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    Minister of Foreign Affairs, Singapore. Guest Columnist of BeyondSG. He is on Facebook. Readers are welcome to join his Facebook network at
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January 15, 2007


Dear Minister

Given that the potential impact of ASEAN integration will be significant, will the government call for a national referendum before ratifying the charter? In my view, it is not completely clear in the minds of ordinary Singaporeans, just what integration really means. Is it to create an entity like the European Union where there will be a "borderless" region? Will there be regional regulations that individual nations need to adhere to - hence an "ASEAN Parliament" created?

I believe that a national referendum would be appropriate since such an integration could potentially pave the way for substantial changes in our political and social fabric. The referendum will also give the government opportunity to explain the benefits of integration for Singaporeans, and allow Singaporean to debate the issues publicly. Singaporeans whose business and jobs that could be affected (positively or negatively) may also be prepared.



Dear Edwin

ASEAN is a work in process that has gone on for 39 years already. It has helped to keep the peace in Southeast Asia. In the coming years, especially with the adoption of an ASEAN Charter hopefully at the end of this year, the region will become more integrated. There are three broad areas. Politically, we are likely to become closer even though there'll still be problems like the present Thai unhappiness with us over Thaksin's private visit to Singapore. At the UN and other international forums, there is an instinct now to work more closely together especially on international and transboundary issues. Economically, we are already becoming a free trade area for goods. Liberalization of services will take longer. Investments will flow more freely although governments will always want to exercise some control in strategic sectors. Socially and culturally, younger Southeast Asians should feel a stronger sense of ASEAN citizenship.

ASEAN integration will not be like European integration although the EU offers us interesting lessons. For example, we are not likely to contribute to a common budget (like Europe's Common Agricultural Policy) or allow the free movement of people. I doubt we will ever have a common currency. An ASEAN Parliament therefore seems unncecessary to me. What is important is for each member country to ensure that what it agrees to in ASEAN is properly allowed for under national legislation.

As ASEAN integration cannot be reduced to a simple proposition, having a referendum is not feasible. A referendum on the ASEAN Charter will end up being a referendum about one or two issues in it rather than the Charter as a whole. But there could be specific issues (like establishing a common currency or an ASEAN Court of Justice, both most improbable to me) which one day might be put to the population of some or all of the member countries in national referendums.

George Yeo

Dear Minister

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my comment here. Truly appreciated!

Thank you also for making the clarifications. What you have said about the integration is not of total surprise.

From your broad description, it would seem to suggest that the 2015 agenda is a high-level one that is but one or two steps forward from where we already are today, albeit in a formal way. In my opinion, we are still rather far away from the kind of integration that would have a real dramatic impact on our political, economic and social fronts in a direct and immediate manner.

Perhaps, then, it is a question of sooner or later.

Importantly, Singaporeans should be concerned that integration does not result in an overnight exodus of investment capital and jobs out of Singapore (a la US-Mexico & West Europe-East Europe examples). Singapore's situation appears especially precarious for the lack of size and other natural resources. I guess Singaporeans need to be well-informed so as to prepare themselves for the worst case scenario.



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