Prof Wang Gungwu, ISEAS Chairman Board of Trustees delivering his opening remarks at the ISEAS 50th Anniversary event. (Credit: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute)
Professor Wang Gungwu, Chairman, ISEAS Board of Trustees began the proceedings by reminding everyone of PM Lee’s presence at the conference commemorating the Institute’s 25th anniversary. ISEAS has come a long way since then, when it was founded in 1968 as the brainchild of then Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Goh Keng Swee. Prof Wang observed that Dr Goh wanted to ISEAS be sui generis in order to serve Singapore’s needs. For example, Prof Wang noted that Dr Goh visited several research centres and think tanks around the world before setting up ISEAS. In 1966 Dr Goh concluded that:
“The Rand type of think factory can only be created in a continental superpower and is not within our horizon of possibilities. Nevertheless we can draw a few lessons from Rand’s working and recruiting methods and its insistence on high quality personnel. Chatham House and the Council on Foreign Relations are again unsuitable because of their total concern with contemporary events. What we need is research into matters not of immediate value in policy-making but which are necessary to the development of well rounded expertise.”
Prof Wang said that Dr Goh’s pragmatism and clarity of mission had been instrumental in shaping ISEAS’s research agenda. The Institute is interested in both contemporary developments with clear policy implications as well as the less obvious, less eye-catching trends which may have implications further down the road. ISEAS has been the beneficiary of strong support from the government, enabling it to develop to where it is today. This support had been given while dealing with ISEAS at arms-length to preserve its academic and research independence.
PM Lee began his lecture by reiterating the thinking behind ISEAS’ germination, recalling the late former Deputy Prime Minister Dr Goh Keng Swee’s desire to acquire a “delicacy of perception” on regional affairs through an autonomous institute operating at arm’s length from the government. He paid tribute to the institute’s past Chairmen and Directors, notably Prof Wang Gungwu (ISEAS Chairman 1992 to present) and the late Prof Kernial Singh Sandhu (ISEAS Director 1972 to 1992) for laying the foundations for ISEAS today. With the renaming of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies to ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in 2015, ISEAS was reminded of the values it shared with the late Mr Yusof Ishak (first President of Singapore 1966-1970), who had dedicated his life to modernisation and education.
Mr Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore delivering the ISEAS 50th Anniversary Lecture. (Credit: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute)
PM Lee then spoke at length on the state of affairs in Southeast Asia and ASEAN. Narrating the long journey ASEAN has travelled since its inception in 1967, through the Cold War and early efforts in economic cooperation, he said that the ASEAN Community today is a prime example of how ASEAN is larger than the sum of its parts. ASEAN today is a dynamic grouping at the centre of the regional political and economic architecture, with cooperation revolving around the three political-security, economic and socio-cultural pillars.
However, even as ASEAN continues to deepen its integration efforts, ASEAN cannot pursue European-style integration because of its diversity in histories, politics and culture. Even though the consensus decision-making process is sometimes slow and unwieldy, ASEAN works because consensus has underpinned cooperation between the different member states. Member states do not think of opting out from or leaving the group because their sovereignty or national interests have been suppressed or undermined, and external partners therefore see value in deepening their engagement of the region through ASEAN.
As ASEAN enters the 21st century, it finds itself having to grapple with new external and internal dynamics. Yet, amidst such uncertainties, ASEAN must work actively to maintain its centrality and relevance especially since it has no automatic right to be the centre of the regional architecture. To keep ASEAN relevant and cohesive, ASEAN governments need to look beyond their domestic concerns and invest political capital in the ASEAN project. As ASEAN Chair this year, Singapore will work hard to advance ASEAN’s interests through the theme of “Resilience and Innovation”. Singapore will work hard to build an ASEAN Network of Smart Cities, and complete negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the ASEAN-EU Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement (CATA).
Mr Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore addressing more than 500 guests at the ISEAS 50th Anniversary Lecture. (Credit: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute)
PM Lee concluded by exhorting Singaporeans from all walks of life to know more about Southeast Asia and ASEAN in order to work, to do business, or to know how to get along with our neighbours and partners. In that regard, ISEAS can play a role in fostering mutual understanding between Singapore, Southeast Asia and beyond.
Following the lecture, PM Lee fielded questions in a dialogue moderated by Prof Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-Large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. PM Lee answered questions on Singapore’s relations with major powers, Singapore’s priorities as it takes up the coordinatorship of ASEAN-EU dialogue relations, the Belt and Road Initiative and the Indo-Pacific concept.
At the end of the Lecture, Prof Wang and ISEAS Director Choi Shing Kwok both presented PM Lee with a memento photograph from his attendance at ISEAS 25th anniversary. PM Lee was then brought to view an exhibition on ISEAS’ journey in the last 50 years.
From left to right: Prof Tommy Koh, PM Lee Hsien Loong, Prof Wang Gungwu and Mr Choi Shing Kwok on stage during the presentation of ISEAS token of appreciation to PM. (Credit: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute)
The 50th Anniversary Lecture was attended by Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other Singapore government agencies, members of the diplomatic corps, friends of ISEAS from the business and academic realms as well as students from schools across Singapore.
From left to right: Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Dr Terence Chong, PM Lee Hsien Loong and Mr Choi Shing Kwok at the ISEAS exhibition. (Credit: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute)
From left to right: Dr Terence Chong, Mr Choi Shing Kwok, PM Lee Hsien Loong, Mr Daljit Singh and Dr Vivian Balakrishnan at the ISEAS exhibition. (Credit: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute)
From left to right: Dr Norshahril Saat, Dr Terence Chong, PM Lee Hsien Loong and Mr Choi Shing Kwok at the ISEAS exhibition. (Credit: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute)
Dr Benjamin Loh explaining the future plans of ISEAS to PM Lee Hsien Loong during the exhibition tour. (Credit: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute)
Research Officer, Mr Aaron Kao showing PM Lee Hsien Loong some archeological artefacts found around Singapore. (Credit: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute)
PM Lee Hsien Loong with the Temasek JC students who spent a month working on artefacts uncovered in an excavation in Singapore (MCI Photo by Kenji Soon, from PM Lee Hsien Loong‘s Facebook page)