region "painstakingly" built up Asean after the Cold War.

"In the event that great-power conflict should erupt again, Singapore will fare better in an Asean standing together, strong against foreign interference," Mr Low said. "Realising the Asean motto of 'One Vision, One Identity, One Community' may well be the key to Singapore's survival and success for the next 50 years."

Responding, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said Mr Low made an "excellent speech" and that he disagreed with nothing in it.


Singapore will fare better in an Asean standing together, strong against foreign interference.


"You made a very important point about humility in success, and we will pursue these suggestions on deeper engagement with Asean through economic projects, people-to-people ties and digital diplomacy," said Dr Balakrishnan.

He added that it is not about shifting Singapore's strategic focus to Asean, but "recognising that Asean has always been a cornerstone of Singapore's foreign policy, and for our engagement with the region and the rest of the world".

"I completely agree with you that we must strengthen the open and inclusive Asean-centric regional architecture," the minister said, adding that as Asean chair last year, Singapore launched initiatives to boost regional integration and key partners' stake in Asean, like the Asean Smart Cities Network and Model Asean Extradition Treaty.

It also upgraded the Asean-China Free Trade Area while coordinating Asean-China relations from 2015 to last year - a big step towards two-way trade in excess of US$1 trillion (S$1.35 trillion) and investment of US$500 billion by 2020, he said.

Both sides have also agreed on a single draft negotiating text for the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. It "will not solve all the problems there" but is a key step to build confidence, the minister said.

Mr Low also said Singapore should ink pacts to boost economic and cultural links with Asean members, "especially since we share much history and cultural kinship".

On digital diplomacy, he felt Singapore could have used last year's meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to boost its soft power, saying: "Singapore should become a smart nation exercising smart power."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2019, with the headline 'S'pore should step up its engagement with Asean neighbours: Low'. Print Edition | Subscribe