SINGAPORE - Asean needs a strong core of leaders to drive it forward into its next phase of growth, said Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong at a forum in Bangkok on Thursday (Nov 16).
"At 50, a man starts to feel his age. As an organisation, Asean must not," Mr Goh said at the event Asean@50: In Retrospect organised by the Bangkok Post.
"For it not to age and die like a human being, Asean needs to refresh itself with a strong sense of purpose. This is the task for current and future Asean leaders," he said.
Mr Goh, who was Singapore's prime minister from 1990 to 2004, identified strong collective leadership as one of three ingredients required for Asean to continue to succeed - and have weight and influence in the region amid new stresses - in the next 50 years.
The other two ingredients are robust internal growth and regional integration.
The forum comes days after Asean leaders gathered in Manila for their annual summit and meetings with world leaders, and resolved to forge ahead with closer integration and cooperation on key challenges, including lowering barriers to trade, countering terrorism, and managing maritime tensions.
In his speech, Mr Goh traced how Asean was forged by leaders with a singular focus - they did not want South-east Asia to be balkanised by external powers during the Cold War - who set about to build an Asean community from the 1990s, through a regionwide free trade agreement and further economic integration.
These leaders "embraced a shared vision of a stable, united and prosperous South-east Asia".
And their efforts enabled Asean to be in the driver's seat in the region, and host forums like the East Asia Summit to engage larger neighbours and keep major powers focused on South-east Asia.
"In Asean's earlier phases, there was a strong core of Asean-minded leaders who saw the world beyond the present and their countries' interests. They believed that their national interests were best advanced through a cohesive, stable and prosperous Asean," Mr Goh said.
"This requires trust at both national and personal levels, and a willingness to look out for each other," he added.
GROWING INTERNALLY AND LINKING UP WITH ONE ANOTHER
Asean also has great potential for internal growth, with a population of more than 600 million and a combined gross domestic product of US$2.5 trillion (S$3.4 trillion), he said.
Education reform, including skills training for youth and a focus on science and technology, is needed for the region not to squander these opportunities, said Mr Goh.
"Asean member states have more than 1,000 universities that offer Stem (science, technology, engineering and medicine) courses. We must push bright young students towards Stem," he said.
Asean's 10 countries can also use technology to better connect with one another, he said.
"A digitally-connected Smart Asean Community will have the market size to compete against China and India," said Mr Goh.
He called on countries to do more to connect their tech hubs and start-ups with each other, so that savvy entrepreneurs can better exchange ideas and solutions with their peers across borders.
Growing internally, linking up through new technologies and exercising collective leadership will enable Asean to be a central player in a changing world, said Mr Goh.
"The notion of Asean has always been strategic," he noted.
"To keep it so, an effective core of leaders who can inject a new sense of purpose is the only way for Asean to thrive in its next 50 years," he said.