Staying independent, united and neutral despite some member states' wishes to be aligned with one of the major powers is in both Singapore's and Asean's interests.
This was the key point made by veteran diplomat Tommy Koh yesterday when he addressed a crowd of 350 at an askST@NLB session on the principles and guidelines that should govern the practice of diplomacy in an uncertain era.
Professor Koh took a variety of questions from the audience, ranging from influences from his Shanghainese mother to worries about an increasingly assertive China and Singapore's soft power, in the 90-minute session, jointly organised by National Library Board and The Straits Times. The session was the first to feature a guest speaker.
Responding to a question by the moderator, ST opinion editor Chua Mui Hoong, on whether Asean can remain independent and united, he said: "Asean is coming under increasing pressure from the major powers to side with them against another... It is not in our interest to align with any of the major powers.
"It is in Singapore's national interest and Asean's collective interest that Asean should remain united, independent and neutral.
"If we are not united, independent and neutral, we're of no use to the world."
He said he dare not say with too much confidence whether Asean can maintain these traits in the coming years, as some within the group wish to be aligned with one of the major powers.
"But I hope wisdom will prevail in the Asean family. I hope that when the 10 leaders meet in a retreat setting, (they) will realise that a divided Asean doesn't serve anybody's interest."
On soft power, Prof Koh said: "Does Singapore have soft power? In my view, we do, you know. We may be a very small country, but we stand for some big ideas."
He pointed to the examples of Singapore having low levels of corruption, the rule of law and relatively good governance, with a good housing policy, despite being a very unequal society.
Mr Chua Cheng Xun, 32, an entrepreneur, said learning about this topic was one of his main takeaways from the session held at the National Library in Bras Basah.
"We are quite special in that we have diversity but peace, we have rule of law. I didn't really think about it, but I guess that's one of the things that help us to increase our voice on the global stage," he said.
The next askST@NLB session will be on Aug 31.
News editor Marc Lim will talk about what news organisations have to do to maintain their edge, credibility and expertise in the face of increased competition in the era of social media and fake news.
Yesterday's talk was streamed live on the Rings.TV application. The live streaming video can be replayed via the app, which can be downloaded from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store.