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In Thailand, Mahathir offers a hypocritical take on ASEAN unity

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“The stability and prosperity of our region,” Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad claimed earlier this week, “rely heavily on a united and integrated ASEAN.” The call for regional unity came as Malaysia’s prime minister was conferred an honorary doctorate in Thailand in the field of social leadership, entrepreneurship and politics, an occasion that marked Mahathir’s second visit to the country since winning a landmark election in May this year. His earlier visit saw him pledge to facilitate peace in the southern border provinces of Thailand amid a persistent separatist insurgency.

While his speech may have been stirring, Mahathir’s grandiose vision of a more unified ASEAN community does not extend to his own government’s policies, at least judging by the escalating border dispute Putrajaya has ignited in recent weeks with neighbouring Singapore. The same Mahathir that called for regional unity in Thailand is refusing to remove ships from disputed waters, while a senior member of his party threatened Singapore with “pain by a thousand cuts”. The provocative language harkens back to the long and tense relationship between the two countries since their 1965 split, with boundary issues typically flaring up in parallel with domestic politics.

This latest dispute straddles two sets of issues. On the maritime side, Malaysia’s October claim to extended limits of the Johor Bahru port has been rejected by Singapore on the grounds that the new boundaries exceed previous claims. In terms of airspace, Malaysia has voiced opposition to the Instrument Landing System (ILS), an assisted navigational aviation facility for Seletar Airport. Malaysia protests the system’s implementation on the grounds that it infringes on national sovereignty and creates adverse impacts on flight paths and shipping in Pasir Gudang.

Mahathir’s renewed aggression toward Singapore marks a notable about-face from predecessor NajibRazak’s efforts to build stronger ties between Malaysia and the city-state. Najib sought to increase mutual trust through cross-border infrastructure and education projects. “We certainly do not want to return to the era of confrontational diplomacy and barbed rhetoric between our two countries,” he declared earlier this year in a barely-veiled barb at Mahathir’s preceding stint in office. “It was an era that we want to forget.”

That attitude was echoed by international observers, who held high hopes for bilateral relations upon Mahathir’s election as PM in May despite his widely-known frosty attitude towards Singapore. A few months in, those hopes have given way to somber disillusionment. The tensions of the past several weeks have revived uncomfortable memories of cross-causeway relations during Mahathir’s first stint in power, when he ruled Malaysia with an iron fist from 1981 to 2003.

One focal point of tensions is Mahathir’s so-called 2001 “crooked bridge” plan, designed to replace the causeway linking the two countries with a bridge to allow ships to cross the Johor Strait. Singapore refused to back the project, declaring the bridge unnecessary as long as the causeway was in good condition. Mahathir’s insistence on building Malaysia’s end of the bridge, and more recent attempts to revive project discussions, have confirmed fears that his return to power would revive old issues previously laid to rest.

It’s difficult to determine exactly why Mahathir is so blatantly after confrontation with Singapore. Two main theories have emerged to explain the PM’s enmity towards Malaysia’s tiny neighbour. According to the first theory, the idiosyncratic Mahathir holds a grudge from his university days in Singapore, where he faced anti-Malay prejudice and condescension from Singaporeans.

Mahathir does indeed have a history of holding grudges. Long before the Seletar airport issue and the revival of the Johor Strait bridge project, Mahathir had one-time protégé Anwar Ibrahim thrown in jail on trumped up sodomy charges after they disagreed over financial policy in the wake of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Anwar, who has since re-emerged as a critical political ally for Mahathir, was just one of a long list of political opponents to suffer similar fates during Mahathir’s first tenure.

That trend has carried over into the premier’s second term. Having already spoken at length of his soured impression of successor Abdullah Badawi, the newly reinstated leader is now going after predecessor Najib. Arrested in July in connection with the billion-dollar corruption scandal surrounding state investment fund 1MDB, Malaysia has also filed criminal charges against Goldman Sachs for its involvement in the embezzlement of large sums of money. The unfolding case against Najib is being held up as a litmus test of Mahathir’s commitment to justice. The supposedly “bitter” Mahathir is unlikely to disappoint.

The second theory, however, may offer a more straightforward explanation. It suggests Mahathir is using this latest spat with Singapore as a means of drawing attention away from domestic problems. A Nikkei Asian Review report released earlier this year held Mahathir’s government responsible for a rapidly declining ringgit, with the new administration lacking in substantial new economic policies and failing to curb capital outflow.

Mahathir’s economic woes are compounded by rising concerns over Malaysia’s ballooning debt. In the wake of the 1MDB scandal, realizations that government debt exceeds RM1 trillion – more than $238 billion – are ringing national alarm bells. The benchmark FTSE Bursa Malaysia Kuala Lumpur Composite Index has fallen nearly ten percent since Mahathir took office.

Amid rising debt, dubious economic policies, and broken election promises, Mahathir’s comments in Thailand earlier this week belied what could very well be a conscious strategy of exploiting regional tensions to maintain domestic control. While ASEAN unity almost certainly is the only path to shared regional prosperity, Mahathir does not seem to be to be listening to his own advice.

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Southeast Asia

South China Sea of brewing troubles and its implications for India

Mona Thakkar

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For years, China, Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam have contested overlapping claims to hundreds of coral reefs, features, and islets in the South China Sea. China’s man-made islands fortified with airstrips, anti cruise missiles, control towers, naval bases has allowed it to assert its sovereignty vigorously and poised it to seize greater control of the sea. As it’s economic and military position bolstered, it resorted to bullying its small neighbors by illicitly entering their territorial waters or by hindering their oil and gas explorations in the disputed waters. China hoped that it would seek to buy the acquiescence for its terrorizing tactics by luring them into economic incentives and its dubious intentions for a stable and secure South China Sea. But Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, frustrated with the status quo, are defying China’s dominance in the region turning the region into a new geopolitical flashpoint.

Recently, Indonesia, who for years avoided an open confrontation with its economic partner, locked horns with China as it sent warships and F16 fighter jets off the coast of Indonesia’s Natuna Islands to fend off Chinese fishing vessels in its exclusive economic zone, which China considers its fishing ground.  Indonesia’s patience with China’s maverick overtures has worn thin since 2016 as it has been repeatedly countering the poaching of its vessels by the Chinese coast guard in Indonesia’s backwaters. These counteractive measures are a testament to Indonesia’s tilt to a more proactive role to curb Chinese aggression. 

Another conspicuous development that raised eyebrows was Malaysia’s submission to the UN for a greater share of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles of its EEZ, which happened to overlap with China’s claim on the entire Spratly islands (nine-dash line). Currently, Malaysia occupies five islands in Spratlys and lays claims to 12 islands.  The submission is linked to a related application that Malaysia and Vietnam made 10 years ago, which met staunch opposition from China’s UN mission. Mahathir, who ascended to power on the wave of simmering domestic discontent against China’s pervasive economic influence, resorted to legal arbitration to possibly have added leverage over the negotiations related to the Chinese funded BRI projects which are notoriously known for pursuing debt-trap diplomacy.

In the wake of the Philippines, Cambodia, and Brunei openly courting China, the US seeks to warm up to Vietnam, the most vocal adversary to China’s boisterous aggression in the South China Sea. The latest defense paper of Vietnam indicates that it is going to desist from hedging bets between the US and China and call on the foreign powers to assist their regional endeavors in constraining China’s outreach in the region.  After the month’s long confrontation with China over its survey vessels into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone near Vanguard Ban, and Beijing’s coercion of Hanoi to prevent hydrocarbon drilling in its own territorial waters with foreign partners,  Vietnam introduced maritime militias which will escort the fishing fleets in the strategic resource-rich waterway to counter China’s fishing militias ships. 

Ironically, a country like the Philippines, who restored to law fare first in 2016, where the international arbitration panel ruling favored the Philippines and struck down  China’s unilaterally declared nine-dash line, has preferred to bilaterally settle the maritime disputes in contested waters through peaceful means and dithered from consolidated deterrence to oppose Beijing claims.  Embracing China’s billion-dollar investment in the construction of ports and the telecommunication sector signifies a tilt towards Chinese orbit at a time when the Philippines is threatening to end a Visiting Forces Agreement with the US. 

ASEAN’s ability to speak as a common voice on sensitive issues such as on sovereignty and territorial disputes has been under the scanner for years. China capitalizing on its economic supremacy has managed to keep a short leash on its Southeast Asian neighbors, thus it is unlikely that ASEAN will directly denounce China’s hawkish behavior in the South China Sea. In 2017 ASEAN summit held in Manila, China’s hard lobbying led ASEAN to drop its mention of “China’s reclamation and militarization of the South China sea islands”. Cambodia, China’s most staunch ally in Southeast Asia during its chairmanship of ASEAN, for the first time in its history, obstructed ASEAN from issuing a joint communiqué that insisted on mentioning a reference of China’s territorial disputes with ASEAN countries in the South China Sea. Cambodia to grovel China also stated that ASEAN cannot be “a legal institution” for settling territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The most fatigued issue of the Code of Conduct between China and ASEAN, which is set to be concluded in 2021, will further expose ASEAN’s fraying institutional mechanism due to its flawed consensus-building process where any ASEAN member can mute  ASEAN’S voice by issuing a veto over any joint resolutions or statements.  If China is successful in framing a nonbinding COC and codifying the clause of ending foreign armed forces in the region, it will make the COC dead on arrival.  China can exploit it as a diplomatic tool to justify its unilateral disruptive actions by including ambiguous and imprecise language. Further, China will not adhere to any COC as it has repeatedly been flouting international laws without paying any heed to the international arbitration tribunal’s ruling sought by the Philippines. It will lead to further erosion of the ASEAN centrality as some member states like Cambodia and Brunei might  openly support China buttressing China’s views  that Asean should not be a party to the south china sea disputes and rather solve  the issue ” “bilaterally”. 

China’s recurrent aggressive posturing in the region through the grey zone tactics such as that of sending fishermen, geological survey ships, and coast guards in the other claimants’ territorial waters will irk Vietnam, Malaysia pushing them to take a harder line on the dispute resolution through multilateral intervention of the US Australia, and Japan.  In this way, China might lose at its own game. Instead of bringing its neighbors to the negotiating table to accept Chinese prescribed terms of COC, they will be impervious to China’s threats, and its unabashed maritime expansion will propel them to enhance their strategic ties with the US and step up joint naval exercises with the US, Australia, Japan and India.  

The South China Sea symbolizes an arena of China’s naval prowess hence; it has shown the audacity to enter its rival claimants’ exclusive economic zone. This show of subtle coercive power is not only limited to Southeast Asian littoral states, but also India’s maritime backyard in the Andaman Sea.  Last September the Indian Navy expelled China’s research vessels from its exclusive economic zone near the Andaman and Nicobar islands.  These research vessels portray a significant threat to Indian strategic interests as they could be mapping characteristics of water to enhance its submarine warfare and deep-sea mining capabilities.  China, being cognizant of India’s redlines, has resorted to such subtle intimidation, thus abstaining from directly challenging India’s sovereignty claims, or drawing in closer proximity to the Indian coastal states with pernicious intent.

China has been making inroads in the eastern Indian Ocean region through the development of strategic Kyaukpyu deep seaport in Myanmar giving it direct access to the Bay of Bengal, talks about constructing a secret naval base in Cambodia, and 100km long km long canal in Kra isthmus in Thailand bypassing strait of Malacca, a critical lifeline for China’s energy supplies. Apart from encircling India, China’s expanding naval influence astride India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands stems from its need to diversify its energy supply routes as the maritime traffic to the Strait of Malacca has to traverse through the Andaman Sea, leaving China’s critical energy supplies vulnerable to a blockade from its foes. Other points of leverage are its control of ports in Pakistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and now Myanmar which serve as a refueling and resupply stopover to Chinese naval vessels and warships, which patrol the critical entry checkpoints in the IOR. This, in turn, would ensure sustenance to its naval forces enabling nimble deployment in any event of war providing a strategic edge over its adversaries.

In a great game of power competition between India and China, the navy’s rapid modernization has led China to dominate the waters of Indo Pacific.   China has tripled the number of frigates, cruisers, destroyers, attacked guided missile submarines, and nuclear attack submarines. China has been modernizing its submarine fleet and indigenously developing aircraft carriers, and conducting joint military drills in the western Indian Ocean region with Iran and Russia showing its naval superiority in the region. It has been also squeezing India on the Kashmir issue, its membership in NSG, while challenging India’s dominance in its backyard by establishing a palpable constabulary presence in the Andaman Sea through its submarines and research survey vessels exhibiting its veiled influence in the region.

Indian Navy, which envisions the role of being a “net security provider” in the IOR and enhances the capacity building of its littoral states, is itself facing modernization deficiencies due to recurring budgetary constraints, procurement delays, corruption, and red-tapism. This year’s obfuscated defense budget allocated for the Navy will lead it to pullback its capacity enhancement plans of becoming a 200 ship fleet by 2025 and will also lead to cut down on procurement of the most needed naval assets like countermeasure mine vessels, early warning helicopters, fleet support ships, aircraft carriers. This raises serious questions about the Indian Navy’s ability to navigate through the most common threat of mines which impinge considerable damage to the large ships off the coast.

China’s increasing military build-up has thus pinched India to drop its self imposed restraint and reinvigorate the QUAD. Along with upgrading the QUAD engagement to the foreign ministerial level , and India’s consideration of inviting Australia for the trilateral Malabar exercises with Japan and USA this year suggests India’s growing seriousness in giving Quad a semblance of the formal security alliance, eliciting chagrin from China. India’s exclusion of China from its largest-ever multinational naval drills construes that as long as incompatibility prevails between India and China visions for the Indo Pacific, New Delhi through such naval exercises will try to deprive China of the significant shared interoperability mechanism vital for overhauling Navy’s strategic maneuvers, and through these exercises ensure synergy of the free and open Indo Pacific doctrine. It is also a benign way to reinforce its naval preeminence in the Asian nautical commons when India feels a sense of unease with China’s naval forays in its backyard.

India may further milk out on growing frustration of Indonesia and Malaysia with China’s hooliganism and find a common cause to augment its defense cooperation. China is riding roughshod despite retaliatory responses from its Southeast Asian neighbors.  Its bullying of Southeast Asian littoral states is a harbinger to how it may treat the neighbors in the future. The only positive development is the US’s “piecemeal” efforts in the form of mounting freedom of navigation operations in the Taiwan straits and South China Sea. It further pricked Beijing by buttressing defense aid to Vietnam and Taiwan. While we can expect deeper defense cooperation between core ASEAN Nations and external powers like US, Australia, Japan, the US’s security commitment towards the region will hinge on China’s actions and the accordingly both the parties in their heated rivalry will pull the strings of the ASEAN’s countries security and economic fragile thrust points to overpower each other. For now, China should make peace with the fact that its thirst for conquering the seas risks skewing power asymmetry in the US’s favor as the ASEAN nations will tilt towards the US for counterpoising Beijing’s rise in the Asia Pacific.

With the geopolitical fault lines in the region coming to the fore, ASEAN will now be under scrutiny for managing the delicate dancing act between its strategic allies US, and its leading trade partner China.   It will also be interesting to see how Vietnam presiding this year’s ASEAN chair handles the South China Sea dispute balancing the economic and strategic priorities of the group.

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Southeast Asia

Political advantage through aid or trade: India’s knee jerk on Malaysia and Turkey

Amjed Jaaved

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In today’s market economy, no country can live in economic isolation (sakoku).  The USA (or its proxy India) has a flexible format to dub or delete a country as axis of evil, sponsor of terrorism or pariah (Tamil paraiyar, outcastes), or rogue (Iran, Sudan, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela). Ottoman Empire was persecuted as an outcast by European States since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 until the nineteenth century on a `religious basis’.

Geldenhuys points out criteria for declaring a state pariah._ having ‘artificial borders’ (Iraq), siege mentality, anti-West sentiments and desire to subvert the international status quo (Pakistan?), or not being a considerable `world power’.  China being a `world power’ is not pariah despite its human-rights complaints in Xinjiang.

Through aid to or trade with states, India is now influencing not only internal but also external policies of countries: Rafale deal with France, likely helicopter and air defence deal with USA, trade relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In Sri Lanka, India brokered to remove Mahinda Rajapaksa from office 2015. Rajapakse had given China strategic entry into Sri Lanka, by leasing out Hambantota port to China and allowing it to build Colombo port and dock its submarines in Sri Lanka.  Now Sri Lanka has handed over control of Humbantota to India. India gave $45.27 million aid to develop KKS harbour in Sri Lanka (Jan 12, 2018).

India extended 2.1-billion Nepalese Rupee (NR) aid to Nepal as reimbursement of the first tranche of housing support to 42,086 governments of India- supported beneficiaries in Nuwakot and Gorkha districts. It pledged Nepal US $1 billion aid and soft loan (25%) for Nepal’s post-earthquake.

She pledged to contribute Rs 4500 crore to Bhutan’s 12th five-year plan (2018 to 2023). It completed Mangdhechu Hydroelectric project and Ground Earth Station for South Asia Satellite and launch of RuPay card in Bhutan. Besides, it committed assistance of Rs 4,500 Crore for implementation of development projects and Rs 400 Crore for transitional Trade Support Facility during Bhutan’s 12th Five Year Plan (2018 – 2023). Under the 12th 5-Year Plan, 51 large and intermediate projects and 359 Small Development Projects (SDPs)/High Impact Community Development Projects (HICPDs) are being carried out. India’s commitment to the 12th Plan constitutes about 14.5 per cent of the Plan outlay which is around 38.75 per cent of the capital outlay and 71 per cent of the total external assistance.  

To Bangladesh, India extended three $8 billion loans. A total of 1.16 gigawatts of power is now being supplied by India to Bangladesh. The increase, in the reckoning of the Prime Minister, signifies a “quantum jump from megawatts to gigawatts and is symbolic of a golden era” in bilateral ties. Markedly, Mamata Banerjee has pledged to raise the power supply to Bangladesh to 1,000 MW. Though electricity will not be a substitute for Teesta water, the plan to boost power supply is on anvil.

Launching the ‘Act Far East’ policy, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced (September 5, 2019)that India will give a line of credit worth US$ 1 billion to Russia for the development of Far East.

India has provided Lines of Credit worth $ 96.54 million to Niger for projects in transport, electrification, solar energy and potable drinking water. It granted $15 million to Niger for organising African Union Summit

Opposed to China’s Belt-Road Initiative, India and Japan, meanwhile, have launched their own joint initiative in the shape of Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) for undertaking development and cooperation projects in the African continent.

Relations with Malaysia and others

Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad views on Kashmir and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) irked India. He had said in September that India had “invaded and occupied” Kashmir. He was joined by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said that India had virtually imposed “a blockade” on Kashmiris. About Citizenship Amendment Act, he commented he was “sorry to see that India, which claims to be a secular state, is now taking action to deprive some Muslims of their citizenship”. India lodged a formal protest stating that it went against the accepted diplomatic practice of “non-interference in each other’s internal affairs”.

Already, India was angry as Malaysia refused to hand over Indian Islamic tele-evangelist Zakir Naik.  He was given asylum in Malaysia in 2018 despite the Indian allegations of  money laundering and “hate speech”. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s views on Kashmir and the Citizenship Amendment Act irked the Indian government, which retaliated by unofficially stopping the import of palm oil from the country.

Nepal, too, will be affected by the de facto Indian ban on Malaysian palm oil. Malaysian palm oil is refined in large quantities in Nepal and exported to India.

Malaysia may retaliate if India is unrelenting in its decision to stop the import of palm oil. Mahathir Mohamad’s media adviser has called for tighter regulations for Indians working in the country and a reciprocal ban on the import of Indian products. More than 100,000 Indians are employed in Malaysia, constituting more than 6 per cent of the foreign workforce.

The Indian government has also sought to penalise Turkey by not allowing it to bid for construction contracts.

Mahathir Mohamad, along with Erdogan and the Pakistan Prime Minister, Imran Khan, had in fact agreed to organise a “global Islamic forum” to highlight the major issues facing the Islamic community worldwide, including in Palestine and Kashmir. Under pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Imran Khan cancelled his visit to the Islamic Forum meeting in Kuala Lumpur in December at the eleventh hour even though Kashmir was sought to be highlighted. Erdogan said that the Saudis had threatened to withdraw their financial backing to Pakistan and send back the large numbers of Pakistanis working in the kingdom.

Indonesia, too, succumbed to pressure from the Arab monarchies and excused itself from the three-day meet at the last minute.

While all peripheral countries are growing by leaps and bounds, Pakistan is engrossed in bail-out-centred siege mentality. To avoid being isolated, Pakistan should promote national harmony to emerge as a `world power’ to be reckoned with as a beacon of democracy.

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Southeast Asia

Youth for Youth: YALPI in Thailand

Rattana Lao

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BANGKOK – 100 young people from all over ASEAN and Asia spent their weekends in Chulalongkorn University, Thailand thinking of the best possible ways to improve ASEAN integration. 

Founded four years ago by a group of students at Political Science Faculty, Chulalongkorn University, the oldest university in Thailand, the Young ASEAN Leaders Policy Initiative has grown in size and scope. 

From a handful of students volunteered aspired to make their voices heard and created to make positive space for their fellow Political Science students, YALPI has become a vibrant avenue attracting students to come from all over the region and wide range of disciplines. 

Ms. Artima Sompor, 3rd Year Political Science student said the crux of YALPI was students-led activity for better students engagement. 

The four days event was packed with solid discussion from well-rounded speakers all over Thailand – ranging from the issues of political participation of youth to access to education to gender equality.  

More importantly, there were critical spaces for brainstorming session such as on Wealth Inequality and Education Inclusion. Delegates engaged in rich discussion on the most pressing issues of the region and provided the time and space to think of possible solutions. 

Students across the region sat around the table into the late nights and early mornings to debate and discuss the possibility to improve social problems. As the mentor of the Education team, I was impressed by the depth of knowledge, commitment to solve educational problems and creativity of the members of the group. 

The lack of English was identified as the barrier to achieve greater economic integration, delegates from Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan came up with an idea to create a social English club to improve the level of English in their respected country. 

Endowned with different levels of English, the delegates discussed how best to attract volunteers and how well they can execute curriculums that will be conducive to the development of ASEAN. They debated rationale, they debunk myths and they offered a breath of fresh air to the old problems. 

The rooms were filled with energy, enthusiasm and optimism. But the debates were heated with issues of feasibility and implementation. 

For the delegates, this space allowed them to hone their critical thinking, communication and creative skills. It allowed them to form networks of like-minded youth to move the region forward. Students are required to problematize the issues, debates for solutions and draft a concrete plan. 

For the organizers, this event makes their university life meaningful. Students from across faculties had the opportunities to discuss, share, plan and work together for a common cause. They need to be creative in solving organizational issues, they need to be confident in raising the funds and finding sponsors, they need to be critical in creating such solid agenda for everyone else to enjoy. 

Thirwan Manleka, the co-president of YALPI and the 3rd year Political Science student, said “the team is working to create the space that preserves youth energy. We are dedicated and committed to do big things”. 

And they succeeded. 

The sheer spirit of teamwork that this YALPI organizing team exhibited is second to none. The power of the young is more eminent when they work in teams. No books can teach them this except the transformative experience of them actually working with other peers, colleagues, classmates and friends. 

From an educator and youth advocate standpoint, more and more spaces and opportunities like this are needed across Thailand and the region. Everyone learns so much more when they actually – meet – discuss – act and share. In the age of uncertainty, such educational space that provokes them to think outside the box and beyond comfort zone but in such a safe space is needed more than ever before. 

ASEAN integration sounds like an elusive dream that is written on the charter for a region rife with neighbouring conflicts, border issues and economic competition, but the friendship emanated from this four days event is a hopeful reminder the every big dream begins small and every success starts with a great team. 

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