Singapore strives for a closer Asean
As country leaders prepare to meet at the 32nd Asean Summit in Singapore this Friday and Saturday, the Bangkok Post talks to Chua Siew San, Singapore's ambassador to Thailand, on the topic of "Asean in 2018" and what Singapore plans to pass on to Thailand when the latter becomes the Asean chair in 2019.
What tangible achievements has Singapore set out to achieve as this year's chair both for itself, Asean and external partners?
Singapore will focus on strengthening Asean's resilience and expanding our innovative capacity. This is especially pertinent given growing trans-boundary challenges, the evolving geostrategic landscape, and rapid technological changes. We hope to establish an Asean Smart Cities Network (ASCN), which will facilitate cooperation among Asean member states on smart and sustainable urbanisation, connect people and economies seamlessly, and enable ideas and solutions to flow across our entire region.
The idea is to bring cities, companies, and governments together to develop, fund and implement commercially viable urban solutions to improve the livelihoods of the people in Asean. We also hope to step up collaboration on cyber-security. This has to move in tandem with building a "smarter" region.
As e-commerce and digital transactions become more widespread, Asean needs a robust cyber-security regime to provide assurances and opportunities for our people and businesses. Another area of focus is bolstering regional business opportunities, particularly for SMEs, by advancing the Asean single window and the Asean-wide self certification regime, which will reduce costs for businesses and facilitate the movement of goods within Asean.
Singapore is an advanced country. How can you close the gap with less-developed nations and form a smart cities network?
Regarding the rural-urban gap, I think the key thing is the growth in Asean has been and will continue to be driven by cities. That's the reality. In any country, cities are the ones that drive the growth. So that means that we have to concentrate most of our efforts in the urban centres so that we can drive the growth for the whole country.
The other thing that you have to remember is that urban areas are where most of the technological innovation takes place, where the testing and application of new ideas happens, not in rural areas. But the growth will not be confined to the urban areas. Innovation takes place there but the results will not be confined to the urban areas. I think the positive impact of this innovation will spread outward to the rural areas as well. Once technological innovation kicks off and starts to benefit citizens in the urban areas, such as through initiatives like smart delivery of public services or smart linking of businesses to consumers, this can also be applied to and benefit the people living outside the cities. Especially when there is access to the internet even in rural areas.
What other initiatives does Asean have planned?
The chairmanship is one year. I think you have to be quite realistic about what can be achieved in one year. So Singapore has decided it's probably most efficient and probably brings the most useful results if we focus on the smart cities network -- because we see that it brings benefit not only to the cities, but for the whole country including remote areas. The key word is growth -- as fast as we can, speed up growth and make things happen more quickly for all Asean countries.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Asean is a lifeboat for all 10 members. Asean must stay united and credible. So far it is both proud of Asean centrality and stuck facing challenges. What measures will Singapore take to foster greater unity?
Asean unity and centrality are necessary for our region to have a voice and be relevant, especially in an uncertain and challenging geostrategic environment. As chair, Singapore hopes to galvanise Asean to be stronger and more united. To strengthen Asean unity, our peoples need to recognise that Asean, as a grouping and a community, is important to each member state's own development and growth. If we focus on the commonalities, on what we can achieve by working together, by staying united rather than focusing on differences, we can make progress.
To what extent do Singaporeans care about Asean? Some people say you are already too advanced.
First of all I think the point that Singapore is so developed and advanced that it does not need Asean is completely wrong, in the sense that we attribute great importance to Asean. I think Asean has helped our region, Singapore and the region around us. Asean has maintained the region's peace and stability over many years. In that sense it has been of great help to Singapore and the other members of Asean. Because it is peace and stability that enable us to concentrate on economic development. Without peace and stability, all of us would not be where we are today, including Thailand. I still remember the time when there were wars in our region, when there were smaller conflicts among countries in Southeast Asia, tensions.
Another point I will make is that, in our region, Southeast Asia, we are in between two giants, China on one side and India on the other. As small countries, we don't have the weight that we have as members of the Asean grouping. And I think that's important to all of us. All of us are relatively small countries compared to India and China. So it is important that we can work together, that we are united -- that's why Asean centrality is so important. We are the ones who should determine our own future. We don't let bigger powers determine our future for us. But as individual small countries, we may not be able to stand up to them. So Asean is very important.
How does Singapore plan to collaborate with Thailand, the next chair of Asean, to lead the regional bloc forward?
Singapore and Thailand share many common interests and have always worked very well together within Asean. This year will be no different with Singapore as Asean chair. Our two countries will continue to consult on issues of mutual concern. I am confident Singapore can count on Thailand's support in 2018, just as Singapore will support Thailand's chairmanship in 2019, especially as some initiatives will run over both our chairmanship years.