Time to grow our own timber in the backyard?

By Tan Jee Say

This is the second of three postings about my experiences as Harvard Fellow at the university. The first article was on my meeting with Singaporean students currently studying in Harvard and MIT. The next and final posting will be about the winners and losers of immigration policy.

As the new year approaches, there is much expectation about ASEAN. 2015 is earmarked as the year of economic integration of ASEAN. Harvard has got interested too. I attended 2 seminars on ASEAN while in Harvard recently. One was on the future of ASEAN and the other examined Japan-Southeast Asia security relations.

Tan Jee Say with professors at harvard seminar

(L-R) Siddharth George (moderator), Prof Jay Rosengard, Thai Ambassador HE Vijavat Isarabhakdi, Tan Jee Say and Prof David Dapice, at Harvard Seminar “The Future of ASEAN” on 20 November 2014

Just a talk-shop?

To most outsiders, ASEAN has not lived up to its promise. With the third largest labour force in the world after China and India that has a combined population of about 600 million, majority of whom are young, why has it not delivered on its potential? As an organisation, it does not have much force and will not move beyond what individual countries want it to. Each country has its own agenda and there is no ASEAN identity to speak of. Even in the area of security for which ASEAN was set up in 1968 as a bulwark against communist expansion beyond Indo-China, Prof Ken Jimbo from Keio University doubted it would ever develop into a solid organisation like NATO; in a telling way, he observed that Japan prefers to deal bilaterally with the Philippines and Vietnam over the South China Sea, and will develop its strategy towards Southeast Asia based on its bilateral experiences.

The only speaker on the panel who believes in ASEAN was the Thai Ambassador to the US. His Excellency (HE) Vijavat Isarabhakdi said there was a strong ASEAN identity among government officials but acknowledged the need to develop this identity among ordinary people. He thought ASEAN has made real progress even if it is slow but he was sure that we can expect more tangible results after the 2015 integration.

The ASEAN potential in SingFirst’s plan

I can see the potential of ASEAN as a major facilitator of Singapore’s future economic growth. After 50 years of high dependence on multinational corporations and foreign labour, we at SingFirst believe that it is time that we “grow our own timber” by developing our own talent pool of local entrepreneurs, managers, professionals, engineers, technical specialists and skilled workers. We will place high priority on developing our local enterprises, particularly the small and medium enterprises, into major regional or global firms. With land and manpower constraints within Singapore, ASEAN is a convenient step next door for our enterprises to tap on its vast potential of land and labour. Like good neighbours, we can collaborate on the use of land and labour resources. When we work together as friendly neighbours and economic partners, we will all succeed as strong economies individually as countries and collectively as a solid organisation to be reckoned with. We will all emerge winners together.

Look out for details of SingFirst’s proposal to grow our own timber in the coming months.

tan jee say with prof ezra vogel

With Prof Ezra Vogel, best-selling author of Japan as No. 1, at the seminar “Japan-Southeast Asia Security Relations” in Harvard on 24 November 2014. Prof Vogel was a regular visitor to Singapore.


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3 replies »

  1. I don’t believe it is appropriate to compare ASEAN to NATO. NATO was primarily a security pact for the western European nations to counter the USSR-led Warsaw Pact. it is a Cold War necessity and depended much on the USA for support and leadership from its very beginning. The EU in its present form is more of an economic apparatus for the western European countries to better integrate their economies and compete globally.

    ASEAN on the other hand is, at best, a loose regional organisation that has far too many agendas for many little things. National interests far outweigh the common regional interests. Although political and security issues dominate much of their discussions, and channels of communications are reasonably good, there is no common platform on the security interests of the region, other than the perceived threat of China on their conflicting claims on some of the islands in the South China Sea.

    I agree fully that Singapore companies should look for more economic co-operation and development in the ASEAN countries. there is abundant land and manpower for almost any type of enterprise. the opportunities are boundless and the Singapore government can help open the doors for more SMEs to further their businesses.

  2. In my opinion, stakeholders in ASEAN has no choice but to work recognizing that the interests of each party may be as Important as the various national priorities. We have not done enough together since the last painful crisis of 1997.

    Time to get moving as another huge Financial challenge could be around the corner.

    We have new/open leaders in Indonesia etc, they can be persuaded/ much can be done.

    In Singapore, our first contribution to ASEAN is to drop the deadwood in our current political leadership /stale civil servants and allow the talented layers to surface. The deadwood can spend their accumulated savings in second/third homes in London, Melbourne, Japan etc till the end of their days.

    The national interest of Singapore pursued in the past decade was primarily the vested interest of a few powerful individuals rather than that of the country. ASEAN was lip service in various actions to build their personal/family wealth. Singapore needs to build the trust that never was solid in the first place as our conduct was evidence that we looked outside ASEAN rather than within. Hey, the leaders were exploiting low wage workers never mind if they were born in Singapore or elsewhere. It is time for a “re-set” in a peaceful way before it is too late.

    Preservation of every ASEAN country is win-win for ALL. Sing First and ASEAN First is possible in a creative way.

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