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Vivian reiterates S'pore's firm belief in Asean integration
THE Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) has the potential to be the "sleeper hit" of the next few decades, said Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan at a forum on Tuesday.
The 10-member regional bloc has many factors in its favour: A young and growing population of about 620 million, an abundance of natural resources and a thriving economy.
The combined economic output of the Asean member states now stands at US$2.5 trillion, and the hope is that this can grow by four to five times by the year 2030.
Asean is China's largest trading partner and the fourth largest economy in the world after the EU, the US and China.
Speaking to some 350 guests at the Straits Times Global Outlook Forum event at the Ritz-Carlton Millenia hotel, Dr Balakrishnan urged Asean to stay united in the face of global challenges.
He stressed that Singapore is a "staunch believer" in the need for Asean integration. "If we can maintain Asean as a neutral, open and inclusive platform, to engage and cooperate with the other big players, then we are in the game. We will have bright prospects," he said.
He added that the benefits of achieving the vision of a united Asean will go beyond just economics.
"It will build inter-dependence between all of us, and 'prosper thy neighbour' will be the defining mantra for all of us."
Asked whether Asean remained relevant as the bloc prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, he pointed out the fact that all 10 member states are very different in terms of size, religion, economic structure and political systems.
"Most people don't fully appreciate the enormity of what we're trying to do, which is to integrate a collection of countries of such great diversity. This does not occur in the EU or Latin America, or in most other regions in the world," said Dr Balakrishnan.
"Our insistence in decision-making by consensus is a fail-safe mechanism to ensure that no one will get bullied and no factions will develop."
In his keynote speech earlier, he described 2016 as a year in which one should always "expect the unexpected".
The surprises of the UK voting to leave the EU and Donald Trump winning the US presidential election are events that show that the "global consensus which assumed free trade and economic integration will bring benefits has been ruptured".
"Both Brexit and the US election were marked by deep frustration with the uneven distribution of proceeds of growth, and a deep unhappiness with the way an integrated world has been unfolding," he told his audience.
He noted that there will always be groups of people who will vote against their own interests. "If you can stoke up enough anxiety and anger, you'll sometimes get quite contrary reactions," he said.
During the question-and-answer segment, one topic that cropped up quite frequently was Singapore's relationship with China, in light of the ongoing tension amid the South China Sea territorial dispute and last week's seizure of the Singapore Armed Forces' (SAF) armoured vehicles in Hong Kong.
Commenting on the latter, Dr Balakrishnan would only say that he wouldn't over-react to what's happened so far, but that the Singapore government expects commercial providers to comply with the law, and the law has to take its course.
The SAF had contracted commercial shipping line APL to transport the nine vehicles from Taiwan back to Singapore. They were seized by Hong Kong customs last Wednesday during what officials described as a "routine inspection".
"You all know, and everyone including China knows, that we have special arrangements with Taiwan for a long time. What we are doing there is no longer a secret; everybody knows that," said Dr Balakrishnan.
Singapore has a close and long-standing relationship with China - the two countries marked 25 years of diplomatic relations this year - and it is inevitable there will be differences in opinion on occasion.
He added: "We are very consistent, we are very transparent, and we call a spade a spade. From time to time, a different perspective will emerge over specific issues. When that happens, our belief is that it's better to be upfront, and be honest about it and do it in a non-provocative way.
"Honestly, at the most senior levels and at the leadership levels, there's a deep appreciation that this is a long and wide-ranging relationship, and we will not allow any single issue to hijack it."