The spirit of 1967 is still alive today

IN his autobiography, the late Lee Kuan Yew reflected on “Asean – Unpromising Start, Promising future”. The history of regional community building in South-East Asia dates back half a century. The region was then fraught with confrontation, internal insecurity and the threat of communist infiltration.

Nonetheless, spirits were high in proclaiming their will to “bind themselves together in friendship and cooperation and, through joint efforts and sacrifices, secure for their peoples and for posterity the blessings of peace, freedom and prosperity.”

This spirit is still alive today.

1967 was a pivotal year, when the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) was formed. Even after the war fought in this region ended in 1945, battles and diplomacy for independence agonisingly continued. Internal strife against communism persisted and intensified.

The Asia-Africa Conference in Bandung, in 1955, calling for the swift end of colonial domination, was still halfway towards the independence of all. At last, by the mid-1960s, most states in South-East Asia began to stand on their own feet.

Newly-born nations needed time and efforts to create peaceful and co-operative interfaces among them.

Thailand brokered reconciliation among Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia over certain disputes.

The moment then arrived when the five nations, including Singapore, realised that, without regional co-operation, the future of the region would remain uncertain.

Tedious negotiations led to the signing of the Bangkok Declaration by the foreign ministers of the five nations.

Over the last half a century, Asean has skilfully managed what one calls “sports-shirt diplomacy” to strengthen solidarity, deepen co-operation and expand its wings. They overcame challenges in raging waves during decades in the bipolar Cold War era.

The end of the Cold War in the early 1990s offered them the alluring opportunity to realise the objective written down in its founding document, the Bangkok Declaration, to make it open for participation to all countries in the South-East Asian region subscribing to the aims, principles and purposes of Asean, now becoming 10.

Their hospitality spirit has treated outside rough powers well, and often even tamed them, politely ushering them one after another to become “dialogue partners”. Asean has exhibited brilliant and crafty diplomacy.

Half a century has passed. At the end of 2015, Asean members are set to celebrate the formation of one community. The market potential is remarkably large, as their aggregated population exceeds that of the European Union or of North American Free Trade Agreement.


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