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Ex-Singapore leader hopes ASEAN integration can be global model

SINGAPORE -- Former Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong hopes the realization of the ASEAN Economic Community later this year will show the world how diverse nations can work closely together for growth.

     In a written interview with the Nikkei Asian Review, Goh, currently the city-state's emeritus senior minister, calls on countries negotiating free trade deals, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to "take a generous approach" to ensure a successful conclusion.

Q: What role should the Association of Southeast Asian Nations play on the international stage, both politically and economically?

A: Global economic growth and geopolitical stability increasingly rest on the Asia-Pacific region. ASEAN, as a united, neutral and central force, can help stabilize regional turbulence and safeguard peace and stability. It calls for wise and perceptive leadership within ASEAN -- leaders who can grasp but transcend ASEAN's limitations. You know, ASEAN's fragility can be its beguiling strength.

Former Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong

     The establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community at the end of 2015 will have great demonstration effects for the rest of the world. If a region as politically fragmented, economically disparate and geopolitically buffeted as ASEAN can get its act together, it shows much can be achieved with consensus of political will and visionary leadership.

Q: The formation of the AEC faces difficulties in several areas. Can economic integration be achieved?

A: The disparities compel, not deter, integration. ASEAN leaders have shown a strong commitment to implement the AEC Blueprint, motivated by a shared vision to transform ASEAN into a competitive single market and production base. ASEAN economies will not just be transformed collectively; lives will be transformed at the individual level.

Q: There are multiple ongoing free-trade negotiations, including the TPP and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. What is the unifying principle of Singapore's foreign policy in coping with these talks?

A: Never throw in the towel. As a small state, it is ingrained in every Singaporean diplomat that we cannot have our own way without bringing others on board. Persuasion and looking out for other countries' interests are essential to successful partnerships.

     [Free trade agreements with the U.S. and Japan] epitomize the enterprise, hard work and bilateral solidarity shared by our countries. These trade deals ... form the cornerstones on which our region must build to realize the TPP. If negotiating countries take a generous approach in both substance and narrative, they will find reciprocation and, consequently, more room to move in the negotiations and domestically. At least, that has been Singapore's mantra, and it worked for us.

Q: Singapore celebrates its 50th year of independence this year. What role did Singapore's founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, play through these five decades?

A: When one's back is against the wall -- as was Singapore's in 1965 -- survival instincts kick in. Unlike other former colonies riding the wave of independence in the 1960s, Singapore was bereft of resources. We could not even guarantee our own security. We only had two battalions of soldiers.

     Then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew saw that in order to overcome these challenges and pursue economic growth, Singapore had to be different. He determined that meritocracy, good governance and the rule of law should be the hallmarks of an independent Singapore. Establishing these foundations requires complete dedication, [and] sustaining them demands unwavering willpower.

Q: What is your vision for Singapore over the next 50 years?

A: Nation-building is always a work in progress. As we stare into the next 50 years, we should ensure the high quality of Singapore's leadership well into the future. Key to this is succession planning and getting the best to serve. Second, it is critical that Singapore maintains its competitiveness as a strategic hub in the region. We are looking into how we can further raise productivity levels in order to drive economic growth. There is a need to focus on promoting creativity and innovation in our work and everyday lives.

     Even with economic growth, Singapore would not be successful if its people were divided and do not identify themselves with the country. It is important to build Singapore's "software" through efforts in community-building and forging a common identity, so that Singaporeans identify with, and are willing to contribute to, Singapore in the years ahead.   

Interviewed by Nikkei staff writer Tomomi Kikuchi

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