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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.

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Southeast Asia

Vietnam as ASEAN Chair and UNSC non-Permanent Member

Prof. Pankaj Jha

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Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc receives ASEAN President’s Hammer from his Thai counterpart Prayut Chan-o-cha on November 4, 2019. Source: vietnamup.com

Vietnam took the charge as ASEAN chair from its predecessor Thailand in November 2019, and the agenda for the year 2020 is diverse and challenging. The ASEAN as an organization accepted few geo-political changes and accepted that Indo-Pacific is a larger framework to which it needs to have a strategy. The result was the Indo-pacific outlook statement and this projected that ASEAN as an organization need to adjust to the evolving power configurations.

The developments in the context of Southeast Asia- be it the recurrent tensions in South China Sea because of assertive China; the Indonesian haze, and the tensions between Indonesia and China on illegal fishing in South China Sea are annual challenges for the ASEAN chair. The problem of Indonesian haze and other environmental problems needs cooperative approach. The ASEAN would have to prepare itself for the global recession which is looming large because of the Corona virus epidemic and the resultant slow down which is likely to affect not only Asia but the entire world. Another challenge this year would be for Vietnam to bring about the required understanding among ASEAN members who are party to the South China Sea dispute to come to a converging point so that the Code of conduct can become a legal document with compliance and penalty provisions. The Draft Code of Conduct (COC) is a large document encapsulating the aspirations and the legal position of each of the claimant parties. However, how to address all concerns and come to a common draft would be an arduous task. Vietnam would have to meander its way through deft diplomacy and skillful negotiations. Further, Vietnam is increasingly seen as an emerging economy and a strong nation which need to undertake a regional role. This needs few changes from the set template for consensus building and have to take measures to bring a common dialogue points. The foreign Ministers retreat which happens in the first quarter of each year would be the agenda maker for the number of meetings which would take place the whole year. Vietnam being the emerging economy as well as an APEC members, and also one of the stakeholder in RCEP process would have to make sure that RCEP is signed ‘with or without India’. However, if Vietnam by virtue of its comprehensive strategic partnership and excellent relations with India can bring the country back to the negotiating table, it would a shot in the arm for the ASEAN chair. India chose not to attend the Bali meeting to discuss RCEP with ASEAN members.

ASEAN chairmanship does have its own share of problems. However, taking cue from Vietnam chairmanship in 2011 when the same set of problems were existent, the country abided by the ASEAN way rather than proposing out of box thinking and solutions. The geo-political scene and the strategic compulsions do not give that easy comfort zone in decision making and it need strong adjustments both in terms of building a consensus and solving problems. At the international level, questions have been raised whether ASEAN centrality is a useful instrument in resolving maritime issues or it has diminishing returns. ASEAN community programme- Political-Security, Economic and Socio-Cultural Community would require midterm review in 2020 given the fact that the year 2025 is the deadline for its blueprint. Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) Work Plan III (2016-2020), needs a strong effort as only 19 out of 26 actions (73.1%) have been achieved. 

One of the biggest challenge for the ASEAN nations would be to counter the spread of 2019-novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV)in the region and work out a comprehensive plan of action to control its spread and work out a common collaborative programme in the region. This might include regional centre for public health emergencies, strengthening regional public health laboratories network, monitoring the working of risk communication centres, and draw lessons from China’s experience in fighting the epidemic. Vietnam would have to address it on priority as it might have political, economic and social impact.

In the wake of tensions in South China Sea, the utility of Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) is under duress, there is a need to review and redraw the obligations under TAC for all the major powers of the region. For that there is a need to adopt two pronged approach of building trust and confidence among the dialogue partners as well as protecting interests of the region. The converging point for the dialogue partners would be humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), counter-terrorism, and humanitarian mine action.

Taking over as non-permanent member of UNSC, it is a unique opportunity for Vietnam to integrate developmental objectives of ASEAN and synergize it with UN initiatives. The convergence between ASEAN Community Vision 2025, and the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Complementarities Initiative) need deep research and effort and in this regard to feasibility study can be commissioned by Vietnam. The challenges related to illicit drug production, trafficking (both human and drugs) needs to be highlighted both at ASEAN and in the UN. ASEAN has adopted the ‘Plan of Action to Prevent and Counter the Rise of Radicalization and Violent Extremism’ and this needs representation and support from the UN bodies. Vietnam position would be catalyst in this regard so that regional efforts should be promoted in this regard. Cyber security has been addressed in ASEAN also as well as in UN but in terms of regional monitoring mechanisms across the world there is a deficit. Taking cue from ASEAN initiatives such as ‘Cybersecurity Centre of Excellence (ASCCE), and the Cybersecurity Capacity Building initiatives’ undertaken with support from Singapore and Japan respectively ’, Vietnam an make a case in UN for strengthening such institutions. Within ASEAN the efforts needed to streamline and collaborate on Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), and digital connectivity are insufficient and therefore it requires better dialogue mechanisms on a regular basis among the ASEAN members.

Vietnam would also have to take cognizance of the possibility of Practical Arrangements (PA) between ASEAN and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This would need special attention at the UNSC so as to create a framework in Southeast Asia on nuclear safety, security, and safeguards. This will have a futuristic utility in terms of nuclear technologies and their applications. Within UN Vietnam will have to make special efforts to gain support for effective implementation of the SEANWFZ Treaty and submit it to the First Committee to the United Nations General Assembly.

ASEAN faces a number of cases related to Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing and this needs to be addressed at global level so that a convention on IUU can be adopted. Vietnam would have to make special mention in this regard under the UNSC discussion agenda. Vietnam must also address challenges related to education, promotion and protection of the Women and Children and their rights, skill development and vocational training. Marine pollution and climate change have always resonated in the discussions in UNSC and Vietnam must take these issues to reflect concerns in Southeast Asia and why there is a need for global efforts. Other issues such as peat land management, haze management through financial support and disaster management need careful articulation and proposals in this regard.

While the agenda for the ASEAN requires better efforts as many initiatives need review in the year 2020 and also a comprehensive roadmap for future. On the other hand, issues in the UNSC Vietnam must highlight commitment regarding duties of upper riparian and lower riparian states, water pollution, and disaster risk financing at international level. In fact, the issue of Mekong river pollution and construction of dams would gain attention in this year. Further, Vietnam despite all these challenges would be able to balance the commitments towards ASEAN while at the same time playing a constructive role in the UNSC as non-permanent member. The year 2020 would be a challenging year as well as a year for adopting regional and global commitments towards security, prosperity, development, trade and connectivity.

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Southeast Asia

Russia-Indonesia: 70 years of friendship

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Jauh di mata, dekat di hati [Out of sight, close to the heart].” This is how Lyudmila Georgievna Vorobieva, Russian ambassador to Indonesia, characterized the relationship between the two countries.

In fact, in the 70 years of the relationship, it has gone through different states of proximity. It was pretty “hot” even before and around independence in 1945 when being leftist was identical with an anti-imperialist stance — and certainly during Sukarno’s presidency (1945 to 1967).

Then, abruptly, with the annihilation of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965 after a now-largely discounted “coup” by the PKI, the relationship suffered a long cold period of over 30 years during Soeharto’s New Order (1967 to 1998). Keeping the communist scare alive was, after all, one of the ways the regime maintained its grip on society.

Then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) in the 1980s, the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 and Indonesia’s Reformasi in 1998 paved the way for the restoration of warm, harmonious relations.

Mohammad Wahid Supriyadi, Indonesian ambassador to Russia since 2016, said we are now in the second golden age of Russia-Indonesia relations (the first being during Sukarno’s presidency). Wow! Who would have guessed?

For the lay person, these days Russia invariably draws our attention indirectly, e.g. for its alleged interference in presidential elections in the United States or for being the country where Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower, has been living in exile for over six years.

I confess Russia hasn’t been that prominent on my screen lately either, until I heard about the Russia-Indonesia 70-year friendship exhibition at the National Gallery from Feb. 3 to 17 (see: “Snapshots: Indonesia, Russia exhibit 70 years of friendship”, The Jakarta Post, Feb. 5). I was keen to go because of my own “Russian connections”.

Yup! I was a sociology student in London (1976 to 1979), and took a course on Russia and China. The focus of my studies was Western industrial societies, so I wanted to know the other side of the Cold War (circa 1947 to 1991). It was also essential for writing my thesis on the People’s Cultural Institute (Lekra), the PKI’s cultural wing. Both Lekra and the PKI looked to these communist countries for guidance, especially the Soviet Union, to emulate their concept of “socialist realism” — art and literature that glorified communist values and supported the party line.

I was also connected to Russia by marriage. My late husband, Ami Priyono, was among the first seven Indonesian students sent to Moscow in 1956. Together with Sjumanjaya, they studied film at Lomonosov Moscow State University. Both eventually became prominent film directors in the 1970s and 1980s.

Ami’s father, Prijono, was culture minister in Sukarno’s first cabinet, serving for nine years (1957 to 1966). Prijono was a leading figure in the Murba Party (sometimes referred to as the second Indonesian communist party) and, like Sukarno, was pro-Soviet. In 1954, Prijono was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize.

So, the reason for my interest was partly a nostalgia trip and partly a desire to know more about our current relationship with the “Land of the Red Bear”, as Indonesians sometimes refer to Russia.

I was accompanied by Vladimir Anisimov, head of the artist collective Bureau of Creative Expeditions and curator of the Necklace of the Equator exhibition. A distinguished gentleman in his 70s, sporting a bushy silver-gray beard, a moustache and an artist’s ponytail, he was like a relic of the past, adding to the nostalgic atmosphere.

Vladimir explained in detail some of the 85 paintings on display. They were done by 10 Russian painters who over 20 years had travelled to Indonesia on various occasions, capturing scenes from Java, Sumatra, Madura, Bali, Lombok, Kalimantan and Sulawesi: landscapes, houses, ceremonies, local traditions — mainly focusing on the people. Mostly impressionistic, lots of bright colors and a touch of romanticism here and there, like the Madonna painting of a woman carrying a baby surrounded by flowers and a rainbow. No socialist realism here!

Exhibitions by Russian artists have been held before in Indonesia, in 2000, 2003 and 2005. Vladimir recalled that the opening day was usually full but after that, empty. The situation is completely different now, he said, with 200 to 300 people attending during work days and double that on the weekend.

Vladimir said they received only positive feedback. “People were impressed and spent a lot of time taking selfies with the paintings as backdrops. Maybe more time than just looking at them,” Vladimir smiled wryly.

Among the crowd were a young man and woman intently discussing something related to the exhibition. They were Indonesians but spoke in very fluent English. I approached them and asked them why they had come to the exhibition. “Oh, we are Marxists. We came because we wanted to know more.”

Wow, Marxists in our midst? So young and so brazenly declaring their ideological beliefs at a time when Indonesia’s communist phobia is still alive and well? They really piqued my curiosity, so I took their phone numbers and chatted with them by WhatsApp the following day.

Both were 25 and were members of a group of young Marxist-Leninists who, like them, were disillusioned with the state of the world. “In 2016, when Donald Trump was elected president, it was the moment where we started really realizing the evil of the US empire and imperialism,” they said.

“One of the things that really moved me,” the young woman said, “was reading DN Aidit’s [PKI chairman] speech for the

[party’s]

44th anniversary, when he said that one of the conditions of being a PKI member is ‘unmeasurable love for the people’.” For her, that’s what communism is: loving each other so fiercely that we fight for a world where no one has to suffer, a world free from exploitation.

Wow, talk about youthful idealism! Truth be told, any ideology, any political or economic system, as well as any religion, can be twisted to harm and oppress the people, however much our leaders wax lyrical about them, or about bilateral and international relations.

Maybe this is a time when our leaders should start listening to the younger generation to save the world. Greta Thunberg is trying hard to do that. Many more are joining her ranks, so all you politicians, bureaucrats and leaders out there, start listening!

Early version of the text published under: “Russia – Indonesia 70 years on: Some like it hot, cold or warm” in Jakarta Post

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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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