Looking at the Big Picture by Ong Keng Yong

Former Secretary-General of ASEAN Ambassador-At-Large, MFA
Looking at the Big Picture by Ong Keng Yong

Dear Young Officer,

I am often asked by my colleagues in Singapore whether ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) really matters and whether it can deliver what it promises. They have been affected by the public perception of ASEAN as a less than dynamic and effective forum. I asked my wife why there is such scepticism about ASEAN. She replied: “ASEAN is a political concept and not a bread-and-butter issue for the practical-minded Singaporeans!”

In a 2008 survey, youths in the 10 countries of ASEAN were asked about their attitude and understanding of ASEAN. The conclusion showed young Singaporeans were least likely to identify themselves as ASEAN citizens and possessed below-average knowledge of the region.

Only one in four Singaporeans polled felt a similarity with their ASEAN neighbours, the lowest among ASEAN member states.

While most Singaporeans might see ASEAN as a talkshop, the reality is it is more than that! ASEAN is important to Singapore. As a young civil servant, you need to know more about ASEAN, not just for your present professional career, but for your own future.

Very often, ASEAN is seen as a slow moving boat navigating in an irksome manner through the labyrinthine bureaucracy of Southeast Asia. ASEAN colleagues enjoy small talk and jokes as they relax after a long meeting. It is a mistake to think that they are not concerned with the urgency of the issues at hand. In fact, the unhurried way of ASEAN colleagues at meetings is often a tactic in itself – a way to buy time as the proposal on the table might be too drastic for their policy consumption.

So to help ourselves, we need to know what is preventing the other delegations from going along with our proposals. The first task is therefore, to know where the other guys are coming from. If necessary, let the theatrics be performed. Then, make constructive suggestions to converge the differences. Where possible, introduce reality checks and discourage political rhetoric and overly ambitious undertaking.

The mantra of the earlier generations of ASEAN bureaucrats was “step-by-step, at a pace comfortable to all”. This still applies today. In working the circuit, as a young officer, you should be patient, realistic and strategic in approach.

The ASEAN Summit in November 2007 and the APEC Summit in November 2009 in Singapore have raised the profile of ASEAN in the eyes of many Singaporeans.

Most of us know our country’s prosperity depends on a flourishing regional economy. But somehow, we have a mental cloudiness about ASEAN.

My ASEAN friends always talk about how Singapore would gain from their own growth and well being. Some even said boldly that for every dollar spent in their countries, 20 to 50 cents would end up in Singapore somehow. This may be an exaggeration but it illustrates how the people around us see our magnetic hub status. In turn, we must not take the region for granted. We should be able to distinguish the differences in the diverse canvas Singapore is in, and sustain a durable relationship based on mutual respect and understanding.

Let us get to know ASEAN better. The first step is to take our membership seriously. This will strengthen the sense of common purpose with our neighbours.

We must see the big picture:
ASEAN is a part of Singapore’s foreign by the public perception of AThe ASEAN Summit in November 2007 and the APEC Summit in November 2009 in Singapore have raised the profile of ASEAN in the eyes of policy and economic development.

    Sep 8, 2010
  • link facebook
  • link twitter
  • link whatsapp
  • link email