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Singapore: A golden treasure of ASEAN

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Inspired by “The theory and requirements of 5 E’s Djawed Sangdel to the global leaders in the world”, it is here to present Singapore to illustrate 5 main pillars of the 5E’s: Esteem, Education, Energy, Entrepreneur, and Economy. For Sangdel a county can’t has the development without the exigency of 5E’s.

Since the independence period from British colonization, Singapore has become stronger and wealthier than any Asia-Pacific region (ranked the second among 43 countries in regards of economic freedom score: 89.4, leading its economy to be the second freest in the 2019 Index). Also, Singapore was the third most globalized economy in the list of 60 world’s largest economies, according to Ernst and Young 2011 Globalization Index).

Certainly, the economy of Singapore is sustainable and keeps growing these days. Also, the Singaporean government has dedicatedly invested in its people for decades. However, this “Asian tiger” has only around 700 kilometers, lacking of both arable and natural resources such as fuels, minerals or metals. Moreover, there is only 1.3% of the labor force working in agriculture, which does not contribute to the majority of the GDP. Thus, it is questionable that does Singapore fulfill the conditions and requirements of the 5 E’s in its developmental process?

Esteem

Charlie Munger once said that Singapore had a better accomplishment compared to the United States in the beginning, and the powerful talented person behind this success was definitely Lee Kuan Yew, the Warren Buffett of Singapore.

It is undoubtedly that Lee Kuan Yew possesses a varied range of wonderful characteristics and personalities since he was born. Growing up in a middle-class Chinese family, and then residing in Singapore since the 19th century. Mr. Lee studied law at Cambridge, United Kingdom, and then coming back to Singapore to study economics, English literature, and mathematics at Raffles College. His education was interrupted by the Japanese conquest. He decided to learn Japanese and became a translator for a news agency. His nationalist pride was strong, which he was aware Singapore has to be independent and free from foreign powers.

Lee Kuan Yew – the founding father of Singapore

Lee Kwan Yew started his political career as an election agent under a pro-British Progressive Party. Then, he co-founded the People’s Action Party (PAP) aiming of ending British colonial rule and reaching to self-governance for Singapore. After that, he became the first Prime Minister of Singapore when winning43 of the 51 seats in the legislative assembly on 30th May 1959.

Taking control of the new nation, Lee Kuan Yew understood Singapore had no natural resources and had to rely on Malaysia to support and distribute fresh water to the people. Along with that, Lee saw that it was vital to have a good relationship with Malaysia for Singapore’s survival. Thus, he initiated the proposal to join Malaysia as one of its member states. However, the merger happened shortly (1963-1965) due to mounting disagreements between the Federal Government of Malaysia and the PAP. Even he was anguish at that time, he had a strong belief in himself and his people for Singapore and continuing to develop a nation that he envisioned it to be, “better and stronger” than Malaysia. Then, Singapore became a sovereign, democratic and independent nation.

Becoming independent from Britain and Malaysia, Lee formed a great team and kept them together as founding fathers of Singapore – Goh Keng Swee, Lim Kim San, S Rajaratnam, Toh Chin Chye and Devan Nair faced with the survival of the nation and Lee never gave up on his vision and his belief. Lee Kuan Yew was also trying to spread his clear vision for Singapore and shared it to his people in several public speeches.

Moreover, Lee understood the vulnerability of small nations such as Singapore, and believed that “a small country must seek a maximum number of friends, while maintaining the freedom to be itself as a sovereign and independent nation”. He desired being global, learning languages (English, Mandarin and Malay) as a multi-lingual orator, giving him the ability to reach the widest audience of the multi-racial, multi-cultural states. He managed to create close-knitted collaboration and be global influence in different races, states and faiths. Thus, Mr. Lee traveled around 304 official trips to 83 countries between 1959 and 2012. He was striving for Singapore’s future in the international arena.

Certainly, Lee Kuan Yew possessed a strong self-esteem to manage his nation effectively and innovatively through dark times and brighten times to have a success of Singapore these days. From his brilliant style of leadership and quick wit, how did he aspire his esteem to his people? How had he managed to bring the prosperity of Singapore?

Succession planning to Singapore

After the British left and Singapore attained self-government, the country faced a myriad of problems such as poverty, poor public health, a severe housing shortage, an inactive economy and an exploding population. How did Lee Kuan Yew govern and solve these overwhelming problems?

First, Singapore officially applied to join the United Nations on 3rd September 1965, after separation from the Federation of Malaysia. And then received acceptance, becoming the 11th UN member state on 21st September in the same year. Lee Kuan Yew and his team realized United Nations has made a safer place for countries like Singapore because it “restrains middle powers from invading small states”. This action has allowed not only to raise the country’s profile but also achieve a high recognition in the international community. Also, it was ‘natural’ for Singapore to adhere the policy of “resolving differences between nations through peaceful negotiations, not by violent means”, proved by holding several global conferences and committees.

In addition, to compete with global giants, Lee needed to provide Singapore people with its housing and employment opportunities to bring economic stability. Thus, Lee and his colleagues established key initiatives and implemented several important policies that tackled every aspect of Singapore society from economy to housing, healthcare and the environment. For this purpose, he established the Housing Development Board and Economic Development Board. The Government gave public housing as its top priority, transforming inner city slums into carefully planned mixed townships sold at low cost and provided superior living conditions for its citizens. Also, to encourage home ownership, Singaporeans were allowed to use their Central Provident Fund savings to pay for these apartments.

Furthermore, the Government installed a strict quota system in public housing to ensure that ethnic groups did not create their own monolithic areas. This action preserved racial harmony and disruption in religious. Enacting the Prevention of Corruption Act, the Government implemented a comprehensive anti-corruption framework that manages laws, enforcement, public service and public outreach. Any unexplained wealth unbalance to known sources of income would be investigated to the Government. During against corruption, Lee and his PAP colleagues usually wore white shirts and white trousers, symbolizing their determination to keep the Government clean and incorruptible. The anti-corruption agency, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), is well-resourced and independent. Its purpose is to investigate anybody from the highest position level to the lowest one to raise public awareness and form social norms.

Another essential action by Lee Kuan Yew, establishing internal rules; for example, banning chewing gum since 1992.There was a report showed that train cabin doors could not close in a proper way because the passengers stuck gums on the doors causing malfunction. Therefore, he and his team were concerned this negative habit was a noticeable enemy of progress on Singapore’s success. Even it was rumored as a nanny state, Mr. Lee said Singaporeans are better behaved and live in a more satisfied place than 20 years ago. He once made a joke, if one cannot think because one cannot chew, try a banana.

There was an aggressive method of avoiding rapid population growth and threaten economic progress, Minister Lee designed the Stop at Two Family Planning Campaign. It was urging families that already had two children to undergo sterilization. It worked effectively during that time. Until now, Singaporeans are simply not reproducing, with a fertility rate of 1.29 and mostly Singapore population growth depends on immigration. The misguided family planning policies have led to a low birthrate even the Government currently encourage married women have three or four children.

Although Lee Kuan Yew passed away at the age of 91, his contributions, strategies and determination with his colleagues respectfully transformed a small port into global trading hub as these days, remarkably receiving hundreds of admirations from world leaders. Lee Hsien Loong, his son, replacing his position to develop and manage as the third President of Singapore, whether he will make great as his father and maintaining its success in a long-lasting sustainable period?

Lee Hsien Loong – continuing stable success and development

Son of Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Hsien Loong, became the third Prime Minister of Singapore. Growing up with the admiration of his father, Lee Hsien Loong passionately follows the instructions and leans in politics, economics in the early ages as Deputy Prime Minister (1991-2004), Minister of Finance, and Minister of Trade & Industry.

This man has been a shadow of the political and intellectual giant, his father, Lee Kuan Yew since he becomes Prime Minister of Singapore. While senior Lee usually tries to implement what he promises in his speech during his term, junior Lee tends to use too many facts and figures to the audiences, which sometimes made them get lost, and did not do what he said.

Moreover, junior Lee is struggling with his inner circle – core colleagues inside the government. His general managers are quite weak to assist him with serious problems and lack of will to tackle the solutions. Thus, Lee Hsien Loong probably needs more talented people from private sectors with hands-on experience to work with him.

Junior Lee also seems to be a soft leader and rarely makes hard decisions. He was working in his first five years as Prime Minister with invisible presence, due to the dependence of his team of ministers. However, after losing Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (Aljunied GRC) and receiving the lowest majority votes in any election, he has become more realized to be in action. For example, he said the locals committed more crimes than foreigners when the crime rate rose up, which made the locals scared and be careful with current situations.

In addition, senior Lee usually made a trip to the U.S once a year to have a close relationship unlike his son who only visited the U.S during President Obama’s tenure.  Compared to his father, Lee Hsien Loong does not prefer interacting with international arena but being a domestic position during his 10-year tenure.

Some people has judged Lee Hsien Loong as someone who climbs the politic ladder through his father’s influence. However, they could not know junior Lee wants to prove himself with greater effort to govern and develop Singapore more than what his father did in the past. Certainly, what Lee Kuan Yew did and Lee Hsien Loong is doing now is a different era with different aspirations. Thus, Singaporeans and foreigners should trust in him and what Lee Hsien Loong runs the government to see what will happen.

And what if junior Lee is a failure when the result of upcoming election – whether he will lose some seats or reclaim back Aljunied GRC? And what if he loses his seats, who will govern Singapore more effectively and successfully than Lee Kuan Yew?

Education

Stepping out from 140-year Singapore’s British colonial past, Lee Kuan Yew and his PAP colleagues decided to have an investment in education first, as “to develop Singapore’s only available natural resource, its people”.

Mr. Lee was willing to inherit useful educational models from his enemy as solid foundations to apply in Singaporean education. For example, primary, secondary and pre-university levels operate in four different languages: English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil, as well as its focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Also, the curriculum for secondary education is modeled on the British O-level and A-level qualifications.

Major education policies since 1959

Being a political independence in 1965, the Singaporean government designed two key goals for education in a new nation: supporting national economic growth and fostering social cohesion in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious population. Besides that, the PAP began classifying curricula, examinations, and teacher qualifications and salaries, as its main target is teachers and students.

In order to support its economic development, the education adopted bilingualism with English (along with the mother tongue of Mandarin, Malay or Tamil), brought a multi-ethnic society’s need for a common language. At the same time, a variety of daily rituals was implemented in schools in order to promote social cohesion and national identity, such as national pledge, awareness of national flag, and singing national anthem.

These two purposes of educational policies have remained over the past six decades. According to 5 E’s, education ranks as the second important element to evaluate the success of the country, this nation has also focused on education to invest on people. Its desired outcomes of education are to “loving Singapore”, and “being enterprising and innovative”.

Key features of Singapore’s education system

One of the most remarkable features is meritocracy, which the PAP has preserved as a founding myth. Its expression is to offer everyone fair educational opportunities and select talent based on individual hard work and merit (individual performance in a series of competitive national examinations).

Secondly, Singaporean education focuses on ability-based streaming, considered as individual differences in ability require unequal curricula. Based on student’s performance in national exams, students would have different courses, levels of complexity in subject curriculum, and different terminal examinations.

Last but not least, the balance between independent schools and the centralization of policymaking of the government established. There are more autonomous schools at secondary level evolving to have freedom in terms of staff deployment and curricula offerings.

Emerging concerns in Singapore education

Successfully, Singapore gradually ranks among top performers in educational attainment measured by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Developments’ Program International Student Assessment. In addition, its two famous universities are the top 75 in the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, as China, Japan, and Germany. However, there still some contradictions in its education system to worry about. The meritocracy has brought several disadvantages as its focus on identifying and nurturing the very best talent and directing it to public service. Moreover, the quick marketization of education (such as promotion of school choice and competition) has created interschool inequalities and social inequalities since the 1980s. Another problematic feature of Singaporean education is the influence of these inequalities on social cohesion.

Energy

Located as a disadvantage position with its neighbor – Malaysia and Indonesia, Singapore barely has natural resources, with not much land area. There is only a tiny fraction of the land area is categorized as agricultural, and production contributes a portion to the overall economy. Locals focus on cultivation intensively, growing vegetables and fruits and poultry for their daily consumptions. Also, the local fishing industry supplies a small portion of the total fresh fish requirement, and a tiny aquaculture industry raising groupers, sea bass, and prawns. Thus, Singapore is a key exporter of both orchids and aquarium fish.

As illustrated below, the energy in Singapore from 2004 to 2013 is classified as population, primary energy, production, import, electricity, and CO2 emission. Singapore does not produce any natural resources, and mostly importing from Malaysia and other countries.

Energy in Singapore
Population
(million)
Prim. energy
(TWh)
Production
(TWh)
Import
(TWh)
Electricity
(TWh)
CO2-emission
(Mt)
2004 4.24 298 0 548 34.6 38.1
2007 4.59 311 0 628 39.1 45.0
2008 4.84 215 0 650 39.6 44.3
2009 5.0 215 0 685 39.7 44.8
2012 5.31 291 7.0 823 46.2 49.8
2013 5.40 304 7.4 855 47.7 46.6
Mtoe = 11.63 TWh, Prim. energy includes energy losses

(Source: International Energy Agency – https://www.iea.org)

In details, natural resources in Singapore can be classified into nonrenewable resources, renewable resources, and water resources.

Nonrenewable resources

Singapore has very limited nonrenewable resources. Therefore, the Government chooses to be dependent on oil and natural gas imports. Also, they took a serious decision to move from fuel oil to natural gas since 2001 to reduce high carbon content and energy of the country. Currently, natural gas accounts for 80 percent of the electricity generation.

Renewable resources

As the limited supply of fossil fuels (nonrenewable resources) spread out the country, Singapore government has taken other alternatives for using renewable energy such as the use of bio mass. Biomass energy origins from organic matters including wood, leaves, animal waste, crops, bones, etc. In another way, biomass can be led to solar energy which could produce electricity or fuel. However, this country seems to have a shortage of land, and the government has to find another solution to manage its solar energy potentially.

Water resource

A big challenge for Singapore is the conservation and management of water resource. Its land usage to conserve water has to integrate with the use of land for socio economic growth. Therefore, water itself is a scarce resource, used limitedly. In the past years, the Government of Singapore had to make a deal with Malaysia to transfer a huge amount of fresh water for Singaporean residents.

Until now, there are still five challenges for Singapore government to deal with: safeguarding water resources, managing cost effective and safe drinking water, reducing the system of water supply to a minimum, water conservation, and finishing the water loop. Due to its drawbacks, Singapore has to initiate an efficient water management policy, guaranteeing its sustainability of water resources in a long run, especially infrastructure investment, technology upgrade, and water management strategies to manage water resource.

Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship is an essential factor, staying as the fourth in 5 E’s to develop the country successfully. It creates jobs, expanding economic health, and sustaining growth and prosperity of the nation development.

According to a report from research firm Compass, Singapore ranks as top ten hottest startup ecosystems in the world. This city-state opens to 3,600 startups in a wide range of sectors such as e-commerce, social media, gaming, etc. One of the advantaged reasons to start up in Singapore is its strategic location and connectedness to foreign markets. The 190 kilometers of coastline with natural deep-water ports, and island is located with key shipping routes in Southeast Asia.

In the Asia Pacific region, Singapore ranks the ninth in terms of venture capital funding in the Compass report. Also, it has usually ranked No.1 for its ease of doing business (World Bank, accordingly) while the U.S ranked 7th in 2013 and 2014. It can be seen as hundreds of multinational corporations have decided to locate their Asia Pacific headquarters in this lion city, such as Google, Uber, and Facebook.

In general, the entrepreneurial environment maintains one of the world’s most transparent and efficient. The start-up process is straightforward, with no minimum capital required. Additionally, the labor market with flexible labor regulations is vibrant and functional.

The support of local government

Ranked as the 3rd wealthiest country worldwide by Forbes magazine, No.1 as the best labor force in the world, No.1 as the most politically stable country and No.1 for quality of life in Asia, Singaporeans and international businesses receive hundreds of supports from Singapore’s policy makers.

Back in 1999, the local government launched a $1 billion “Technopreneurship Fund” which support for local startups, and about $2 million can go to invest any individual company. Moreover, the deputy prime minister added an extra $50 million investment to this fund in 2013 to present the large attention to startup ecosystem. Also, after China and Japan, Singapore has become the third largest venture capital investments in the APAC region, seems the “easy” gateway to Southeast Asia market.

Open market and high opportunity for start-ups

There are no dividend or capital gains taxes, no estate/death/inheritance tax in Singapore. Additionally, the personal tax rates start at 0% and maximum of 20% above $320K, and corporate tax rates are about 8.5% up to $300K. Many free trade agreements and the Investment Guarantee Agreements are open in Singapore. Last but not least, thanks to Singapore’s strict enforcement of its strong intellectual property laws, Singapore protects the ideas and innovations confidentially.

In 2014, the road density in Singapore was only after urban centers in London, New York, and Tokyo, accordingly the data from the Land Transport Authority. Thus, for example, GrabTaxi, a ride-hailing service, first launched in Malaysia, and rapidly expanded to locate Singapore as its headquarter, which purposes to reduce transport headaches across the region. Its idea has raised $680 million over five funding rounds, from high-profile investors in Singapore.

Economy

Singapore has growing successfully with its free-market economy, open and corruption-free business environment, along with transparent monetary and fiscal policies, and clear legal framework. It also ranked as the third highest per-capita GDP in the world in terms of Purchasing Power Parity and its unemployment rate is only 2.1 percent in 2018.

The significance of manufacturing

Agriculture barely contributes to the Singaporean economy whereas the manufacturing sector plays a significant role with about 20-25 percent of annual Singapore’s GDP, and the services sector with around 70 percent in 2017. In details, key industry elements in its manufacturing include electronics, biomedical sciences, chemicals, transport engineering, and logistics. Especially, the petrochemical industry is crucial for local economy when Singapore imports lots of crude oil for purified petroleum products.

Besides, the government has focuses on high-end manufacturing which includes consumer electronics, semi-conductors, machinery, transport equipment, and ships. They additionally have been trying to foster future potential sectors such as precision engineering, aerospace, and life sciences. 

Globalization and free trade

Singapore’s business-friendly environment has encouraged investment not only in manufacturing but also service sector to the economy growth. Service sector has provided jobs to 80 percent of workers, and creates more than 75 percent of the GDP.

Situating as one of the most perfect and busiest cargo ports in the world, Singapore’s port contains hundreds of import/export trade, shipping, and logistics with China, Hong Kong, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, etc. in global. Furthermore, globalization and free trade are favorably welcomed by the government. This tiny nation allows low import tariffs and is an active member of NATO, ASEAN, and other multinational trade organizations. It has become the first ASEAN country to sign a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the European Union in 2016 and many other free trade agreements.

Sometimes, Singapore is called as “the Switzerland of Asia” as banking, finance, and insurance also contributes a large part to the development of Singaporean economy, as well as wealth management.

When Singaporean government opens a free trade environment and commitment to others, it has created an efficient and easy workplace to do business. Moreover, it provides more opportunities with large investments in infrastructure projects, industrial parks as well as high-tech research and development hub. Nevertheless, there is an urging financial inequality among Singaporean population when many expats have worked and been attracted to the city-state for its safe environment and high living standard.

Conclusion

Reflected from “The theory and requirements of 5E’s Djawd Sangdel for global leaders”, Singapore has become “a mission possible” when its nation owns rare energy but still being a healthy developing country compared to developing and developed countries these days. The esteem of Singapore was truly great during Lee Kuan Yew era but it seems pretty moderate with the power of his son, Lee Hsien Loong. Along with that, policy makers always invest on its people for decades, which led to an ambitious education and then entrepreneurship. Undoubtedly, the growth of economy has run efficiently and fast as named “Asian tiger” with its emerging strategies.

Therefore, personally I would think that Singapore can be a wonderful example to apply the 5E to understand its developmental process. Also, we could realize that education is always important to be invested to build the esteem in every country, even without natural resources.

Southeast Asia

Cambodian Prime Minister’s Visit to Myanmar: Weakening Role of the ASEAN?

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Image source: Wikipedia

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen recently visited Myanmar for two days despite a wave of condemnation that his visit undermines ASEAN and legitimizes Myanmar’s deadly regime. Hun Sen is currently the chair of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2022, and is expected to lead ASEAN in diplomatic activity on how to navigate Myanmar’s political situation. As expected, Hun Sen was welcomed by the Myanmar officials, including Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, and was given a guard of honor. Accompanying Hun Sen are donations of medical equipment to fight Covid-19, comprising three million face masks, 200,000 N95 masks, 100,000 goggles, 30,000 personal protective equipment (PPE) suits, 30,000 face shields, 3,000 plastic boots, 50 ventilators appropriate for an ICU setting, 50 patient monitors and 50 oxygen concentrators. He was the first foreign leader to visit the country since the Myanmar military overthrew the democratically elected party and jailed it’s leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi. Since Feb 1, at least 1,435 people have been killed by the Tatmadaw in ruthless crackdowns on democracy protests. Conflict has also escalated in the nation’s border zones creating a humanitarian disaster where tens of thousands of people have been fleeing for their lives. Prompted by Myanmar’s exclusion from the bloc’s summit in 2021, the premier has repeatedly signaled his intent to bring the country back into the ASEAN fold, arguing that the economic union was “incomplete”.

Why has the Cambodian Prime Minister visited Myanmar, a nearly pariah nation in the world? Traditionally, Cambodia is a time-tested ally of Myanmar. This country has remained behind Myanmar solidly in times of crisis and challenges. Particularly, the current Hun Sen leadership is close to the military Junta of Myanmar. Cambodia has a different view about Myanmar and it’s a deeply pro-Junta as Hun Sen believes that ASEAN did not operate very smoothly in 2021 on the Myanmar issue. As the ASEAN chair, Hun Sen is determined to find a way to halt the violence and maintain the “ceasefire” in Myanmar while pursuing the bloc’s five-point consensus and bringing in humanitarian assistance. In his words, we cannot stand by passively while Myanmar falls apart and that we must find a way to resolve the stand-off between the opposing sides there and take advantage of all opportunities to pursue negotiations.

Although apparently the Cambodian leader focuses on political crisis in Myanmar, he has no concern for democracy, human rights and brutality of the military regime. He has no concern for the Rohingyas or any minority groups, which suits interests of Myanmar regime and its allies. Cambodia has launched a diplomatic blitz to rehabilitate the Junta first in ASEAN and then at the global level. Before taking over the revolving annual chairmanship of ASEAN, Hun Sen declared that he wanted the Burmese junta to be represented at the bloc’s meeting. In responding to questions of whether Cambodia can resolve the issue of the Myanmar junta, Hun Sen mentioned that any resolution would have to come from Myanmar itself, saying that the regional bloc was only one part of helping the member nation find a solution. “It isn’t based on whether Cambodia can resolve it or not, but Cambodia will try to compromise the situation of Myanmar to return it to a better situation.

Hun Sen is trying to use his personal influence as one of the oldest leaders in the region who is in power for more than 36 years and who even supported Vietnam’s invasion of his country in 1978. His own leadership in Cambodia is also deeply criticized, so his diplomatic role can also help him legitimizing his power in one of the small but historic nations on earth, Cambodia. Hun Sen often refers to ASEAN’s long-held convention of not interfering in each other’s internal affairs as an excuse of not creating any pressure on the Junta government. He plainly promotes the idea that under the ASEAN charter, no one has the rights to expel another member.

Support for the Hun Sen Initiative

The visit of Hun Sen enjoys support from some members of ASEAN and outside. Cambodia enjoys strong endorsement from two powerful regional partners of ASEAN and members of ASEAN Plus Three, China and Japan. In a statement of Japan’s MOFA, it is stated that Japan welcomes Cambodia’s active engagement as ASEAN Chair on the situation in Myanmar, and both ministers shared the view to coordinate closely. Another close ally of Myanmar, China, is also strongly in favor of Hun Sen and Cambodia, as well as Myanmar. The Chinese foreign ministry official, Wang Wenbin states that China appreciates Myanmar’s readiness to create favorable conditions for ASEAN’s special envoy to fulfill his duty and [he] works toward effective alignment between Myanmar’s five-point road map and ASEAN’s five-point consensus. In his words, “China will fully support Cambodia, the rotating chair of ASEAN, in playing an active role and making [an] important contribution to properly managing the differences among parties of Myanmar”. Members of ASEAN such as Thailand and Vietnam have strong support for Hun Sen visit. Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn said that ASEAN member-state Thailand’s top diplomat had sent a “congratulatory message” saying, “he strongly supported the outcomes of the Cambodia-Myanmar joint press release”.

Against the Visit

Rights groups are calling the visit a charade. They openly argue that by failing to insist that he would meet with all parties to the conflict, including imprisoned political leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi, PM Hun Sen has demonstrated a clear authoritarian orientation that all issues can be sorted out in closed door talks between dictators. They argue that such kind stance of Hun Sen threatens to undermine the very fragile ASEAN decision that Myanmar political authorities cannot participate in future ASEAN events unless they abide by the 5 Point Consensus agreed by junta supremo General Min Aung Hlaing in April 2021. Activists also argue that with the false confidence generated by this ill-advised visit, the serious worry is the Tatmadaw will see this as a green light to double down on its rights abusing tactics seeking to quell the aspirations of the Burmese people. The worrying fact is that ASEAN has been making some efforts to stabilise the political conflict in Myanmar since the 2021 coup, but many view Hun Sen’s visit undermines this progress. Understandably, anti-coup activists and leading members of Myanmar’s shadow government, the National Unity Government, have also condemned the visit across social media. The most outspoken ASEAN members against the visit are Indonesia and Malaysia who led the process in 2021 to keep the Junta leader, General Min Aung Hlaing out of ASEAN process for his blatant breach of 5-point consensus to which he was also a party.

Who has benefited from the Visit?

Undoubtedly, it is the military Junta of Myanmar who has gained exclusively from this visit orchestrated by the pro-Junta members within and outside of ASEAN. Myanmar and Cambodia are particularly happy with the outcomes of the visit. In the first place, the Myanmar Military has already achieved a huge diplomatic advantage from the visit of Hun Sen as he became the first foreign leader to visit Myanmar and meet the regime’s leader, Min Aung Hlaing, since the military overthrew the country’s elected government in February 2021. Meanwhile, the two leaders discussed bilateral relations in a 140-minute meeting in the capital of Naypyidaw and they agreed that the ASEAN Special Envoy could be involved in the Myanmar peace process. Myanmar believes that Cambodia will rule with fairness during its chairmanship this year of the ASEAN. To Myanmar, there were “good results” from the Cambodian leader’s visit that boosted the military leadership as they argue that international pressure on Myanmar had not dialed down, but Myanmar would not bow to it.

Despite the satisfaction of Myanmar and Cambodia, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah criticized Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen for taking unilateral action in meeting the leader of Myanmar’s junta. The foreign minister further added, “We would expect that he could have at least consult – if not all – a few of his brother leaders as to what he should say.” He reminded that ASEAN position would not change that until there is clear progress on the five-point consensus Myanmar’s representation at the Asean summit and related summits at the end of the year should remain non-political. Indonesia is another powerful member of ASEAN also criticized that visit and identified it as a futile exercise.  

Another immediate outcome of the visit is postponement of the first ASEAN meeting known as The ASEAN Foreign Ministers Retreat (AMM Retreat) initially scheduled on Jan. 18-19, 2022, in Siem Reap province under Cambodia’s 2022 chairmanship. Although COVID 19 was shown as a reason behind this decision, it is the division among the bloc’s members over Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visit to Myanmar has played a vital role behind this new development. Discords within ASEAN over Hun Sen’s trip to Naypyidaw and a potential invitation to the Myanmar junta’s foreign minister to attend the ASEAN diplomats’ retreat might be why some ASEAN members chose not to attend the meeting. Precisely, the issue is members’ intense disagreement over ASEAN chair’s invitation to the Myanmar military-appointed Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin have created an impasse. It may be mentioned that Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore had backed shutting out the coup leader from the regional bloc’s top summit in 2021 when Brunei was the Chair of the bloc.  Analysts fear that the postponement effectively delays the official endorsement of Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn as ASEAN’s new special envoy for Myanmar.

By visiting Myanmar and meeting with Min Aung Hlaing, Hun Sen legitimized him and at the same time, weakened the role of ASEAN in playing a constructive role in the Myanmar crisis. The military leader in Myanmar had promised, among other things, to end violence and give an ASEAN special envoy access to all parties in the Myanmar political crisis, but he has done none of those things. Hun Sen has reversed the stance of the previous Chair Brunei, which created positive pressure on the Myanmar regime. Now the visit has questioned the credibility and limit of ASEAN to continue its meaningful and effective diplomatic role in mitigating the crisis in Myanmar, which has adverse impact on the future of democratic movement and the possible repatriation of the Rohingyas.

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Southeast Asia

Laos Prime Minister visit to Vietnam

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Lao Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh (front, centre) arrives at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi on January 8 morning (Photo: VNA)

Laos Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh along with a high-ranking delegation visited Vietnam from January 8 -10 to strengthen ties with its neighbour country. The official visit of Laos Prime Minister to Vietnam ushered in a new phase of interactions and outlook in friendship between the two neighbourly countries of Indochina. The Laotian prime minister would also usher in the era long celebration of the friendship between Laos and Vietnam in the year 2022. Given the fact that the two countries of Indochina have suffered the after effects of the pandemic COVID-19 in the year 2021, and have decided to enhance their partnership in select areas for protecting the mutual interest and forging cooperation between the parties, the government and developing people to people interactions. Vietnam has taken cognisance of the fact that the neighbouring countries require support both in terms of medicines, diagnostics and other health equipment which was required during the times of crisis.

Vietnam had given medical equipment and diagnostics kits  worth US$2.2 million to Laos, and also sent a few of its medical personal to assist the Laotian patients and Vietnamese  overseas citizens in Laos. At the times of crisis, even Laos has given Vietnam nearly US$300,000 for pandemic containment response and even the private sector in Laos came forward for giving 1.4 billion dollars  to the Vietnamese communities located closer to the  border of the two countries.  Between Laos and  Vietnam there has been economic and development cooperation  under that there are more than 209 projects under which Vietnamese firms  have invested more than $5.16 billion in Laos.

In terms of education, training and developing capacities the two countries have assisted each other and Vietnam has offered more than 1200 scholarships to Laotian  officials and students for enhancing their knowledge and capacities.

Since last year the interaction between the two countries has been more profound and there has been a visit of party general secretary, presidents, and prime ministers of the two countries. In August 2021 Laos general secretary and president Thongloun Sisoulith paid an official visit to Vietnam. During the visit the discussions were held with regard to improving ties and elevating ties to the next level. One of the important agenda points which have been discussed was bringing about reforms and ensuring national construction and defence between the two countries. The party general secretary appreciated the extensive reforms which have been carried out in Vietnam in the last three and a half decades after Doi-Moi(economic reforms programme initiated in 1986). The two sides also discussed developing conducive conditions for mutual development and ensuring stability and prosperity in Southeast Asia. The issue of development in Mekong subregion and developing interactions at World Trade organizations were in the agenda too. One of the important highlights of the visit was strengthening cooperation and coordination with Cambodia so as to promote the CLV developmental triangle area. Laos and Vietnam also share the resources of Mekong River and it has become imperative for the two countries to develop institutional links and coordination mechanisms in this context. The two sides were also keen on developing defence ties and addressing challenges such as cross border crime an undertaking joint border patrol.

Following this visit, President Phuc visited Laos in his new term and the discussions were held between the two counterparts on COVID-19 pandemic cooperation and undertaking special efforts particularly in regional organisations as well as in the United Nations. During that visit nearly 14 cooperation documents were signed between the two ministries particularly in the fields of security, defence, drugs control, power exchange, and mineral exploration. The visit also opened new vistas of cooperation between the two sides and but trust the need for special solidarity and comprehensive cooperation. During the visit the 43rd meeting of the Vietnam Laos intergovernmental committee was also held and the two sides also decided on the cooperation strategy for the next decade (2021 to 2030). In fact, one of the important highlights of the visit of president Phuc has been the wide coverage which has been given by the media in Laos and also highlighting the special friendship between the two nations.

This visit of the Laos Prime Minister forms the basis of solidarity, political acknowledgement, and confidence between the two parties in the Indochina. Vietnam has also helped Laos in building its National Assembly which was worth 111 million USD dollars. Vietnam showed urgency and immediate support when Laos was facing widespread effects of COVID-19 pandemic. In one of the statements which was made by the Ambassador of Laos in Vietnam, he stated that this visit will build up foundation for a comprehensive partnership between the two nations in the year 2022. He added that this visit will help in deepening ties related to science and technology, culture, education, knowledge building security and defence ties as well as political interactions. The two countries have convergence is with regard to developing the age end of ASEAN meetings in the year 2022 as well as looking for better development avenues in the Mekong subregion. The Vietnam Laos friendship and solidarity year 2022 would help in better management of trade relationship, use of Vietnamese sea ports by Laotian businessman and exploring transport connections through the East West corridor.

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Southeast Asia

Vietnam’s contributions as non-permanent member of UNSC

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Vietnam has joined the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member for the period 2020–2021 and during this period it was expected that Vietnam would be raising issues related to the regional development, challenges with regard to the pandemic, building consensus on sustainable development goals, and addressing issues related to maritime and regional security. In one of the statements which have been made by the permanent representative of Vietnam to the United Nations, he has clearly stated that Vietnam has been able to secure cooperation from the other members of the UNSC on issues related to objectivity, unity and transparency, and made a good case with regard to the legitimate interest of relevant parties in South China Sea. Vietnam has aspired to make the United Nations as a people centric approach and stressed on finding reasonable and sustainable solutions to settle maritime disputes through dialogue, and highlighted humanitarian challenges to the most vulnerable groups in the international society. Vietnam strongly supported the UN Charter in the maintenance of international peace and security. It was also very vocal with regard to protection of infrastructure which was critical to people’s livelihood.

In one of the messages which was sent by President of Vietnam Phuc following the conclusion of Vietnam’s term as non-permanent member of UNSC, it is stated that in the New Year Vietnam completed the term fulfilling the trust that was bestowed upon it by the international community when it got 192 out of and 193 votes for securing a non-permanent seat in the UNSC. He stated that Vietnam has always stressed on maintaining international peace and security and also urged the nations for building up consensus with regard to the pandemic and after effects caused by COVID-19.

Vietnam during the meeting on maritime security (held in August under the UNSC chairmanship of India) also suggested three important measures which included involvement of international organisations in regional conflict zones, undertaking consultative measures through dialogue mechanisms and also stressing on people centric approach so as to protect communities living in the coastal zones. Vietnam’s President Phuc also stated that the UN Charter and international law should be protected at all times. During the two-year stint with the UNSC, Vietnam projected its foreign policy in terms of self-reliance, promoting peace and friendship among nations, strengthening multilateral structures, and expanding its relations with other countries of the world. In his message he also stated that Vietnam has now become a more active and responsible stakeholder in international dialogue and would be taking responsibilities which would strengthen institutions such as UN.

Vietnam is also aspiring to become a strong and prosperous middle power country by the year 2045 when Vietnam will be celebrating hundred years of its independence. The adroitness of the Vietnam’s diplomatic community and the party cadres have helped in elevation of Vietnam’s international stature and enhance ties with a number of countries representing in the UN. Vietnam steadfastly advocated for a world free from wars and conflict, and developing common objective of international peace along with removing poverty and inequalities.

During its stint as the chair of the UNSC in April 2021, Vietnam demonstrated a strong affinity to the international community and highlighted the issues which are of common concern for the mankind. Vietnam also highlighted the need for strengthening dialogue between the UN and regional organisations, and addressed one of the important issues of unexploded landmines and after effects of explosive remnants of the world wars.

Vietnam made a strong case for respect and recognition for international law and implementation of the charter enshrined under UNCLOS 1982. In fact, Vietnam also raise the issue of woman in peace and conflicts aspects and   the collateral damage of the climate change in conflict zones. During the chairmanship of Vietnam, the pandemic effect became profound and, in that context, Vietnam showed diplomatic skilfulness in promoting international peace and security due to the pandemic conditions. Vietnam, during its stint as the chair of the ASEAN in 2020, has already explored the possibilities with regard to holding online and off-line activities and therefore its experience came very handy in UNSC to explore potential of online and off-line activities together.

Vietnam raised very pertinent questions with regard to the protection of civilians and critical civilian infrastructure in crises zones. One of the important achievements which was enshrined in Vietnam’s tenure was the adoption of the International Day of Epidemic Preparedness. This was fully supported by all UN member states and the resolution was adopted worldwide. This International Day of Epidemic Preparedness was meant to prepare all organisations including private and public sector to address any gaps in preparedness and coordination as well as creating awareness among people.

Among the list of priorities which have been issued by the Vietnam for the year 2020-2021 tenure was primarily focused on peaceful settlement of disputes, strengthening of implementation of Chapter VI of the UN Charter, addressing the after effects of armed conflict, cooperation under the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces, and highlighting tangible solutions in mitigating the effects of climate change which are related to international peace and security. All in all, one can say that Vietnam has very deftly managed its position as non- permanent member at UNSC, and has also supported countries like India in addressing issues such as maritime security at the global level. This has generated lot of interest and international support which was instrumental in adopting common protocols and future agenda for protecting the global commons.  

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