SINGAPORE (Aug 16): Retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan gave a wide-ranging talk on Indo-Pacific concept on Friday morning at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute. The veteran diplomat, known for his candid remarks including calling violent Hong Kong protestors “morons”, gave his views on fatalism, Asean, the trade war and more. Here are some of his remarks.

On an increasingly complex world, binary thoughts, and fatalism...

Various countries in the Indo-Pacific region have different ideas, and the difficulties of reconciling these ideas as well as the concerns that all these countries have about China may be complex, but there are opportunities in complexity, said Bilahari.

“Precisely because Southeast Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific are naturally a multipolar and contested region, there’s always some manoeuver space for small countries. There is always some manoeuver space provided we have the wit to recognise it  and the courage to use it,” he said. 

To do so, Singapore has to be able to think beyond binary terms, which he said, to some degree, the city state is guilty of.

While binary thought — when it has to be either option A or option B — can sometimes be appropriate, he said it has a “deceptively seductive simplicity”. 

“But it should not be our unconscious default mode of thought as I fear it is becoming in too many Asean member states, including, perhaps in some degree, Singapore. Binary thought is an oversimplified and, hence, inaccurate way of comprehending our complex reality ... And more often than not, by artificially narrowing choices, binary thought instills a sense of fatalism and hence of timidity. 

“Fatalism is fatal to small states.”

On Asean...

Bilahari said nothing ever goes according to plan and Asean members must be able to take advantage of unanticipated developments without losing sight of its main direction. That, he said, was something Asean used to be able to do but is now somewhat degraded.

“A certain lack of ambition and indeed even perhaps timidity has crept into Asean decision-making,” he said.

Today’s challenges that Asean face are not new. “We’ve always faced them before in even worse forms and overcome them. The challenges Asean now confronts are not exceptional, nor exceptionally severe.”

Where Asean has failed, he thinks, is in explaining the significance of the organisation to citizens. That is something Asean member states have to do to get buy in from citizens so the organisation is able to think strategically.

On the US-China trade war...

The United States may want to decouple from China, but Bilahari does not think that is possible. 

“Globalisation may be fraying at its edges but I doubt it can be entirely reversed. The technology that drives globalisation cannot be unlearned. Technology will eventually erode the cost advantages of some widely distributed supply chains and reconfigure some of them, and this could post challenges to the aspirations of some Asean countries to move up the value change and to Asean’s goal of creating a common production platform in Southeast Asia. But decoupling cannot be complete,” he said.

“The region can never again be as demarcated as it was during the Cold War. Neither the US nor China are likely to achieve their goals in entirety. Of course it does not mean that the US and China are not going to try. Washington and Beijing will swear blind that they are not going to make other countries choose, but we shouldn’t be naive, the reality will be otherwise.”

And this was where another veteran Singapore diplomat Tommy Koh jumped in.

Koh said he thought Bilahari was underestimating the seriousness of the US-China dispute and its repercussions for Asean and Southeast Asia if there were two trade regimes, two tech domains and two supply chains in the world.

Bilahari said he agrees that the dispute is serious, just that he thinks the decoupling effort will fail. 

Said Bilahari: “They are going to try and that’s going to cause problems for us, for everybody, for themselves — but they don’t know it yet. So I don’t disagree with you, this is a new structural feature of the international system but it is not a new Cold War and that is why they are going to fail. Because the Soviet system interacted with the American system only on the margins, whereas China and America are intertwined. They may not like it, in fact that’s what they don’t like about their relationship, so I think they are going to try and they’re going to fail.”

Meanwhile, the dispute will be a huge problem for everyone, he said. “So I don’t disagree with you. I never disagree with Tommy. It’s not wise,” he joked. 

On Brexit...

Bilahari recounted how a week after the Brexit referendum, a friend called to ask if he would travel to the UK to speak about Brexit and what East Asia thinks about it. Bilahari said it was going to be a very short take: “Stupid.” The friend asked if he could expound on that, and he said he could double the length of the speech: “Very stupid.”