Asean integration also about mindset
The Straits Times, 10 Sept 2008
by Simon Tay
SINGAPORE'S ambitions to be a hub city are often seen in terms of becoming a vital economic node in the world. But while we aim to be global, we have also to be a part of our region. And although economic opportunities are the priority, they should be buttressed by a sense of shared humanity and responsibilities.
The 10 member countries of Asean are moving towards integrating their economies. When Asean trade ministers met in Singapore last month, they took more steps forward, providing a scorecard of progress and enhancing dispute settlement mechanisms.
Less developed countries like Laos may wonder how they can best benefit from integration. Corporations in larger countries shielded from competition by high tariffs worry about how they would compete when the playing field is level.
In Singapore, we should unambiguously welcome integration as a key to becoming a hub. Opportunities arise from cross-border trade and investment. Of the some $8.2 billion of intra-Asean investment last year, nearly $5.7 billion was from Singapore. But is integration only about economics?
Singapore receives more visitors and residents from Asean than anywhere else. Our businessmen, professionals and service providers are often from neighbouring countries. This is on top of the vast armies of domestic and other workers from the near abroad, and Malaysians who are virtually indistinguishable from us.
Singapore's outward reach is also strong. From Changi, managers and professionals jet all over the region. Thailand and Bali are popular holiday destinations. Yet while our integration with the region is evident, questions remain about our attitudes.
A survey last year found that young Singaporeans were the least likely to identify themselves as Asean citizens. Only about one out of four Singaporeans surveyed felt a similarity with their neighbours, the lowest among Asean countries.
Singaporeans understand that integration and cooperation are good for them. Yet the survey suggests that they are also ambivalent towards the region. This sense of detachment contradicts the economic facts of our Asean-ness. This may be due to our mindset.
Singapore, after all, strives to be a global, not just a regional, city. Choice destinations for work postings and education remain Western. Similarly, if they have time and money, Singaporeans head for holidays in Europe, Japan and Australia.
Even when we think of the region, many eyes turn more to China and to India rather than to Asean. Current political travails in neighbouring states reinforce this. Some are going through messy and murky times. Some also do not always welcome Singaporeans and our investment.
When an Indonesian court recently decided against ST Telemedia's investment in their telecoms sector, some Singaporeans wondered why we should bother with this difficult market - especially since there are opportunities for investment in world-renowned companies like Merrill Lynch, Citibank and UBS.
Taken together, all this suggests that Singapore experiences a kind of regional neglect, where we are taken for granted in the region - and consequently, we take the region for granted too. So even as Asean economic integration proceeds, there is no understanding and appreciation of our neighbours, or vice-versa. We need to address this problem.
We can build on the humanitarian engagement between Singapore and our neighbours. Ordinary Singaporeans showed compassion in their response to the 2004 tsunami and the more recent Cyclone Nargis tragedies.
In addition, there are the smaller and less visible efforts of many groups. Whether they are religious groups or NGOs, schools or rotary clubs, a growing number of Singaporeans help in diverse ways in the region - building homes and water treatment systems, donating to orphanages and schools, providing books, food and clothing, and of course money.
Organisations like Temasek Foundation, Singapore International Foundation and Mercy Relief can do more and encourage others to join in. Our sense of volunteerism and philanthropy needs to extend beyond our borders.
But helping more is not, of itself, enough. Nor is travelling to or receiving more visitors and workers from our Asean neighbours sufficient. The key lies in our mindset.
Too often Singaporeans travel with a closed mind, berating every difference we see as proof that our neighbours are backward. Too often we are poor hosts, failing to see and appreciate the toil of Asean citizens who live amongst us.
A more open attitude should combine with better knowledge of our region. And much of this work should begin with our youth. The Singapore Institute of International Affairs has worked with groups in schools and universities to get students out into the region and has just launched Global Citizens: Asean online. Many have come back not just with knowledge but also with more open attitudes.
These efforts are most successful when students decide on their own to venture out. Rather than making Asean knowledge a compulsory activity, worthy but boring, regional experiences should be made immediate, relevant and appealing.
We found that while there is some appreciation of the diversity and uniqueness of other countries, it is not these that garner most attention. Instead, more of our youth are looking at our neighbours through the lens of global concerns. These include the need to protect the environment and human rights, and the search for peace and development.
Singapore need not give up its global aspirations to become part of our region. Indeed, global perspectives can help us see what links us to the region. Singaporeans may not be the same as others in our region. But this difference need signify neither superiority nor inferiority. Integration does not require sameness. But it does thrive on an appreciation of both our uniqueness and our similarities.