Your Royal Highnesses,
Excellencies,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen

1. I join my ASEAN colleagues in thanking His Excellency President Joseph Ejercito Estrada for his opening address. I would also like to congratulate His Excellency, Domingo L Siazon Jr., on his election as Chairman of the 31st ASEAN Ministerial Meeting. On behalf of my delegation, I would also like to thank the Philippine government and the Department of Foreign Affairs for the excellent arrangements and their warm and generous hospitality.

2. Today, ASEAN stands at another cross roads in its history. There is a widespread and growing perception that the current regional economic crisis has exposed ASEAN as ineffective. The international media, businesses and even some of our dialogue partners, are questioning where ASEAN is heading. They wonder if we have a future.

3. It is pointless to argue about whether such perceptions are exaggerated or unfair. The fact is that they exist. Perception is sometimes as important as reality. It has been said that the regional economic crisis is a crisis of confidence. ASEAN, too, faces a crisis of confidence. The world is watching what we do. If they are not satisfied with our resolve, if they think we have lost our compass, perception could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

4. There is no denying that we face serious challenges. There is the economic and financial crisis. We have had to deal with the problem of the haze from forest fires earlier. There was the Cambodia problem which both ASEAN and the Friends of Cambodia are concerned about. ASEAN itself has been transformed when it expanded its membership to nine. This expansion carried an in-built challenge – whether ASEAN, no longer a small cosy club, can maintain the spirit of consultation and consensus.

5. We cannot, and must not, pretend these challenges do not exist. But we need to remind ourselves that this is not the first time that we have faced problems. ASEAN has weathered many storms. When ASEAN was formed in 1967 amidst a backdrop of conflict and turmoil, there was pessimism. Few thought ASEAN would take off. But we confounded the critics. We have survived and prospered, at times against the odds. The question is: are we confident that we can do so again? We can, but to successfully navigate ASEAN through the treacherous reefs and shoals that lie ahead, we need a reliable compass and an accurate radar. Fortunately, we have the instruments at hand.

6. When we met in Kuala Lumpur exactly a year ago, I set out the basic principles that shaped ASEAN’s success. These principles have been tried and proven sound, In my view, these principles would also indicate the direction in which ASEAN should evolve. Allow me to briefly re-capitulate these five fundamental principles:

  • Sovereign equality and decisions by consultation and consensus;
  • Non-interference in each other’s internal affairs;
  • Avoidance of the use of force to change established governments or an internationally recognised political order;
  • Open economies;
  • Making ASEAN the cornerstone of our foreign policies.

7. Some of these principles are now derided as the very cause of ASEAN’s ineffectual responses. The Asian Wall Street Journal of 2 April 1998 carried an article that argued that “a formalised habit of conflict avoidance, of endless striving for consensus, meant that ASEAN’s exhaustive decision-making procedures were just too slow for a rapidly unfolding situation”. The Economist of 28 February 1998 noted that ASEAN “favours carrots over sticks, consensus over breakthrough, camaraderie over formality and process over substance. Above all, ASEAN resists interference in the internal affairs of its members”, and bluntly concluded that “the ‘ASEAN way’ no longer works”.

8. The question is not whether the critics are right or wrong, but whether, as we navigate these turbulent waters, we should abandon these key ASEAN principles. I do not think so. Some of these fundamental principles are inherent in the very nature of the organisation, They have contributed to ASEAN’s success in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. Discarding them will not make ASEAN stronger. To the contrary, to do so may imperil ASEAN’s future.

9. Take for example the principles of sovereign equality and non- interference in internal affairs – both principles are enshrined in the UN Charter as well as our very own Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, and accepted in internabonal law. ASEAN members vary in shape and size, from a city-state to a large archipelagic nation, with populations ranging from 300,000 to 200 million. Yet no ASEAN member enjoys veto power because decisions are made by consensus. We are very diverse in populations, and have significant differences in race, religion, language, culture, forms of government and legal systems. That is why ASEAN leaders from the beginning stressed non-interference in each other’s internal affairs to avoid discord and deep divisions which will otherwise arise. Adherence to these tested principles is one reason why no military conflict has broken out between any two ASEAN countries since the founding of ASEAN.

10. ASEAN as an organisation is still not fully understood by its critics, indeed even by some of its closest external partners. Unlike the EU, it was never intended to be a supranational organisation at the expense of national sovereignty. The single most important achievement of ASEAN is that a habit of regional cooperation has evolved and become firmly entrenched. The sense of community which has evolved was the result of conscious and continuing efforts to forge consensus; to mute differences so as to concentrate on developing common interests. Conflicts were put on the backburner to be resolved, if possible, in future.

11. For over 30 years, ASEAN has worked as an Organisation because every member recognised that it was in its own national interests to make it work. This habit or culture of cooperation should not be taken for granted. It must be constantly nurtured. This is in fact ASEAN’s essential function: to manage relationships which have been, and could otherwise still, all too easily turn conflictual. By doing so, ASEAN is creating an incipient sense of a Southeast Asian community. This is a significant achievement, but only a tentative one. Tragedy may befall ASEAN if we fail to continue nurturing such cooperation.

12. This is why the ‘ASEAN way’ is process, not outcome, driven. At the core are carefully nurtured personal relationships between leaders at different levels – Presidents, Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers and other Ministers – who would not otherwise naturally have very much in common. This is so even when leaderships have changed in various ASEAN countries. This is why the ‘ASEAN family’ remains strong even when some members, at various times, have been engaged in bilateral disputes. This is why the ‘ASEAN way’ stresses informality, organisational minimalism, inclusiveness, intensive consultations leading to consensus, and peaceful resolution, of disputes.

13. Non-intervention does not mean indifference to each other’s well- being. The growing web of functional, social, financial and economic ties that link ASEAN members already impels us to work together, advise each other and coordinate national policies in many areas. We can do more of this without abandoning basic principles. Internal political developments will remain a particularly sensitive area with the potential to set up centrifugal forces that can pull ASEAN apart.

14. Management of diversity and potential conflict is the foundation of everything else that ASEAN does. But this is not the only thing that ASEAN can do or has done. Far from being outmoded, basic principles also define the manner in which ASEAN has responded, and is still responding, to new challenges. It is, of course, true that in applying the principles we will have to take into account both regional and global changes as well as the growing maturity of ASEAN as an institution.

15. The economic crisis is the worst that our region has faced in the last thirty years. It has exposed weaknesses at the national as well as global levels. Most governments, in and out of the region, and even international institutions like the IMF, World Bank and the ADB were caught by surprise by the depth of the crisis and the rapidity with which it spread. In this current environment, the principle of open economies is still as relevant today as it was when it contributed towards ASEAN’s economic success in the past. In today’s world of globalised markets and production locations, the only way to succeed is to continue to keep our economies open. That is why ASEAN is committed to economic liberalisation under the auspices of the WTO, APEC, and ASEAN. Within ASEAN itself, our leaders in December last year articulated the vision of ASEAN 2020 in which there will be a free flow of goods, services and investments, a freer flow of capital, equitable economic development and reduced poverty and socioeconomic disparities. This closer economic integration will be achieved, among other strategies, by fully implementing AFTA.

16. The ARF is another example of the creative application of basic principles to new situations. The security dynamic is now far more fluid than during the highly structured Cold War period- ASEAN manoeuvred well within the fixed Cold War structures. But the ground has shifted. The ARF is a means of encouraging the evolution of a more predictable and constructive pattern of relations between major powers with interests in the region. This is achieved through the ASEAN way of building comfort and community through dialogue and consultation.

17. The ARF is an on-going experiment. So far, it has been successful. One positive factor in the current crisis is that relations among the major powers that most directly impact on our region, the US, China and Japan, are healthy. The constructive strategic partnership between the US and China – affirmed by President Clinton’s recent visitlo China – has had a stabilising effect on the triangular relationship between the US, China and Japan. This augurs well for the region’s stability and will provide a more conducive environment for economic recovery. I do not claim that this is because of the ARF. Obviously not. The major powers will structure their relations acrording to their own interests. But I believe that they are beginning to understand that the ARF should at least be one useful element in their calculations.

18. This is a modest but positive step in the right direction. We will continue to take such steps only if all ARF members are not discomforted by the process. The process is in fact the main achievement.

19. Nothing I have said is intended to suggest that we should not continue to be creative or innovative. Change is not merely unavoidable. Change is a necessary way of life. But we must change according to our own logic. We must be confident enough in ourselves, true enough to ourselves, to believe in our own logic and not discard what seems unfashionable or unpopular.

20. Singapore will take over the chairmanship of the ASEAN Standing Committee after this meeting. We know that we are doing so at one of the most difficult moments in ASEAN history. ASEAN’s primary challenge today is to lift Southeast Asia out of the economic doldrums. We can do this if we build on the strengths we have accumulated over 30 years: habits of consultation and cooperation; strengthening economic integration and speaking with a common voice on common issues.

21. After thirty years of cooperation, we have managed to turn ASEAN into a strong ship. If we work together on this ship, we can sail through the rough waters ahead and emerge even stronger. It will be a challenging year. Our unity and cohesiveness will be tested. Our commitment to our shared vision and basic principles will be questioned. However, as the saying goes, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. We must remain united. We must not lose faith in our vision, ideals or basic principles. Working together and helping one another, we can overcome our adversities and emerge stronger than ever.