Think-tanks such as the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute play an important role in helping Singapore maintain a "delicacy of perception" towards developments in the region, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.
Using the late former deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee's words, PM Lee said this deep understanding of regional affairs is needed not only among Cabinet ministers and government officials, but also among the intelligentsia, financial and business community, the media and other professionals.
"ISEAS therefore continues to play an important role, enriching our collective knowledge of the region. I hope it will enhance mutual understanding among our Asean partners too," he said at the think-tank's 50th anniversary lecture.
Tracing the history of the institution, which was first proposed by Dr Goh in 1966, a year after independence, PM Lee recounted how Singapore was then facing pressing economic and social issues. Yet, the founding fathers decided to invest resources in building a research institution to study South-east Asia.
They did so because they "understood instinctively how closely our fate was intertwined with the region's", said PM Lee.
South-east Asia then was a troubled region - for instance, Singapore had just separated from Malaysia, Konfrontasi was barely over and several countries faced communist insurgencies.
To survive, a small and newly independent country needed to acquire a deep understanding of the region, said PM Lee.
"Because small countries do not shape world events, events shape us," he said. Thus, Singapore had to acquire a "delicacy of perception" to foresee difficulties and opportunities, and prepare to address them.
But this was lacking here. In a Cabinet paper proposing the setting up of ISEAS, Dr Goh noted that "we know more about Melbourne than we know Medan, more about the English Channel than the Sunda Strait", said PM Lee, drawing laughter from the audience.
Dr Goh also believed an autonomous research institute would be better placed to develop such expertise as government officials would be too bogged down by day-to-day concerns to look at issues from a long-term, detached perspective.
Thus ISEAS was formed in 1968, and has since established itself as a respected research institute on South-east Asian issues, having produced more than 2,000 books and journals, said PM Lee.
He also paid tribute to ISEAS' longest-serving chairman, Professor Wang Gungwu, who has held the position since 2002, and its longest-serving director, Professor Kernial Singh Sandhu, who led the institute from 1972 to 1992.
Prof Wang said in his opening remarks that it is certain that the next decade will bring momentous changes in the region, within and between neighbouring countries.
"We also know that new trends such as anti-globalisation, nationalism as well as increased major power rivalry together may imperil our stability and economic success and undermine Asean's centrality as an organisation," he said, adding that the institute will study these changes and contribute to understanding these issues more deeply.
A new exhibition on the history of ISEAS will be displayed at its library from today.
Correction note: In an earlier version of the story, we said Professor Wang Gungwu has been ISEAS' chairman since 1992. The Prime Minister's Office has since clarified that he has held the position since 2002.