Beyond Food for Fuel: The Little Red Dot in ASEAN-GCC Relations

“You have what we don’t have, and we have plenty of what you don’t have, so we need each other.”
– Dr Surin Pitsuwan, ASEAN Secretary-General, 2009

Speaking after the first meeting between foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC),  Dr Pitsuwan was referring to the abundance of energy sources in the Arabian Gulf and the agricultural potential of Southeast Asia. Indeed, growing concerns over energy and food security have been a prominent topic in the discussions, which took place about a year after the global food crisis of 2007-2008. Given the fact that Gulf Arab countries imported 80% of their staple foods at a cost of $20 billion in 2008, they have shown an increasing interest in Southeast Asia’s fertile farmland. Conversely, Southeast Asian countries continue to demand more energy resources such as oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) to facilitate their economic development plans.

Singapore, however, doesn’t fit neatly into this arrangement. While it does import a substantial amount of its energy resources from the Gulf, Singapore unlike its neighbours, does not have any natural resources to export. There are  3 main ways in which Singapore plays a significant role for the Gulf, and through that have the potential to enhance GCC- ASEAN relations.

 1) Despite the dearth of natural resources, Singapore provides commendable developmental policies and strategies based on cultivating human development.

This includes sound policies on comprehensive social infrastructure to ensure not just primary but advanced health care, and high education and living standards – and these are all key indicators for Human development. Other notable achivements have been Singapore’s ability to overcome water scarcity, and avoiding the formation of slums in the process of urbanisation. Hence its not natural resources that Singapore has to share with the Gulf but rather its human resources and technical expertise that is has built up since independence. There have been notable developments in recent years between GCC countries and Singapore. These include:-

 2) Singapore as a gateway for promoting further understanding engagement with the wider East Asian region.

This is due to several factors. Firstly, Singapore is one of the Asian tigers and maintains cordial links with China.Secondly, through Singapore’s Role in ASEAN, GCC countries would be able to have a better understanding of regional East Asian dynamics and architecture – such as the growing importance of ASEAN +3 (ASEAN member states and their Northeast Asian counterparts China, Japan and South korea) in addressing a series of challenges – such as pandemic outbreaks, disaster management and transnational crime. Thirdly, Singapore initiated the Asia Middle East Dialogue (AMED) in 2004 to promote inter-regional exchange and collaboration. While initial AMED meetings focussed on conventional areas of cooperation such as trade and traditional security concerns, Singapore has raised in subsequent meetings the importance of addressing transboundary challenges such as climate change, religious, ethnic conflict and pandemic outbreaks – all of which Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries would be able to share their experiences and concerns.

 3) Singapore’s on-going challenges – both at the regional and national level – also provide useful lessons

At the regional level, the different levels of economic development and governance capabilities of ASEAN states would make it difficult to address transnational issues, which can have adverse effects on Singapore.  Non– traditional security challenges such as the transboundary haze issue– stemming from forest fires in Indonesia– have adversely affected Singapore’s economy. Similarly, food and energy security issues demonstrate that Singapore’s security is intricately tied to regional security. This would be something for the GCC to think about if they really wish to extend their membership to countries which are less well off.

The issue of migrant workers is also an important area that is often swept under the carpet. Beyond economics, if there is to be any genuine GCC –ASEAN relations, it has to at some point address the inequalities related to migrant workers – who are an integral part of development in the Arabian Gulf as well as remittance for some Southeast Asian countries. Given the fact that ASEAN is made up of countries that are either supply or demand foreign labour, engaging countries in the region would be vital to understand various perspectives on the matter, including experiences that may have resonance in the Arabian Gulf.

In terms of challenges at the national level, while there is a high level of growth and development in Singapore, there is also a high level of income inequalities. In terms of cultural diversity, Singapore is a unique case study of a Muslim minority in the East for two main reasons. Firstly, there are nuanced differences compared to Muslim minorities in the West as Singapore Muslims operate in an Asian context. Secondly, Singapore Muslims, to some degree, are wired slightly differently because of the context that they are in vis-a-vis their Muslim-majority neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia.

It is clear that while the “little red dot” is generally a glowing example of national development and political stability, and an advocate for cordial international ties, Singapore’s domestic limitations and regional vulnerabilities need to be recognised. The Gulf Arab region has the opportunity to learn both from Singapore’s achievements and its challenges. This constitutes not only a means to enhance development levels in the Gulf Arab states, but also a medium through which they can better understand the political and socio-economic dynamics of the East Asian region. In addition, , the importance of increasing inter-regional people-to-people contact should not be understated, as it serves to fill in gaps which conventional notions of development have failed to cover. Enhancing such ties would not only provide a means of approaching sensitive issues, but may also serve to “dispel negative stereotypes of each other. Such elements are therefore necessary in ensuring deep relations between the GCC and Singapore (and in extension GCC-ASEAN) beyond diplomatic missions and economic interactions.

This post is based on a book chapter in Asia-Gulf Economic Relations in the 21st Century: The Local to Global Transformation.