When he was Education Minister, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat was told by his staff that the budget for students to travel to Asia for education programmes was underutilised.
Unlike the funds allocated for trips to America and Europe, which are more popular destinations, the Asia account was not used much, and they asked if the funds could be reallocated to the more popular programmes.
"I said 'no', I disagreed. We should help our people understand Asia better. Young people should not assume that just because we are in Asia, we know Asia. So I'm not going to make a change - on the contrary, I may reallocate more to Asia," said Mr Heng.
He shared this anecdote yesterday at a dialogue at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum, moderated by Mr Warren Fernandez, editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' English/Malay/Tamil Media Group and editor of The Straits Times, to emphasise the importance of Singaporeans knowing their immediate neighbours.
"Today, with global travel, budget airlines and social media and the Internet, our people, especially our young, are exposed to all parts of the world," he said. "We sometimes assume that we know our closest neighbour, but we don't."
In his speech, Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister, said Singapore will encourage Singaporeans to venture into South-east Asia through study exchanges, work attachments and internships.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) is doing more to support students keen to learn a third language, especially regional ones such as Malay and Bahasa Indonesia, he noted.
"We will also work towards exposing more students to Asia and the region through internships and overseas learning journeys," he said, adding that MOE is reviewing how it can further enhance tertiary students' engagement with the region.
There will also be opportunities for Singaporeans in their working years, Mr Heng added, citing the Global Innovation Alliance that links companies to overseas tech and business communities, and has set up nodes in three Asean cities - Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok - as well as 10 other cities.
At the dialogue, Mr Heng said "Asean as a group is not a small entity" and can work together to engage major powers, especially with tensions high between the United States and China. Emphasising the need to uphold the concept of Asean centrality, he said Singapore has to maintain its links to all parties.
With Asean projected to become the world's fourth-largest economy by 2030, Mr Heng said it is still "a work in progress" and its success will be determined by how well member states work together.
"The projection is a projection. Whether or not we can reach it depends very much on how hard we work at it in the coming years. In terms of the ideal of a common market, a common production base, it is always a work in progress."
Mr Heng identified areas that Asean needed to cooperate further, including the service sector and the removal of non-tariff barriers, such as regulatory ones. It should create a common standard, particularly for protecting the integrity of data and ensuring cyber security in the digital economy.
There could also be greater cooperation in areas such as food, drugs and medicine, he said. "I don't think we are ready for an Asean common currency, but step by step there are many things we can work towards."
He added: "If you look at Asean year by year, it looks like a snail's progress. But if you look at it over a decade, you wonder, wow, there's so much progress made. I think we need to take the same attitude, and just keep making progress with like-minded countries. We start with whatever can be done, and be practical about it and address each other's concerns."
During the dialogue, Mr Heng also shared his thoughts about the protests in Hong Kong since June.
"I think it is very worrying, in particular, the violence. I used to be a police officer. So when I look at the videos and what is happening, the police officers in Hong Kong have been facing a very tough time. They are doing their best to maintain law and order. It's not easy when you have that level of violence. It is of concern to everyone."
Mr Heng said that "a very deep fault line" has opened up in Hong Kong society, and the protest has moved beyond the immediate cause of the since-withdrawn extradition Bill, to other socio-economic issues.
He also said Singapore's history, celebrated in this year's Bicentennial celebrations, has always been one of adaptability and planning for the future.
"If you look at Singapore's developments over the years, our fortunes float with the world. Whatever happens, we are always a part of the world, and regional powers and regional rivalries cause us to go up or go down. But the fact that we survived and prospered over the years, is because we have very adaptable people," said Mr Heng.
"It is not realistic for us to expect the world to adapt to us. And whatever changes in the world, whether it's geopolitics, whether it's new economic relationships, whether it's new technology or new social trends, we have to adapt to the world and make the best of it."
Mr Heng said that, as a small country, Singapore is not in a position to threaten or dominate anyone in the world. But it has its own way to remain useful and relevant to others, and can operate nimbly.
"Because we are small, hopefully we can be far better coordinated in Singapore, and in that way we can be a pathfinder for many things."
He said Singapore having one layer of government makes experimentation easier for things such as digital and financial technology.
"Let us think not in the short term, what is going to happen in the next three months or six months or the next one year. Let us think far ahead," he said.
For example, since Singapore knows that the climate change battle is going to cost $100 billion over a hundred years, it can start saving up for that, he added.