Speech by Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, at the 20th Asia-Pacific Programme for Senior Military Officers

Speech by Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, at the 20th Asia-Pacific Programme for Senior Military Officers

Ambassador Ong Keng Yong,
Faculty of the Arts and Science from NTU,

First, let me thank the organisers for inviting me to the 20th Asia-Pacific Programme for Senior Military Officers, or APPSMO. It is always nice to come to the Eastern side of Singapore, apart from just going to the airport.

This place, of course, brings back a lot of memories. Internationally or globally, Changi is renowned for its coast for some painful memories of World War II. Stanley Warren's Changi murals are nearby. During my time as a surgeon, I remember there was a particular year, when I was still practising, we were commemorating military medicine and we wanted to commission a book on how military medicine affected Singapore. One of the projects was (on) the experiences of prisoners of war in Changi prison. We had to commission a lady who went even to the Wellcome Institute in London and together we published a monologue. Personally for Singaporeans, Changi has different memories too. For many of us, Changi was a cheap getaway - not Changi itself, but there are two islands Northeast of us, Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong. Pulau Ubin, you can still go to. You take a bumboat. I think at that time it was a few cents. As a young teenager we would put on a haversack, not the fancy haversacks that we give to our soldiers now. These were (made of) canvas and light green, not really waterproof, but you put on a few tin cans of food and solid fuel, and off you go for a few days. Pulau Ubin as well as Pulau Tekong, which the SAF recently took back for military training. So that was what we would do for a holiday for a couple of days, and you stare at the skies and you form friendships and bonds. This of course was the era before social media and people sit on the table and talk to each other through their phones.

But thank you for your invitation. And I would like to congratulate the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) on the 20th edition. I think it is a good testament of the success and relevance of this programme.

As the video and Ambassador Ong Keng Yong said, APPSMO began as a "Summer Camp" for regional military officers, initiated by our late President Mr. S.R. Nathan. I think President Nathan, who had a lot of experience in the Foreign Service, felt that military leaders too would benefit from such a meeting as their diplomatic and policy counterparts in Government did. Today, APPSMO boasts participation from 20 countries building networks and exchanging ideas on key security issues in the Asia-Pacific. And many APPSMO alumni have gone on to serve in senior leadership positions in their armed forces as well as government.

ASEAN Centrality

I thought for today's speech, I would focus on the theme, "ASEAN and the Asia-Pacific Security Order", and talk primarily about ASEAN. Indeed, if you look across history of ASEAN, it has come a long way since its formation in 1967. Think (of) what happened in 1967, at its inception with five countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. It would have been difficult for anyone to believe then that ASEAN would play a deciding role in the geopolitics of Asia. After all, at its inception, some of its founding countries had only just emerged out of colonisation – Indonesia declared independence in 1945; Philippines in 1946; Malaya in 1957; and Singapore in 1965. So when ASEAN was first formed, some if its ten member countries had not gained independence. What was (happening) in 1967 in this region? The Vietnam War was happening in 1967. In the same year of ASEAN's founding, the on-going Cold War cast a dark pall over Southeast Asia. Because for citizens in ASEAN, as in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Cold War was yet another manifestation of what they had seen for many years. "Proxy wars" was a term I think S. Rajaratnam used. Proxy wars that were fought by larger (foreign) powers on their soil. Whether it was between one coloniser versus the next one, major powers against the next, it was wars and bloodshed of citizens to resolve disputes between larger powers.

So I think in 1967, it is fair for historians, even those of us who are non-historians, to say it would have been difficult. For anyone to think that 50 years hence, ASEAN would occupy as what we today call, "ASEAN centrality". It is quite an astonishing term, "ASEAN centrality", and it has become a catchphrase. The United States of America (US), China, and all other major powers in the Asia-Pacific have professed their support for "ASEAN centrality". Most recently, we had Prime Minister Narendra Modi's come to Shangri-La Dialogue and he gave a keynote address in the dinner, and he affirmed ASEAN centrality:

"The ten countries of Southeast Asia connect the two great oceans in both the geographical and civilisational sense. Inclusiveness, openness and ASEAN centrality and unity therefore lie at the heart of the new Indo-Pacific."

How did this remarkable reversal of position on the totem pole of geopolitics occur? Can it be sustained? I do not think these are trivial questions for ASEAN, and we do well to think through the answers as it will affect the future of Asia. How did ASEAN from a disparate group of newly independent countries in 1967, arrive today as the central figure in Asia and Asian geo-politics. I think that is a rich point of discussion for the APPSMO group. Let us start with the easier answers – what ASEAN's centrality is not based on. Certainly at present, not economically, despite ASEAN's great promise. While ASEAN is the eighth largest economy in the world with a combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of USD 2.6 trillion, with a 600 million population, it still only accounts for 7% of global trade. Japan and India are two middle powers that are each as large as the economies of the ten ASEAN Member States combined. So we are not there by virtue of our large economy. What about military? Militarily, the combined expenditure of ASEAN Member States is USD 40 billion, less than what Japan, and South Korea, spend as individual countries, and a fraction of India, China, and the US' individual military budgets every year. And not only in nominal spending, but military modernisation (also) started later for ASEAN Member States, so in comparison, their militaries have modest capabilities compared to other developed countries.

So ASEAN's centrality is not by virtue of its economy, nor by its military power. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a problem. This is a blip in history because as Thucydides reminds us, this is not how world affairs are conducted. I quote, "Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must". You will be familiar with the latter sentence, but the first sentence sets the context. And indeed these have been the operating norms since antiquity.

ASEAN's centrality is vicariously obtained and there are at least three reasons why larger powers have ceded this central position. First, the alternatives would be worse, collectively and for themselves. All countries understand that tensions would rise, if any large or even middle powers asserted themselves to change the status quo to gain central dominance.

Second, geographically, ASEAN Member States sit astride two key maritime domains – the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca which are vital to global trade – which account for the passage of more than USD 5 trillion of global trade. Along the coasts of the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, to Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore – eight of ten ASEAN Member States have littoral borders of one if not both strategic water basins.

Third, the values of ASEAN provide comfort and assurance to larger powers. The ASEAN Charter with its enshrined Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) and the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN), underpin the reasons that mightier and richer nations have ceded the vantage position to ASEAN. These values encode the core principles of ASEAN:

  • Mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all nations.
  • The right of every state, large or small, to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion, or coercion.
  • Non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.

So I asked the question earlier in this speech, how ASEAN got here. I have given what I think are the reasons. So let me ask another question. Was it brilliant statesmanship or pure luck that brought ASEAN to this hallowed and central position today? Ambassador Ong Keng Yong will claim it is brilliant statesmanship because he is a diplomat. In fact he has witnessed many of these key events. I will leave each of you to your own view, but whether it did so by design or default, the most important question going forward is what ASEAN must do to keep this role and what it must avoid. Because if you agree with me that ASEAN's position is vicariously obtained, then it can be taken away. If we are not here either by might, either economically or militarily, then it could be diminished. ASEAN's centrality is not a given. It stands to good reason that other powers have acceded to ASEAN because it is neutral, inclusive and open, and that ASEAN must remain so. If ASEAN Member States begin to take sides, assert or close itself to the international community, then its centrality would weaken. 

In trade, individual ASEAN Member States must eschew national protectionist or nativist trade policies. Collectively, ASEAN should do its part to prevent trade wars or blocs, and continue with multilateral free trade agreements as it has with the European Union (EU), and China. The revised Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) keeps to this spirit and should be supported, as with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

ASEAN must step up connectivity among its members and with the world. The maritime domain is the lifeblood of many ASEAN economies of your countries that you represent as ASEAN members here. To promote stability, ASEAN and China must push and quickly conclude the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, so that disputes within the South China Sea are minimised. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is the legal framework on which both rights of navigation and claims of resources are based on and should be strengthened.

For the air domain, the projections are very healthy with commercial air traffic growth at 6.2% annually. This is quite remarkable because the world's average air traffic growth rate is only 1.5%. Our projections for this region are four times that of the global rate. ASEAN must preserve the conditions which ensure growth in sea and air traffic. This is the reason why Singapore subscribes to the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) for the maritime domain, and as Chair of the ASEAN this year, we will facilitate a Code for Unplanned Encounters (CUE) for the air. We have been discussing this good part of this year, and we will put it up for the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM) and Plus, later this year. We push for these pre-conditions because the impact of any curtailment of air and sea trade links similar to what Qatar experienced last year, would cause lasting damage to ASEAN, whenever it happens. It can never happen. It should never happen.  

In defence, ASEAN centrality is the basis for the 18-nation ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), which remains the cornerstone of an open, inclusive and robust regional security architecture. This inclusive approach has worked. You know it works if the member nations say you need to meet more often. And it started once in three years, and all the countries said "Let us meet more often" and quickly jumped to once in two years. And within a year, said "Let us meet every year". And indeed it has increased its frequency of meetings, so we are meeting every year now, 18 nations committed to meet. Since the ADMM-Plus was established in 2010, it has focused on enhancing dialogue, building confidence, and strengthening practical cooperation to address our security challenges in this region and promote a rules-based order where all countries, big and small, can thrive. There is one unique strength of the ADMM-Plus. Apart from jaw-jaw talks, we have the Experts' Working Groups (EWGs) where their militaries can engage over common security issues such as maritime security, counter-terrorism, or humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR). Real troop exercises, real troop military exchanges like these, but in a much larger scale. We have had four military exercises involving six EWGs conducted in 2016 for example. So it is a thriving community with lots of engagement. And just in parallel with this, we conducted the ASEAN-China Maritime Table-Top Exercise recently, and we will be conducting the ASEAN-China Maritime full-troop exercise later this year, tentatively in Zhanjiang.

Within ASEAN itself, Member States must be alert against security threats that can diminish its centrality. Terrorism is clearly one such threat. The siege of Marawi last year, the recent Depok prison riots, as well as the multiple bombings in Surabaya in May 2018 by ISIS-inspired groups are clear indications that this threat, if not contained, can escalate and plunge our region into violence and instability. And it worries me. When Marawi occurred, the Phillippines leadership went on record to say that prior to that, some were in a state of denial about terrorism. When the family suicide bombings occurred in Surabaya, our Indonesian counterparts said that they were surprised because it was never in their culture so far. And we have to deal with this terrorism because it can plunge this region into violence and instability. ASEAN Member States must also deal with disputes through peaceful settlement, as they had done during the Thai-Cambodian border dispute, and the Ligitan and Sipadan territorial dispute. Humanitarian crises as that occurring on the Myanmar and Bangladesh border for the Rakhine community can have pernicious effects if not dealt with expeditiously.

Toward ASEAN 2040

The promise of ASEAN is great if it is able to maintain its centrality and continue to grow. I would like you to imagine with me, if you will, such an ASEAN 20 years or for simplicity, in 2040. What would ASEAN look like in our imaginings? Well, ASEAN's aggregated population then would be almost 740 million – close to 10% of the world's current population today but with a much younger median age, because we would be able to reap the youth dividends. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the commercial air traffic globally would have more than doubled to 7.2 billion passengers in 2035. That is the global figure. But 50% of this growth –an additional 1.8 billion annual passengers – would come from the Asia-Pacific. Sea traffic would also rise and grow. But most impressively, what you have been witnessing in ASEAN Member States, would leapfrog because of digital traffic, which could potentially add USD 1 trillion to ASEAN's GDP in the next decade alone. The ability for countries that did not deploy digital technology can leapfrog. For instance, if you did not go into 3G, you can move quickly to 4G from 2G without having to go through 3G.

Our dreams continue. ASEAN's aggregated economy in 2040 would be about USD 9 trillion. To get from where we are today for ASEAN to USD 9 trillion is not unimaginable. It would be simply based on a 6% compound annual growth rate (CAGR), which is not very different from the growth of ASEAN in previous decades, 5.2%. How large is USD 9 trillion in nominal terms? USD 9 trillion economy is the size of Japan and German combined today! Think of that ASEAN. More importantly, ASEAN would also have re-doubled its efforts towards sustainable development and environmental protection, and reached standards comparable to the Scandinavian countries, and be among the top countries in the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals Index. It would be an ASEAN with all of its ten capital cities put up as models of emerging and developed economies for the rest of the world.


A thriving, prosperous and stable ASEAN will bring enormous benefits to the world, apart from its own people. To achieve this vision of ASEAN in 2040 and for ASEAN to maintain its centrality, ASEAN must continue to be open, neutral and inclusive. ASEAN economies must grow and practise sustainable development through environmental protection. It must deal with security threats decisively, and settle disputes through dialogues and peaceful settlement. Ladies and gentlemen, this is an ASEAN worth striving for. Let me conclude by wishing all APPSMO participants a fruitful and engaging week ahead. Please enjoy Changi.

Thank you.

Suggested Articles