Minister: Fellow Singaporeans, thank you for joining me and Ambassador Chan this evening to give me an opportunity to understand a little more about the lives of the Singapore community in Thailand, and a little bit more about Thailand itself. I am here for the Civil Service Exchange Programme (CSEP) and, in fact, the last time I addressed you was because I was here for the same purpose two years ago. So how time has flown. And I want to thank both the Singapore Club of Thailand and the Singapore-Thailand Chamber of Commerce for organising these activities.
My stay in Thailand this time is a little bit longer because after CSEP this weekend, I’m going up to Chiang Rai to join other ASEAN Foreign Ministers for a road trip from Chiang Rai through Laos to Xishuangbanna, and from Jinghong we will fly to Kunming to meet the Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. This is to express the idea of connectivity within Southeast Asia and between Southeast Asia and its neighbours, and also to celebrate the 20th anniversary of dialogue relations between ASEAN and China. For the road trip itself, there will be six Foreign Ministers turning up, and two more will join us in Kunming for the bilateral meeting with China. Last year, we did an equivalent road trip from Mukdahan to Savannakhet to Quang Tri province, Hue, then to Da Nang. The hope next year is to do a similar expedition from Myanmar to Assam, to Guwahati. All these activities are to prepare ASEAN for its becoming a community in 2015.
We just met in Lombok three days ago for a retreat. And at that meeting, we agreed that from this year’s ASEAN Day onwards — ASEAN Day is one day before our National Day, on 8 August — that on 8 August, all ASEAN overseas Missions will fly the ASEAN flag alongside the national flag to tell the world that we are all citizens — not only of Thailand, of Singapore or Vietnam — we’re also citizens of ASEAN. And among the Foreign Ministers we agreed to pursue a wild idea, which is to make a bid for the FIFA World Cup as ASEAN as a whole, maybe in 2030. Qatar is hosting in 2022, so after that it cannot be in Asia — so 2030. I think all of us will still be around at that time, so mark that date in your diary.
There will be many obstacles. I mean, to begin with, FIFA rules don’t allow this to happen. But you never know, because there are many small countries in the world who are avid supporters of soccer, who feel that hosting the FIFA World Cup should not only be the privilege of big countries, and rich countries. We in ASEAN, 600 million people, can collectively cough up eight to ten world class stadiums. The distances are no worse than, say, soccer stadiums in Brazil, so why can’t we make this attempt? And of course, those who host have the privilege of fielding one team, so how do we settle on who will represent ASEAN? You know, Foreign Ministers are not only discussing serious matters. So we said then, well, should we draw lots or maybe have an internal competition? Or why not even field an ASEAN team? And it is possible, isn’t it? Twenty years from now, there is enough time to prepare for a solid ASEAN team, it should not be one country one player, it should be based upon merit. I don’t know whether we will succeed, the chances are not high. But just the idea itself, will enthuse a lot of young and old in ASEAN and help unify us. And then Foreign Ministers, Sports Ministers and football associations will all go around lobbying and getting people to support us. I told the other Foreign Ministers; we make our bid before China, because if China says it wants 2030, if it says it before us, I think we will be at a disadvantage. But if we say it before China, then China may have to 让步 (rangbu; give way), then ASEAN goes first since they want to be good friends with ASEAN. These are some of the ideas that have been discussed.
We also discussed very serious matters — South China Sea, Free Trade Agreements and strategic balance between China and US, India, Russia and Indonesia. But we also discussed light-hearted things. And another idea that we considered was making it easier for university students in ASEAN to do courses in each other’s universities — a little like what the Europeans did a long time ago, a programme they called ERASMUS (European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students). As a result, after many years, a younger generation of Europeans will feel more European than their parents. And what we want, is for a younger generation of ASEAN citizens to feel more ASEAN-loyal than those in our generation. In this way, the organisation strengthens.
An ASEAN identity will help us overcome many of the bilateral problems which bedevil foreign policy from time to time. We know of the problem over the border with Cambodia, between other countries there are also border disputes, but when there’s an ASEAN forum where you meet regularly, Leaders, Ministers, officials, parliamentarians, business leaders, people begin to think bigger. On the way from the airport, I noticed a CIMB advertisement, a big signboard with a Singapore flag on it. I asked Ambassador Peter Chan, “How come?” He said, well, they are beginning to present themselves as an ASEAN brand. And even if political leaders are nationalistic, those who are in a corporate world, like yourselves, you cannot be too nationalistic because too much nationalism is very bad for business. And if you soften the nationalist edges, and there is more to-ing and fro-ing and more respect for diversity, that helps to create a large market, a large investment area and a better optimisation of economic resources, and this is really what we are trying to do.
All of you who are here are not only Singaporeans living in Thailand, you are also ambassadors of Singapore. And Singapore is probably the most ASEAN-ised of all the ASEAN countries, because Singapore is one city where all other ASEAN countries are well and fully represented in the corporate sector, in the work force, in the business institutes, in the cultural spheres, in schools. As ambassadors of Singapore, we should also in our own way, be ambassadors of ASEAN and help see these larger hopes and help create the future which would improve our lives in the entire region between China and India. Singapore itself is doing not too badly. Last year, our growth rate was an astonishing 14.7% — probably the highest ever in our history — partly because the year before we had -1, -1.5%, but partly because a lot of money is flowing into the region. Some months ago I read a report that there is US$50 billion flowing in everyday. I don’t know whether it is true or not, but it’s a lot of money, because of cheap money policy among central bankers in the world. And opportunities are not so plentiful in America and in Europe, so a lot of people, a lot of that money is flowing into the region. And the region means Singapore as the first port of call.
The result is all sectors doing well last year. Some of it is because of right policies, some of it is because we’re recovering from the previous year’s downturn, some of it is because of Asia becoming the place of action in the world. The European Ambassadors in Singapore tell me, there are different European groups — the Germans, the French, the British, the Scandinavians — all these communities are growing. Many of those who are still young and prepared to try, they ask themselves where the areas of growth are — they are in Asia. Asia meaning China, Southeast Asia, India, and Singapore is always a good place as the port of entry.
We are doing well this year, naturally we expect the growth rate to come down to something more sustainable, probably 4 to 6%. But it is still too early to tell — too much depends on the global economy. We’re also running into elections. Prime Minister Lee, of course, keeps his cards very close to his chest, but I tell my party members to be prepared anytime after the Budget, which means from the end of March onwards. It can’t be the third quarter because there’s Presidential Elections, so I think the window would probably be the second quarter. Pity that you can’t vote here, but it is a short distance away from Singapore, maybe some of you will go back. And you if you live in Aljunied GRC, I hope you will know what to do. [Laughter from audience]
But let me end here, and if you have questions I’ll be very happy to answer them. Thank you.
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