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.
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.