The Next 50 Years of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations


Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is at an inflection point today, and not just because it’s 50 years old — it’s because the world as a whole has changed, and we are living in uncertain times.

The geostrategic balance has changed dramatically. Never in human history have 2 billion people suddenly come online and connected to the global economy at the same time. Never have hundreds of millions of people been raised from poverty into a rising middle class. We’ve seen this transformation occur since 1978 in China and in 1991 in India. Rising economic power must inevitably mean increased diplomatic and military clout. So, there’s no question that the entire geostrategic balance, and many of the assumptions and presumptions that we took for granted, no longer apply.

Economic and political institutions are being questioned as never before, and the jobs of today are at risk of becoming obsolete. The real challenge is not to build walls or not just to redistribute accumulated past wealth. The real challenge is to ensure that our people have the right skills for the new jobs and that the new means of production are democratized and commoditized so that a new middle class can rise, with no one left behind.

Singaporean Foreign Minister Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan speaks at the 15th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) lecture.

Our global world order is being reshaped by the emergence of nonstate actors and transboundary challenges, including terrorism, cyber crime and climate change. These phenomena are not confined to neat geographical boundaries, and they don’t operate within the usual concepts of the Westphalian nation state. The only way to deal with these transboundary global threats is to mount a global consensus and global action, whether you’re dealing with cyber, climate or terrorism. A case in point in Southeast Asia is the returning fighters from Iraq and Syria, where ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] has lost ground. We saw some more returning fighters in Marawi, in the southern Philippines. There are other potential hotbeds for terrorists in our region. Closer to home, we even saw a Singaporean in an ISIS recruitment video. Our concern about the problem in Rakhine state is also related to our anxiety that it becomes another sanctuary, another hotbed, for extremism and terrorism. So, the implication here is that these types of problems cannot be solved purely locally, and no single country can solve them alone. More collective effort will be needed to tackle these challenges. The global multilateral processes — the Law of the Sea, climate change, looking after the natural heritage of mankind — all these things become more salient. We need that approach — that multilateral mutual respect, interdependence and cooperation.

Ahead of the Curve 

Finally, ASEAN has had to contend with its own internal challenges. The 10 ASEAN member states are highly diverse in terms of our political, economic and social systems. In fact, I believe we may be the most diverse grouping in the world. You have 10 very different countries — in size,  population, religion. We’ve got political systems that range from absolute monarchy to democracy to military arrangements.

Much has been asked about this ASEAN habit of consensus — of seeking consensus — and whether this is a bug or a design feature. In fact, it is a design feature. It is designed because of the great diversity within ASEAN, and consensus is a necessary fail-safe. It ensures that every member — regardless of size, politics, state of economic development — has an equal voice. Another way of expressing it: Every member has a veto.

Consensus forces us to take an enlightened long-term view of our own national interest regarding the larger, long-term regional interest. In a sense, that somewhat slower, more laborious process of achieving consensus nevertheless allows us to achieve more sustainable solutions. Because you know that when we’ve signed, everyone has thought through it, worked through the implications, and has agreed to stand by it. Consensus is a design feature and is the foundation of ASEAN unity. The fundamental question, however, whenever events and challenges arise, is to what extent can we make the optimal trade-off between pursuing our own national interests versus the broader, long-term regional interests.

Despite the challenges we face — internally as well as externally — I remain optimistic that our prospects are bright for the next 50 years.

It is also worth remembering that the original five member states of ASEAN consisted of noncommunist Southeast Asia. By getting together and having those first critical two to three decades of peace among ourselves and time to invest in our infrastructure, invest in our people, and to prove that an economic model of openness, of trade, of liberalization works. In fact, we were ahead of the curve. Today, you call it globalization. Today, virtually every region of the world operates on that, although as I have said earlier, there are some questions about the limits of globalization. And we must give credit to ASEAN for simply preventing war among the original members, and subsequently when we included Vietnam in 1995, Laos and Myanmar [Burma] in 1997, and then Cambodia in 1999. The point I want to make is that there has been no outright conflict, war or battle between ASEAN member states. And in this day and age, this is an achievement worth celebrating.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers link hands “The ASEAN Way” at the opening ceremony of the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting at the Philippine International Convention Center in Manila, Philippines. From left, Malaysia’s Anifah Aman, Burma’s U Kyaw Tin, Thailand’s Don Pramudwinai, Vietnam’s Pham Binh Minh, Philippines’ Alan Peter Cayetano, Singapore’s Vivian Balakrishnan, Brunei’s Lim Jock Seng, Cambodia’s Prak Sokhonn, Indonesia’s Retno Marsudi, Laos’ Saleumxay Kommasith and ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh.

It is also worth recalling that one of ASEAN’s most high-profile diplomatic campaigns was in the aftermath of the Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia in 1979. ASEAN was swimming against conventional wisdom at the United Nations at that point in time. Nevertheless, ASEAN stood united and raised its point — that we do not stand or tolerate foreign intervention, and we want to assert the rights of self-determination for our member states. Again, as I said, against conventional wisdom, ahead of its time, but we succeeded. And when the Cold War ended, which in turn led to ASEAN’s expansion, the point here is that if you think about it, ASEAN’s formation, ASEAN’s growth and ASEAN’s challenges have always everything to do with what happens on the global stage.

ASEAN Unity and Centrality 

So, it comes back to this point that our need for consensus and our need for unity to preserve our centrality and relevance in the rest of the world is always at play. It is worth contemplating the opposite scenario. If ASEAN had not been formed, if we had not insisted on consensus as a design feature,  I think the opposite scenario for Southeast Asia in the past 50 years without ASEAN is that we would have been a collection of proxies and vassal states to the major powers of the day. And that would not have been a recipe for peace, prosperity and the economic transformation that we have witnessed over the past 50 years. Therefore, unity and centrality for ASEAN are key for our survival. As Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has put it, ASEAN today is a lifeboat for all 10 member states to come together, to work together and to have our voice heard on the global stage.

It is imperative that we do not break ranks, and we do not sacrifice the long-term regional good in favor of narrower short-term national interests. Otherwise, no one will take us seriously.

I’m always amazed at ASEAN summits and at the [East Asia Summit] that the leaders from America, China, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, India all bother to come and engage us. If ASEAN was not successful, if ASEAN was not united, if ASEAN didn’t matter, I don’t think those leaders would bother to come and see us every year. For ASEAN to remain credible, relevant and central is an imperative for us. It is also in our hands, in our leaders’ hands, to get the right balance between emphasizing regional unity while still guarding our long-term national interests.

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, right, welcomes her Singaporean counterpart, Vivian Balakrishnan, in New Delhi, India. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

ASEAN is always going to be affected by what happens externally. and our short history of 50 years has illustrated that. The challenge is whether we allow these external tsunamis to overwhelm us, to divide us, or whether we collectively build a bigger, stronger ship that will allow us to navigate out of danger and to expand opportunities for all our people. We need and we want ASEAN to be adaptable, and we want ASEAN to seize the new opportunities that the ongoing digital revolution will bring and to formulate innovative ways to deal with these new challenges, especially the transboundary challenges that I have outlined earlier.

That’s why Singapore, as the chair of ASEAN, wants to focus on strengthening ASEAN’s resilience and expanding our innovative capacity. Resilience and innovation will underpin cooperation across all three community pillars of ASEAN under our chairmanship.

We’ve come a long way. There’s much to celebrate, much to be proud of. The challenges that we’ve overcome are also salutary reminders — reminders that ASEAN will always be subject to external forces, and we have to take the world as it is and make the necessary adjustments. It’s a reminder that there will always be a premium on maintaining ASEAN unity for us to remain relevant and to give truth to this concept of ASEAN centrality. It is also a reminder that we remain a region with tremendous potential. Achieving that potential will require that we pay attention to some fundamentals and that we get the balance right — between protecting regional unity and relevance while at the same time advancing our own long-term national interests.

Our prospects remain bright. Singapore, as ASEAN chair, will do our best as ASEAN makes it first steps into the next 50 years toward that bright future that our people demand and expect.

Singapore’s Aspirations as ASEAN Chair*


We hope to establish an ASEAN Smart Cities Network. It will connect people and economies seamlessly; it will enable ideas and solutions to flow across our entire region.


We hope to build and enhance collective resilience against common threats such as terrorism, violent extremism and transnational crimes. We need to step up collaboration on cyber security, and to step up urgently, because you can’t have a smarter world, you can’t have e-commerce, you can’t have seamless digital transactions if you don’t have cyber security. We will need a robust cyber security regime to provide assurances and opportunities for our people and our businesses. We will also work toward completing a Model ASEAN Extradition Treaty, which will be an important step in strengthening the regional rule of law.


Sixty percent of ASEAN’s population of 628 million are below the age of 35. Just now, I referred to this issue of a demographic drought that has occurred in Northeast Asia and in some parts of Europe. The fact that ASEAN is young and we have not yet harvested our demographic dividend is a source of great opportunity. But, and there is a but, young people are a source of great opportunity and inspiration if we ensure that they have the relevant skills and that governments have invested in the latest, up-to-date infrastructure, and that our social, political and economic systems give people opportunities, fair opportunities. If we can achieve this, then a young ASEAN, with a population larger than Europe, in a region of peace, and a region that connects Northeast Asia, South Asia including India, Australia and New Zealand, and across the Pacific, we are in the middle of all the action.


We want to give everyone a bigger stake in our region’s continued prosperity. When we meet superpowers, my usual line to them is: It is in your own long-term interest for ASEAN to succeed, because ASEAN will ultimately be your biggest trading partner; ASEAN will be your great opportunity for investments. The key word, the key concept behind this, is interdependence. We believe the way to secure peace is to promote interdependence and then to tell everyone that you gain more by working together, by investing in one another, by trading with one another — win-win outcomes. Because the opposite scenario is to divide the world into rival blocs, insist on narrow independence, engage in zero-sum competition and ultimately proxy wars. So, economic, political interdependence is our recipe for peace and prosperity.

We will therefore step up our efforts to achieve a high-quality Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). This is a free-trade pact that includes all 10 ASEAN countries and the six partners of ASEAN whom we already have free trade arrangements with. The six are China, India, Australia, New Zealand, Korea and Japan. If we put all these together, you account for more than 30 percent of global gross domestic product and about 40 percent of the global population. Of course, our longer-term aim is to achieve a free-trade area of the Asia-Pacific. Whether you talk about the RCEP or TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership], to us, they are just multiple roads that lead to a larger destination.


We will also bolster regional business opportunities, particularly for small and medium enterprises, by advancing the ASEAN single window and the ASEAN-wide
self-certification regime. I should add that it is also worth emphasizing that at the recent ASEAN Summit in Manila, ASEAN and China formally announced the commencement of negotiations for the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. This has been long overdue. The Declaration of Conduct was signed in 2002, a long time ago. This is a very positive sign, an icon that both China and ASEAN countries want to achieve peace and stability, and to ensure that the South China Sea remains a calm sea. This is crucial because this is a critical artery for free trade, and free trade is essential for the economic development and transformation of our region.

* Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong introduced Singapore’s priorities as the incoming ASEAN chair in November 2017. Dr. Vivian Balakrishan reiterated them during the 15th ASEAN lecture on December 5, 2017.

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