Commentary: ASEAN is at an inflection point

Commentary: ASEAN is at an inflection point

Ahead of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat, Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan highlights four key challenges facing ASEAN.

SINGAPORE: Thousands of Singaporeans joined us to kick off Singapore’s 2018 ASEAN Chairmanship with the Experience ASEAN festival at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park last month.

The cultural performances and regional food and craft stalls showcased the rich diversity of the 10 ASEAN member states – Indonesian sate, Malaysian-style beef rendang, mohinga from Myanmar and Vietnamese pho were among the smorgasbord of culinary delights on display.

Today, I am happy to host the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat. We aim to chart a collective strategic direction for ASEAN, to collectively resolve the common challenges and leverage emerging opportunities to secure peace and prosperity in our region.


ASEAN is at an inflection point with four key challenges. First, the geostrategic balance is evolving, and ASEAN must maintain poise and balance amidst these major shifts. 

China and India are emerging as global powers, and we are also witnessing profound demographic and political changes in Europe, Japan and the United States.

Second, the world order is being reshaped by transboundary challenges like terrorism, cybercrime and climate change. These challenges cannot be resolved by a single country and require collective effort.

Third, the global consensus on free trade and globalisation is fraying. The ongoing digital revolution and emergence of disruptive technologies drive anxiety in traditional industries even as they provide opportunities in other sectors.

Key to dealing with this challenge is reshaping mindsets and reskilling our people so that no one gets left behind.

Fourth, ASEAN has to contend with our internal challenges. The 10 member states are highly diverse in terms of political, economic and social systems. ASEAN’s consensus-based decision-making is a design feature that assures each member an equal voice despite our diversity.

Reaching a resolution by consensus takes a longer time, but the hope is that it requires every member to find a common position on issues of regional concern. If ASEAN is united, our voice in the international community will be amplified and our external partners will take us more seriously.

When the regional grouping was founded in 1967, then Foreign Minister S Rajaratnam stressed that its member countries “must now think at two levels … we must think not only of our national interests but posit them against regional interests”. His sage advice still applies more than 50 years on.


As ASEAN Chair, Singapore will work with the other member states to identify sustainable solutions to these common challenges. 

Singapore’s approach to these challenges is embodied in our themes of “resilience” and “innovation”. We seek to strengthen ASEAN member states’ ability to withstand crises, whether they are economic, security-related, or even humanitarian or natural disasters.

We will enhance cooperation in areas such as counter-terrorism, air safety, and cybersecurity. We also want to enhance member states’ innovative capacity and prepare our people for the disruptive effects of new technologies.

In this connection, we aim to establish an ASEAN smart cities network, which would leverage innovative technological solutions to improve the lives and livelihoods of the people of ASEAN. We will also continue to deepen economic integration and improve regional trade facilitation, especially in the area of e-commerce.

These initiatives are designed to benefit all in ASEAN, whether it’s larger or mid-sized economies, multinational corporations or small- and medium-sized enterprises, the older generations or the younger ones.

In fact, one of our Chairmanship priorities is the investment in the people of ASEAN, and the youth in particular. We will encourage them to get to know one another through the various ASEAN youth programmes and activities that Singapore will be supporting this year.

I am optimistic about ASEAN’s future. As ASEAN Chair, Singapore will be an honest broker. One of our aims this year is to try to facilitate more frank discussions and strengthen trust between the leaders and ministers.

With the support of Singaporeans and the other ASEAN Member States, I am confident that Singapore as ASEAN Chair can help contribute to steering ASEAN into its next 50 years.

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan is Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Source: CNA/sl