PM Lee Hsien Loong at the ISEAS 50th Anniversary Lecture

SM Lee Hsien Loong | 13 March 2018

PM Lee Hsien Loong delivered this speech at the ISEAS 50th Anniversary Lecture on 13 March 2018.


Prof Wang Gungwu, Chairman of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Mr Choi Shing Kwok, Director of ISEAS-Yusok Ishak Institute, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. I am very happy to be here to celebrate ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s 50th Anniversary. As Professor Wang just told you, I was privileged also to celebrate your silver anniversary in 1993, 25 years ago. I am glad to be back again, a quarter century later, to mark this further milestone.

ISEAS was one of the first research institutes that the government set up after Singapore became independent. In fact, Dr Goh Keng Swee proposed this idea to Cabinet in 1966, just one year into our nationhood. Subsequently, ISEAS was established in 1968.

Why did our founding fathers think of setting up ISEAS, amidst all the pressing economic and social issues they faced? We had high unemployment, a stagnant economy, race relations were still tense after the two race riots when we were in Malaysia. We needed to build houses and schools, to clear slums and create jobs, and gradually foster a sense of nationhood. Yet amidst all these priorities, the founders stepped back from their day-to-day concerns, reflected on Singapore’s strategic situation, and decided to invest resources and talent into building a research institution to study Southeast Asia.

Why did they do this? Having lived through momentous upheavals, they understood instinctively how closely our fate was intertwined with the region’s. The war was a not very ancient living memory. Southeast Asia was still a troubled and unstable region. Singapore had just separated from Malaysia. Konfrontasi was barely over. President Suharto had only recently taken charge and restored order in Indonesia.

The region was on the frontlines of the Cold War. Communist forces had made advances in Indochina, the Vietnam War was hotting up. Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, all faced communist insurgencies. The insurgencies were encouraged and supported by China, which was then in the throes of the Cultural Revolution.

Our founding fathers were acutely conscious that to survive in such a difficult environment, a small and newly independent country needed to acquire a deep understanding of the region. Because small countries do not shape world events, events shape us. In Dr Goh’s words, Singapore had to acquire a “delicacy of perception” of the affairs in the region. So that we could foresee difficulties and opportunities and prepare in advance to address them.

But this “delicacy of perception” was then seriously lacking in Singapore. In the Cabinet paper proposing the setting up of ISEAS, Dr Goh pointed out that “we know more about Melbourne than we know Medan, more about the English Channel than the Sunda Straits”!

Dr Goh also believed this expertise had to be developed outside the government. The government’s policy and intelligence officers would be too bogged down by immediate, day-to-day concerns to look at regional issues from a long-term, detached perspective. By creating an institute that operated separately from the government, we could house eminent academics and researchers to develop deep knowledge of the subject matter. They could then provide the government with independent insights, looking through alternative lenses, on the same issues which government officials had been working on.

ISEAS was thus created as an autonomous organisation by an Act of Parliament in 1968. Over the last 50 years, ISEAS has established itself as a respected research institute on Southeast Asian affairs. This achievement is the work of generations of chairmen, directors and distinguished fellows. They include Professor Wang Gungwu, Professor Kernial Singh Sandhu, Dr Sharon Siddique, Professor Chan Heng Chee, Mr Kesavapany, Mr Tan Chin Tiong and Mr Choi Shing Kwok, several of whom are here today.

I would like to especially mention Professor Wang Gungwu and Professor Kernial Singh Sandhu. Professor Wang is ISEAS’ longest-serving chairman, having been chairman and served with distinction since 2002. However, his association with ISEAS goes back even further. In fact, he was one of the candidates considered to be ISEAS’ founding director in 1968. But at the time, he had other commitments. Nevertheless, he served ISEAS in varied capacities over the decades before becoming chairman. He was a member of ISEAS’ first Regional Advisory Council, which has since become the International Advisory Council. ISEAS has benefitted from Prof Wang’s advice, knowledge and dedication to academia and guidance. Therefore, it is befitting that ISEAS has honoured Prof Wang with a permanent gallery in the ISEAS Library displaying his books, private papers and photos.

Prof Kernial, the late Prof Kernial, was ISEAS’ longest serving director. He served for twenty years from 1972 to 1992. Prof Kernial laid lasting foundations for ISEAS during his tenure. He established the annual ISEAS Roundtable which attracted government officials, scholars and businessmen from around the world to exchange views on Southeast Asia. He launched several publishing initiatives notably the Southeast Asia Affairs journal. Today, ISEAS is the region’s leading research centre. It has produced more than 2,000 books and journals, the largest scholarly publisher of research on Southeast Asia and Asia Pacific.

ISEAS marked another significant milestone three years ago when we renamed it the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. It was a tribute to Encik Yusof Ishak, Singapore’s first President, who had dedicated his life to modernisation and education, and whose values were congruent with ISEAS’ own. It was also a reminder of ISEAS’ long history and strategic mission.

Southeast Asia and ASEAN 

Like ISEAS, Southeast Asia has come a long way in the last 50 years. In 1967, the year before ISEAS was formed, the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, took a leap of faith and formed ASEAN. The original five members were later joined by Brunei, and later still Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia, bringing ASEAN to 10 member states.

ASEAN’s original objective was political. The five founding members wanted a regional platform for dialogue and co-operation. They wanted to put old suspicions and hostilities behind them, to work through new problems and conflicts peacefully and constructively. To foster a stable environment within which each country could concentrate on its own nation building. This objective was achieved.

One major test for ASEAN was dealing with the Vietnam-Cambodia conflict from the late 70s onwards. ASEAN then consisted of six members, the original five plus Brunei. The members had different perspectives on the matter. For example, Thailand was a front line state, with a border with Cambodia, while the Philippines and Indonesia were one step removed. It was a considerable diplomatic achievement that the ASEAN members came to a common understanding and adopted a unified ASEAN stand. ASEAN rejected a fait accompli achieved by force of arms. It insisted on the international rule of law, the inviolability of international borders, and the legitimacy of national governments. It advocated its position forcefully and effectively at many international fora, including the United Nations and the Non-Aligned Movement. It helped bring about the eventual political settlement and security of Southeast Asia for all 10 of ASEAN’s present member countries who at that time, were not on the same side. This experience strengthened ASEAN and provided members the basis to broaden their collaboration beyond security issues. The next focus was economic co-operation.

Initially this had not been a high priority. The focus had been politics. When ASEAN began exploring economic co-operation in the early 1980s, the members found ourselves in very different economic positions. Singapore had an open economy, and was strongly pro-market and pro-trade. But other ASEAN economies were less outwardly oriented, and varied in their readiness to liberalise their economies and to promote free trade. It therefore took several years for economic co-operation to build up momentum. I remember participating in the discussions., I was then in the Ministry of Trade and Industry and we, for the first time, were talking about a free trade area amongst the ASEAN counties. I well remember at one of the early discussions, one of my counterparts saying, in all seriousness and sincerity to the group, we should not put up proposals to our leaders, which our leaders would have to say no to. In other words, he did not feel that ASEAN was ready politically to embark on an initiative as bold as a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). But over time as ASEAN economies developed, perspectives shifted. By 1992, we were able to launch the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), a milestone in our economic co-operation. We have come far since then.

Today, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) is a prime example of how ASEAN is larger than the sum of its parts. Together, the 10 diverse countries make up a dynamic and attractive economic group. It has a growing population of 630 million, which is more than 100 times Singapore’s population. Of which, 60 per cent are under 35 years old. By 2030, we expect more than 60 per cent of the population to join the middle class. ASEAN will be fourth largest single market in the world, after United States (US), China, and the European Union (EU).

From the broader strategic perspective, ASEAN has also strengthened its members’ standing in the world. It has enhanced our collective voice on the international stage. It has put ASEAN at the centre of the regional architecture. It has enabled us to engage major countries like the US, China, India, and Japan, and key organisations through ASEAN-centric platforms. It is a long list, I will just name you a few and spare you the alphabet soup. ASEAN+1 meetings, ASEAN+3, the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus.

Today, the ASEAN Community has three pillars: economic, political-security, and socio-cultural. We will continue to pursue closer integration under this framework and progressively strengthen the ASEAN Community. However, ASEAN will not become an ASEAN Union, on the model of the EU. It is less ambitious than the EU in terms of scope, membership, and integration. ASEAN does not aim to have an ASEAN Parliament, an ASEAN Court of Justice, an ASEAN currency, or an ASEAN Central Bank, not even in the very long term. ASEAN is too diverse to aim for a European style union. Our countries have different histories and cultures, diverse political and economic systems, contrasting views of the world. Where our interests align, we work together. Where we are not ready to co-operate, we put matters aside for the time being, to take up perhaps later when conditions are riper.

In recognition of this diversity, ASEAN works by consensus. This decision-making process can be slow and unwieldy. We can only move when all member states agree. Sometimes if there is no agreement, we may not move at all. But this arrangement has, on the whole, served us well because it requires member states to recognise and consider one another’s national interests, irrespective of the size of the member states.

One area where ASEAN countries do not have a unified stance and for fundamental reasons, is our strategic outlooks. A clear instance of the impact of this, and how ASEAN members can find common ground despite our differences, is the South China Sea dispute, or issue. Not all ASEAN members are claimant states. Even among the four claimant states – Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines – there are different concerns and attitudes and nuances. ASEAN has to recognise this diversity. But we are still able to find common ground because all member states share certain common interests on this issue. Ensuring ASEAN’s relevance, upholding the international rule of law, securing regional peace and stability, and maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. Therefore, we are able to agree to take progressive and constructive steps to manage the disputes and overlapping claims. For example, by concluding a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, on which ASEAN has commenced negotiations with China.

Therefore, while this consensus-building process is laborious, it has its uses and merits. Member states find it meaningful to work together to seek common ground. They do not think of opting out from or leaving the group because their sovereignty or national interests have been suppressed or undermined. And ASEAN, once it has arrived at a decision, does not change its position lightly. External partners therefore see value in deepening their engagement of the region and ASEAN.

Looking Ahead

Looking ahead, ASEAN must continue working hard to remain an effective and central player in the region. The 21st century is a very different world from the 1960s, when ISEAS and ASEAN were formed. The Cold War is long over. Southeast Asia today is largely peaceful and stable but there will always be hotspots and difficult issues to deal with from time to time. We also have to adjust to a strategic balance which is shifting both globally and in the region. New powers are growing in strength and influence, especially China and India. Individual ASEAN countries must adapt to the new and changing strategic landscape. Countries have to take into account the policies and interests of new powers, while maintaining their traditional political and economic ties.

There will be new opportunities. China has put forth concrete, major initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that will benefit the region. India too, is cultivating its relations with ASEAN, and pursuing a more activist foreign policy beyond the sub-continent. Individual countries stand to benefit, and so potentially will ASEAN as a whole. At the same time, the ASEAN grouping has to get used to new internal dynamics, as each member feels the influence of the different powers to different degrees. We must accept the reality of these tidal pulls without allowing them to lead to fault lines forming within the ASEAN group.

All ASEAN countries want to maintain and develop their ties with the US, even as the US is intensely reviewing its trade and foreign policies. The US is still the region’s security anchor and the world’s largest economy. We recognise that the political mood in the US has changed. The Trump administration is rethinking America’s international role, and how the US should advance its interests and influence in the world, and it is rethinking radically. However, the US has clearly affirmed its determination to stay engaged in Asia. Countries hope that it will continue to play an active role, particularly in Southeast Asia.

In this shifting environment, it is important that ASEAN works actively to maintain its centrality and relevance. ASEAN centrality is crucial and yet ASEAN has no automatic right to be the centre of the regional architecture. There is nothing to prevent other groupings or regional co-operation projects from being launched. Some will compete with ASEAN, others will contribute in complementary ways to regional co-operation and stability. The Belt and Road Initiative and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific are two examples. Amidst this Darwinian process, ASEAN members must come together to maintain ASEAN’s relevance and cohesion. Only thus, can ASEAN remain at the heart of the regional architecture, and a valuable partner and interlocutor for the major powers. What should ASEAN members, and ASEAN as a group, do to keep ASEAN relevant and cohesive?

First, it is important that each member state supports and promotes the ASEAN project. Each ASEAN member has its own domestic issues and politics to handle. Governing a country internally is already an all-consuming affair. But ASEAN governments need to look beyond their domestic concerns, put emphasis on ASEAN, invest political capital in the ASEAN project, and make a conscious effort to think regionally, not just nationally. Only with this commitment by member states, can we deepen our partnership and make progress in ASEAN.

ASEAN countries have given their support to the grouping, gradually but progressively, over the years. We supported one another through difficult times such as the Asian Financial Crisis, the SARS outbreak and various natural disasters. Now we are co-operating in new areas including counter-terrorism, climate change and e-commerce, cybersecurity.

We have also adopted the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 to develop new blueprints for the ASEAN Political-Security Community, ASEAN Economic Community and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community. We have laid out progressive steps, such as deepening transport connectivity and co-operation against transnational crime, to strengthen the ASEAN Community.

As the ASEAN Chair this year, Singapore will do its best to take the group forward through our Chairmanship themes of “resilience” and “innovation”. We will initiate projects to strengthen our collective resilience against common threats such as terrorism, cybercrime, and climate change. We will help ASEAN economies to innovate and to use technology, to build a more dynamic and connected community. One key project in this field is to establish an ASEAN Smart Cities Network, to create attractive places in all our countries to live, work and play.

Externally, ASEAN needs to deepen its web of co-operation with major partners. We are working on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which comprises ASEAN and our six FTA partners. When established, it will be the world’s largest trading bloc, covering about a third of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP). We are also working with the EU on the ASEAN-EU Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement (CATA). This will be the first substantive aviation arrangement between two major trading blocs. The RCEP and ASEAN-EU CATA will bring tangible benefits to our peoples and our partners. But they involve significant trade-offs and compromises. The decisions will not be easy, because so many parties are involved, and especially given growing mood of nationalism and protectionism in many countries. But I hope governments will take a long term approach, assess their enlightened self-interests, and make bold decisions which will improve our people’s lives.

For half a century, ASEAN governments have taken such an approach and brought ASEAN to where it is today. This is a remarkable achievement, far exceeding what the founding leaders of ASEAN had imagined. The decades of intense interactions have helped to deepen mutual understanding amongst members and to socialise us to think regionally, and not just nationally. This should equip ASEAN countries to cope with the more challenging environment that we are now in and to build further on what ASEAN has already achieved.


Southeast Asia and ASEAN, therefore, will remain a big part of Singapore’s mindshare and our foreign policy. Therefore, Singapore needs to maintain a “delicacy of perceptions”. To come back to Dr Goh Keng Swee’s phrase, towards developments in our region, we need this “delicacy of perceptions” not just among Ministers and government officials, but also our intelligentsia, our financial and business community, our media and Singaporeans of many professions who need to know our region in order to work, to do business, or just to know how to get along with our neighbours and partners. Therefore, ISEAS continues to play an important role, enriching our collective knowledge of the region. I hope it will, in this process, enhance mutual understanding among our ASEAN partners too.

I am confident that ISEAS will rise to the challenge and continue to do remarkable work so that ASEAN will truly become “One Vision, One Identity, One Community”. I wish ISEAS every success in its next 50 years. Thank you very much.