Professor Tommy Koh's Speech: Why I believe in ASEAN

May 14, 2015

The ASEAN Business Club’s Gala Dinner

Thursday, 14 May 2015 at 7.30 pm


Talking Points


1.    Thank my friend, Munir the President of ABC, for inviting me to speak at this dinner.

2.    Speaking at a dinner is different from giving a lecture or making a presentation at a conference.  An experienced public speaker once said that an after dinner speech should be like a woman’s bikini.  It should be brief but it should cover all the vital points. 

3.    My wife’s advice is not to make more than 3 points in my speeches.  This good advice has been adopted by Kishore Mahbubani and many other friends.  I will therefore give you three reasons why I believe in ASEAN.


Reason No. 1:  From War and Conflict to Peace and Stability

4.    ASEAN was born in Bangkok, on the 8th of August 1967.  Let me invite you to travel back in time with me to 1967.  What was the situation in Southeast Asia like at that time?  The situation was unstable.  The Vietnam War was raging and threatening to engulf Cambodia.  Several countries were fighting against communist insurgencies or regional rebellions.  There was a huge deficit of understanding and trust between and among the countries of the region as they had been ruled by different colonial masters and had been isolated from one another.  Some Western pundits thought so poorly of our region’s prospects that they called us the “Balkans” of Asia.

5.    Fast forward to 2015.  What is the situation today?  The region is peaceful and stable.  Although border skirmishes had taken place between some ASEAN countries, for example, between Cambodia and Thailand, the good news is that no two ASEAN countries have fought a war against each other since 1967.  Unlike the EU, war between ASEAN countries is not yet unthinkable, but we are getting there.  The bottomline is that the region is at peace with itself and with the world. 


Reason No. 2:  From Poverty to Prosperity

6.    My second reason for believing in ASEAN is that it has helped the countries of the association to make impressive social and economic progress.  In 1967, the region was uniformly poor and backward.  Most of our people were engaged in subsistence farming.  Natural resources were extracted and exported to the West with very little processing and value add.  There was a trading network which goes back to pre-colonial times.  Manufacturing for export to the world had not yet started.  In 1967, our economic prospects were not bright.

7.    Fast forward to 2015.  Today, some of the ASEAN countries, e.g., Brunei and Singapore, are high income countries.  Some other ASEAN countries are middle-income countries.  All 10 countries have made impressive progress.  Taken together, ASEAN is the world’s 7th largest economy and the fastest growing region.  We are constantly re-inventing ourselves in order to stay relevant and competitive.  Our new goal is to make a historic transition from being an association to being a community.  Will we succeed in becoming an ASEAN Economic Community by the 31st of December 2015?  Statiscally, the journey is more than 80  percent complete.  We are down to the last mile.  We face many challenges, including those of the vested interests opposed to change.  I am, however, confident that with political will, with your help and support, we will get there.


Reason No.3:  Building A New Regional Order

8.    My third reason for believing in ASEAN is because of the indispensable role which ASEAN has played and continues to play in building a new regional order for East Asia and for the Asia-Pacific.  The first step was to unite Southeast Asia so that it can act with the collective strength of the 10 members.  ASEAN is able to act as the region’s convenor and facilitator because it is united, independent and neutral.  The moment we lose our unity, independence and neutrality, we will be disqualified from occupying the driver’s seat in regional institutions.

9.    ASEAN’s second ambition was to unite Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia.  The 1997 Asian Financial Crisis had shown that the two sub-regions are inextricably linked to each other.  ASEAN has helped to promote peace and cooperation in Northeast Asia because until the 1997 ASEAN+ 3 Summit, China, Japan and ROK had never met by themselves.

10.    ASEAN subsequently realised that other major powers, such as, the US, Russia and India have a stake in the future of the region.  We decided that it was better to bring them in rather than to keep them out.  This was the logic behind our initiative in convening the East Asia Summit which embraces the US, China, India, Japan and Russia.  This is strategically a very important forum.

11.    ASEAN has also used its FTA policy to promote cooperation and deeper economic integration in order to reduce the danger of conflict.  ASEAN has concluded FTAs with China, Japan, India, ROK, Australia and New Zealand and are working hard on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).



12.    I shall conclude.  A few years ago, the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its contributions to peace in Europe.  I want to suggest that we should nominate ASEAN for the Nobel Peace Prize, for its contributions to peace in Southeast Asia, East Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

13.    Thank you.


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The Tembusu (Fagraea fragrans) is a large evergreen tree in the family Gentianaceae. It is native to Southeast Asia. Its trunk is dark brown, with deeply fissured bark, looking somewhat like a bittergourd. It grows in an irregular shape from 10 to 25m high. Its leaves are light green and oval in shape. Its yellowish flowers have a distinct fragrance and the fruits of the tree are bitter tasting red berries, which are eaten by birds and fruit bats.