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Keeping Up With the Singaporeans
Rather than attack the Lion City, neighbors should learn from it
ALEJANDRO REYES is Asiaweek's senior correspondent for regional affairs

It didn't take long for the fireworks to begin. Hours after the ASEAN summit in Singapore had ended, Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid was bad-mouthing his hosts. "They just look after themselves," he ranted. "All they look for are profits." Wahid was fuming over what he reckoned were slights against him and his country. Among his gripes: that Singapore had left Indonesia out of plans to hold trade fairs to promote ASEAN and blocked his proposal to extend membership in the group to soon-to-be-independent East Timor and Papua New Guinea. Wahid even put his complaints in ethnic terms. "Singaporeans despise Malays — we're considered non-existent." He mused about being Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's "new friend" and getting together with Kuala Lumpur to regulate their small neighbor's water supply to "teach it a lesson."

In a Nov. 28 statement, Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong rebutted Wahid's allegations, but wisely ignored the Indonesian leader's incendiary comments about race. While Wahid has a well-established reputation for wackiness, his stinging tirade — doubtless meant for his home audience — must have unnerved the Singaporeans. That they seem to be willing to take the hit calmly is a mark of Goh's statesmanship.

The prime minister, who is celebrating a decade in office, was in top form as summit chair. He hung tough on the issue of ASEAN's dispute with the European Union over Myanmar and vigorously pushed the idea of a free-trade link-up with China, South Korea and Japan. Goh also robustly defended the city state's efforts to strike bilateral free-trade deals with non-ASEAN economies on top of the group's own free-trade arrangement among its 10 members. Singapore's drive to go its own way has upset its neighbors and is likely to have also inspired Wahid's attack. Goh's blunt defense of the strategy was straight out of Lee Kuan Yew's book of plain-speaking: "Those who can run faster should run faster. They shouldn't be restrained by those who don't want to run at all."

Exactly. Singapore's heightened diplomatic profile reflects worries about the pathetic state of ASEAN and the political and economic mess in the neighborhood. The financial crisis that struck three years ago still reverberates. And though ASEAN countries, including worst-hit Indonesia, have been recovering, many investors aren't impressed by the extent of reforms. ASEAN's decision to allow Malaysia to delay including autos in the AFTA free-trade scheme is the latest disappointment. Other members are now poised to postpone the lifting of tariff protection for their pet sectors. AFTA could collapse.

Investors have also been repelled by the political uncertainty nagging the Philippines and Indonesia, and are looking instead to the bigger economies up north — China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. As a result, the economic gap between the Northeast and Southeast is set to widen, particularly once China joins the World Trade Organization and if the two Koreas improve ties further and Japan's recovery takes hold.

That's why plugging into the Northeast's power grid is so crucial for ASEAN. Singapore's strategy-minded leaders know this. Not surprisingly, some ASEAN members are whining like neighbors who know they can't keep up with the Joneses, but blame the Joneses for all their woes.

But if Singapore builds a free-trade network beyond ASEAN, its success is likely to benefit its neighbors. For its part, Singapore will have to allay their fears that its other partners may use free-trade arrangements as a back door to get into ASEAN markets without providing reciprocal access. The criticism that Singapore looks only after itself is somewhat unfair. It is a top investor in several neighbors, including poorer economies Vietnam and Myanmar. In January, Singapore launched an assistance program for Indonesia following Goh's visit to Jakarta. And this year, it became a donor to the Asian Development Bank's soft-loan window.

But as Wahid's criticism indicates, the wealthy Chinese-dominated republic easily rouses old suspicions. Singapore has always been careful not to be seen as China's little brother. Promoting closer economic ties with Beijing may not go down well in Jakarta and K.L. Even Lee Kuan Yew's re-emergence as a potential conduit between the mainland and Taiwan could touch nerves. All this will put more strain on ASEAN cohesion, such as it is. This in part may explain Singapore's strong stand on Myanmar in advance of next month's ASEAN-E.U. ministerial meet in Vientiane. Goh declared that the Europeans should agree to talk to all ten members or cancel the conference.

Of course, Singapore has never made it easy for anybody to applaud its methods. The Lion City is like the brainy kid classmates love to hate, but whom some secretly admire. While it isn't perfect, Singapore offers useful lessons on how to prepare for globalization: open markets, invest in education, minimize corruption and network like mad. Where it falls short — in providing citizens enough breathing space to be creative, for example — it's making adjustments. While Singapore cultivates its own garden, the neighbors shouldn't waste valuable time grumbling when they could be attending to their own patch.

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