It is not true that Asean has no common culture, says Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh.
Its mix of ethnicity has led to unique cultural traits which mark Singaporean Chinese and Indians, for example, as different from those in China and India.
Malay culture has "softened" the rough edges, he said, and helped make them less arrogant and confrontational respectively.
Malay culture is "more subtle, more nuanced, and more appreciative of people who are halus (Malay for 'refined')", and this "has made us less garang (Malay for 'fierce'), less show-off".
Speaking at The Straits Times' Global Outlook Forum yesterday, he was responding to a participant who asked how Asean integration could come about when South-east Asian countries are culturally so different.
They are not, Professor Koh argued. "There is a certain common culture of musyawarah in Asean," he said, using the Malay term for "consensus".
"Of helping each other, seeking consensus. There is a culture of tolerance of each other's differences, a culture of forgiveness - which the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans do not have."
He recalled an anecdote told by a former Thai permanent secretary of foreign affairs on the punishment meted out to a group of young army soldiers behind an attempted coup in 2008.
After a period of repentance, there was a parade to welcome them back into the Thai army. Witnessing this, the South Korean ambassador asked the permanent secretary why it was so. "In Korea, these people would be court-martialled and shot," the ambassador said.
Said Prof Koh: "My Thai friend looked at him and said, 'My dear friend, that is the difference between South-east Asia and North-east Asia'." He added, to laughter: "Although I'm not sure that would be true in Singapore. In Singapore, they would probably be court-martialled and shot.
"But I'm a champion of the view that there is a South-east Asian civilisation," he summed up. "(One) different from China, from India, (and) not wholly derivative. This is reflected in our literature, our painting, our art. Don't underestimate yourself."