This is a speech delivered in Parliament yesterday by Workers’ Party chairman Sylvia Lim, and excerpts of the response by Foreign Minister George Yeo.
Ms Sylvia Lim:
The tension between Thailand and Cambodia over the Preah Vihear Temple flared up once again in February, with military attacks across the disputed border resulting in casualties and deaths on both sides. This is the fifth time that Thailand and Cambodia have engaged in low-level military conflict since October 2008.
This conflict has shone the spotlight on ASEAN as a grouping that exists, first and foremost, to maintain the peace between member states. This dispute is a test for ASEAN’s credibility. But what role can it play in such bilateral disputes, and what are the limits?
Since its founding, ASEAN has adhered to the twin principles of non-interference in the affairs of member states and a consensus-based decision-making approach to guide its members’ interaction with each other. How do these principles impinge on the grouping’s ability to settle disputes between members, since dispute settlement could be viewed as interference? Does the consensus-based approach effectively give each state veto power?
On the more general issue of creating an ASEAN Community by 2015, it would be instructive for Minister to provide an update on progress of the three planks viz. the Political-Security Community, Economic Community and Socio-Cultural Community?
I note, in particular, that the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) aims to achieve solidarity among the ASEAN nations and peoples by forging a common identity and building a caring and sharing society. The ASCC Blueprint (2009) sets out some bold objectives and activities to achieve these goals, including teaching of common values and cultural heritage in school curricula and supporting the learning of ASEAN languages.
Will the Minister share what progress has been made towards forging a common identity and better understanding among the peoples of ASEAN states? It is also not too clear how ordinary Singaporeans are being engaged in this process.
Mr George Yeo:
Mr Palmer and Ms Sylvia Lim asked about the effectiveness of ASEAN in resolving bilateral disputes like the one between Thailand and Cambodia over land near the Preah Vihear Temple, and whether we are on track to achieving the ASEAN Community in 2015.
Following armed clashes, the most recent a few weeks ago, Cambodia raised the matter to the UN Security Council, without Thailand’s support. The UN Security Council, after discussing it, passed the matter back to ASEAN to resolve, and this became a crucial test for ASEAN, because if ASEAN showed itself to be impotent, then all our grand pronouncements would be laughed at and come to naught. An emergency meeting convened by the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Pak Marty, in Jakarta on 22 February succeeded in brokering a ceasefire which will be observed on both sides by unarmed Indonesian military personnel within an ASEAN framework. ASEAN can help create an environment more conducive to bilateral negotiations between the two countries, and continuing ASEAN involvement is probably necessary. Ms Sylvia Lim asked whether ASEAN’s principle of non-interference in domestic affairs might not make such helpful activities more difficult, and whether every ASEAN country in fact has veto power over the ability of ASEAN to make progress in such matters. Well, it is a balance. While we acknowledge the importance of not interfering lightly in each other’s internal affairs, there are times when showing interest in the affairs of a fellow family member is not only necessary, but morally correct. For example, in the ASEAN Charter we have provisions to establish an ASEAN Human Rights Commission, which has been established. Some say it is toothless, and it may be toothless, but it certainly has a tongue, and the tongue has moral force. When we first embarked on this many years ago, there were fundamental objections from some ASEAN countries that we should never have such a Human Rights Commission. But little by little, as we took into account each other’s concerns, we were able to move forward. While ASEAN may work on the principle of consensus, ASEAN also works on the principle of peer pressure, and peer pressure can be very effective. And it is not easy for an ASEAN member country to take a rigid position when all the other nine countries are in opposition. And in Jakarta this time, even though the Thai position was initially against having observers being involved, in the end they relented and allowed Indonesia to send observers to both sides.
As for achieving the ASEAN Community in 2015, that is on track. 2015 is not the magic date when things happen dramatically, but it is a red line which administratively we draw across all our plans for integration – political, economic and socio-cultural. I share Ms Sylvia Lim’s hope that the importance of ASEAN will be more deeply felt by our citizens, especially the young, and we need a multi-pronged approach including lessons about ASEAN in schools, sports and cultural activities, and greater use of ASEAN symbols. For example, the ASEAN flag will fly side by side with national flags at all diplomatic missions of ASEAN countries overseas from this year, probably from ASEAN Day this year, 8th of August, the day before our National Day. Campaigning for ASEAN hosting of the FIFA World Cup in 2030 is a project which we hope will unite us in a common purpose. It is a long shot and we may fail, but just the enthusiasm and working together, will bring us together.
Ms Sylvia Lim:
Speaker, I have two clarifications for Minister concerning the Preah Vihear conflict and ASEAN’s role. The solution that was reached in Jakarta, many observers feel that it is a short term solution. But nevertheless, it appears to have been reached primarily because of the active intervention of the ASEAN chair Indonesia. And Indonesia in this process has committed to sinking its resources to contribute to that. So, I would like to ask Minister whether he sees this arrangement as something which was customised because of who is currently sitting in the ASEAN chair, or does it somehow set a sort of precedent for future ASEAN chairs that they should be prepared to commit resources as well, for assisting in bilateral disputes and if Singapore were to be chair at the time, would we foresee sending our police or armed personnel into that kind of situation?
Second clarification is that Minister mentioned that the observers were unarmed, and they are currently being sent of course, into an armed conflict, albeit cease fire situation. So what would be the role as observers, are they just supposed to take notes and report back?
Mr George Yeo:
Ms Sylvia Lim asked an interesting question about the role of the ASEAN chair. The ASEAN chair is a very hot seat. And frankly I was quite relieved when we vacated that chair. In this particular case of Preah Vihear, the Indonesian chair did outstanding work, running around contacting all the member countries. I myself had two telephone calls, conversations with Pak Marty, who brokered an agreement. Right up to the last moment, it was not clear that there would be an agreement. And details like what unarmed observers would do and the terms under which they are embedded, are still being worked out. Whoever is in the chair has a duty to respond.
We were in the chair when the SPDC government in Myanmar was shooting monks demonstrating in the streets of Yangon. The Foreign Ministers were in the UN at that time, and we had to convene an emergency meeting and express our deep revulsion at what happened. We did not wish it. If there were no shooting of monks, we would not have come together in such a way. But we responded to the situation.
In the same way, for 2-3 weeks after Cyclone Nargis, there was a stand-off between Myanmar and the international community. And aid did not go in. And it was really criminal because of the prospect of a second wave of deaths from disease and hunger. We, again still in the chair, convened an emergency meeting, got everybody together, persuaded the Myanmar Foreign Minister that ASEAN had to be involved. I remember that lunch vividly. He said, “Let me call back my headquarters”. An hour later he came back and said “Yes”. He agreed to ASEAN’s involvement. And so a tripartite arrangement was established and that prevented a second wave of deaths in the Irrawady Delta. And you never know in the future what new problems there would be and who would be in the chair. But whoever is in the chair has the responsibility to act, and all the rest of us have the responsibility to help the chair.