A New Regionalism: Southeast Asia’s Potential in the 21st Century

In this edition of the ETHOS Roundtable, participants of the 12th Leadership in Governance Programme from three ASEAN member countries discuss the opportunities and challenges facing Southeast Asia in the 21st century, and how the region can come together to address them.

A New Regionalism

Date Posted

14 Dec 2020


Digital Issue Special Edition, 14 Dec 2020


His Excellency Mr Samheng Boros, Secretary of State of Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation, Cambodia

Mr Tan Lin Teck, Director, Future Economy Planning Office, Ministry of Trade and Industry, Singapore

Mr Kelvin Yii, Member of Parliament for Bandar Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia

How Can ASEAN and Its Member Governments Cultivate a New, Dynamic Sense of Regionalism within Southeast Asia, and What Challenges Must Be Overcome?

BOROS: One thing is clear: we are all stronger together. Projections suggest that ASEAN collectively may become the fourth or the fifth largest economy in the world. Individually, some countries may have a stronger economy by themselves. But if we come together, we could be in a much stronger position together, especially given the geopolitical interests of world powers in our region. So for me our role as governments is important in helping to prevent the fragmentation of the region.

It is good that we have not been making decisions that push things too quickly. It is an achievement that we have not had a regional conflict but have instead been moving forward steadily year by year. The question is, what’s next? What can we do to bring our relationship even closer together?


YII: I fully agree that we are better together. As individual countries, our domestic markets are simply not big enough. But if we look to ASEAN as a region, that’s a huge market. Collectively, at that scale, we can start to compete with other bigger countries, and with the bigger powers. So we cannot afford to look inward: we must look at the bigger picture as a region.

However, in order to do that, we need to address some elephants in the room. First, there is a certain level of protectionism. There are some issues that are regarded as matters of sovereignty. But in order to have a common framework for partnership and prosperity in the region, I think certain barriers will have to be removed, and certain tough discussions will have to be had. Of course we should respect our local contexts, but we have to address these issues in order for ASEAN to fulfil its greater potential.

Some of these issues have to do with our economic frameworks. We only have partial free trade within ASEAN today. While I am in favour of supporting local businesses, there has to be a middle ground if we want to move ASEAN forward as a region. So for instance if there is a trade war going on between world powers, we need to stay neutral in the economic field. Once we start taking sides, even though it may be to our individual national advantage, it will be difficult for us to grow as a single larger bloc.

Once we start taking sides, even though it may be to our individual national advantage, it will be difficult for us to grow as a single larger bloc.

TAN: In pursuing Public Sector Transformation in Singapore, we have been talking about the 3As: Ambition, Alignment and Action. Extrapolating from these principles, I think ASEAN has focused a lot on alignment: trying to align interests, align what we want to do together in terms of the shared mission, but we need to move even more into the action part.

And it’s becoming even more critical now because things change so fast in the world today. In the past, you can take five, 10 years to negotiate an FTA (Free Trade Agreement), but now if you take five or 10 years to negotiate anything, it’s already game over: you have to act fast or the digital economy would have changed. I think the action part is the one that will make people feel the salience of ASEAN: how it impacts their lives or businesses. That is how people will start to see collectively what ASEAN is. If we are talking about buy-in and belief for ASEAN as an identity and a community, action is what’s important.

How Can ASEAN Work Together to Address Common Challenges, Such As Climate Change?

YII: It’s not just having a commitment or having an agreement or arrangement within the ASEAN countries—we need an enforcement mechanism. We need to strengthen the Secretariat because we know climate change and environmental issues are transboundary. I can name one environmental issue that has been talked over for many years and nothing has been done: the Transboundary Haze.

So, we can talk about climate change, we can have an agreement to ban plastics and so on, but if there is no enforcement it will be only talk. That’s where the tire hits the road. I think countries need to allow a certain level of dispute resolution and enforcement at the level of ASEAN as a whole. I think we need to drive home the fact that climate change is real, that ASEAN is made up of a lot of islands so we are going to be affected by it. Can we therefore set aside our differences and work for a common, urgent purpose?

BOROS: I want to point out something here. If you’re looking to build a family, a sibling might say: don’t worry about me, I can take care of my own. But when you care about the family you want everyone to do well, and to have strong bonds between members. But if we don’t understand the problems that each other is facing, and neglect the needs that we ourselves don’t face in our own situation, then it will be harder to understand and support one another. So we may want to have a research centre where we highlight our problems and address them together, rather than to have a central body where we go to ask for help.

TAN:The challenge remains that ASEAN is very diverse: different countries will be at different stages on an issue, and with their own domestic concerns to consider. Perhaps the way to think about it is that ASEAN really needs to come together to think about issues that affect all of us in common and that we all need to address. So just like a family, we all have different priorities, different jobs and so on, but at some point, there are certain shared matters that all of us will think about, will have to think about, and we can work together on that.

Climate change is one: it will impact everybody. The digital economy is another: everyone is interested and wants to be involved. So I think there are common issues that we can push forward together in, if we can identify them and align everybody behind them. ASEAN involves 10 countries and works by consensus, so it is difficult to get everyone to be aligned. But if we can identify three or four priorities to work on, say over the next five years rather than just one year, then we can build the kind of alignment and achieve the kind of push that will help people see the value of ASEAN.

ASEAN is very diverse: different countries will be at different stages on an issue.

How Can Singapore Contribute to Help ASEAN Work More Closely Together?

YII: I think there are several challenges that Singapore faces in a changing world. How Singapore prepares itself to meet these challenges will be something others can learn from.

The first is of course the economy. While meritocracy has led to good results, it may also have led to inequality. The global economy has become a bit sluggish and Singapore may be impacted. Once people start losing jobs and comparing their lot with their neighbours, there may be a human tendency to fall back on communitarian politics. If we are not careful, this can end up dominating the conversation. Singapore has been hitting above its weight class—a testament to good leadership—but has it peaked, given the competition all around, particularly with the digital economy? This is where Singapore has to be creative and innovate.

Second is the leadership transition. Given changing public expectations, can the next generation of leadership steer Singapore in the new direction that it will need to go remains to be seen.

The future is a whole different ball game, and—this applies not just to Singapore but every country—you may want to keep doing what you are already good at, but the world may be moving on to a different ballgame, that you can’t dictate, as a small country.

The third in my view is healthcare. What’s close to my heart is the software of humans, that is to say mental health. With greater digitalisation comes a changing environment in terms of jobs and competition as well as social media, cyberbullying, social isolation and so on. There are not only physical effects but a mental impact, such as the stress of work as well as of social expectations, that you’d have to be prepared for.

Singapore is in a good position to help look for opportunities and challenges, by reaching out to colleagues who are open.

BOROS: I raised the idea of ASEAN as a family earlier: if you want a family where trust is strong, you have to help one another out. So we’ve talked about identifying a common challenge. For a family of 10, it might be, say, what to watch on TV together. But what about the brother who does not have enough food on his table? Would he rather think about food or TV?

So for me, it’s not so much about the common challenge as the real needs. If you want to have a strong family, you look out for the real needs of each of your family members. Then they don’t have to look elsewhere for help.

I think Singapore is already a hub for the world: so you can see where the transition of our region is going. Singapore is in a good position to help look for opportunities and challenges, by reaching out to colleagues who are open. It is not the ASEAN way to come and ask for help. But in a strong family, you go ahead and help—you don’t wait for your family members to ask. You say: “We are family, I see what you need, this is what I can offer, think about it.”

The ETHOS Roundtable was conducted in August 2019 with a group of participants in the 12th Leaders in Governance Programme (LGP). Organised annually by the Civil Service College, the LGP draws from Singapore’s development experience to offer practical insights into the fundamentals of good governance and effective policy implementation for sustainable economic development and social cohesion. Over the seven-day programme, participants interact with thought leaders, and visit key government agencies to understand their operating philosophies and values.

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