Calling the Rakhine crisis a humanitarian disaster, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan yesterday called on Asean to take a stand on "stopping the violence and stopping the violence now, and making sure humanitarian assistance actually flows''.
It would not be credible for Asean to "see nothing, say nothing, do nothing" about the humanitarian situation in the Myanmar state, even though the crisis cannot be solved overnight, he said.
"There are real people suffering terrible injustices and (who are) victims of atrocities," he said at a lecture event attended by about 200 diplomats, business leaders and academics. But he was quick to add that any decision taken by the regional grouping has to be reached by consensus, a unified stand that preserves its centrality in the region and its relevance to the rest of the world.
The need to speak with one voice was the central theme of his lecture, titled Asean: Next 50, that was organised by the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. He addressed the challenges faced by the grouping and set out Singapore's priorities when it takes over as chairman next year.
Dr Balakrishnan raised the Rakhine situation as an example of a complicated issue which Asean has to resolve, while still abiding by its rule of seeking consensus.
He made the point in his reply to National University of Singapore political scientist Chong Ja Ian, who asked how Singapore plans to counter internal and external pressures that divide Asean.
On the problems in Myanmar, he said it was important to make every leader pause before they do anything inflicting pain, harm or death.
"They must be made aware of the consequences of their choices and that they could be held accountable for those choices. And yet, we have to do this while respecting Asean's design feature - we cannot do anything without consensus," said the minister, who was shown photographs of victims of atrocities last month during an official visit.
He said that as a former surgeon, he could tell how people were killed, but not who killed them or why they "had to suffer so grievously".
More than 620,000 people from the Rohingya Muslim minority have fled Rakhine state since a military-led crackdown on them started several months ago.
Dr Balakrishnan said Asean's leaders must have the political wisdom "to say that we better hang together or we will be hung one by one".
Leaders need to build up trust with one another, understand one another's fears and concerns, and then cobble a consensus on how to move forward, he added.
Even though consensus makes arriving at agreements slower and more laborious, these solutions are more sustainable because they are supported by all, he said.
"It is imperative that we do not break ranks and sacrifice long-term regional group interests in favour of narrower, short-term national interests, or no one will take us seriously," he said.
Hinting at Singapore's approach as chairman next year, he said: "For summits organised by Singapore, I would rather have less rah-rah and less formal meetings, and more quiet time, for our leaders to sit and talk, without an audience and without a gallery, to sort things out."
He added: "Just do good, whether it works best by doing it quietly - which frankly in the Asian context is often the most effective - build trust, and act in a way consistent with your declared values."