Singapore — There has been a gloomy forecast for South-east Asia for the coming year by retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, although he said the region will do well if things do not get worse.
In an article for Nikkei Asia published on Sunday (Dec 27), he said: “Anyone who hopes that 2021 will be an improvement will be disappointed.”
He added that he does not expect developments in the region to improve significantly, including relations with the two global superpowers, the United States and China.
“We will do well if things do not get worse,” he said.
The former Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that, while South-east Asia has done better than others in handling the Covid-19 pandemic, the spread of the illness “has exposed serious failures of governance in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines”.
And while Covid-19 vaccines are expected to be distributed in the coming year, this will not address problems of governance.
Additionally, the possibility of South-east Asian nations grappling with additional waves of infections cannot be discounted, and may even be likely, as the pandemic is expected to last quite a bit longer.
“Avoiding complacency and maintaining social discipline will be serious challenges, particularly because we cannot forever remain closed to each other and the world. The economic costs are mounting and the final bill is far from being tallied,” said Mr Kausikan.
However, his prediction for certain countries in the region, including Singapore, are not so dire. Advanced economies such as Singapore may yet take advantage of businesses transferring from China, but he added that this is a possibility and not a certainty.
One factor that is important to success in the region, Mr Kausikan underlined, is politics, specifically a resistance to economic nationalism, which poses a challenge at this time. “This has become harder as the pandemic enhances stresses within every Asean member. It will take considerable effort to prevent this spilling over to relations between Asean members. The outlook is not conducive to easy optimism.”
He said a majority of the countries face “domestic political uncertainties”, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar and the Philippines, and added that Singapore is not exempt from this either.
“Even in Singapore, a new generation of leaders must contain anti-foreigner sentiment in the context of a political transition that looks likely to be delayed.”
The new President set to be inaugurated in the US next month will not be very reassuring to the region either, he said. “The Biden administration’s focus on rebuilding alliance relationships will relegate Asean to a second-order concern unless Asean can muster the political will to act collectively in support of US objectives.”
Moreover, as President, Mr Joseph Biden will have his attention focused on his own country’s health and economic concerns stemming from the pandemic, as well as have to deal with the pressures of a sharply-divided nation.
His administration, Mr Kausikan said, “will stress democratisation and a return to American values. These are vague terms. Handled clumsily, these issues will complicate relations with Asean. But Asean cannot brush aside these concerns either. Unless both sides find appropriate compromises on these issues as well as labour and climate change, Asean should not take it for granted that President Biden will attend the East Asia Summit. He wants wins not liabilities”.
But the US must maintain its presence in the region as a counterbalance to China, he added. /TISG
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