East Asia has "a historic opportunity" to drive growth but needs to overcome two obstacles, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said yesterday in Tokyo.
He identified these hurdles as the lack of trust and confidence among Asian nations, and the absence of a long-term shared strategic vision for the region.
In a keynote speech at the 21st Nikkei Conference in the Japanese capital, he said countries in Asia need to work together towards shared prosperity to fulfil the region's potential. And the key to this quest is "political will, confidence, trust, vision and the courage to take the initiative".
Mr Goh noted that while it is early days yet to define the 21st century as the Asia Century, there is the opportunity to spur growth. East Asia, for example, should aspire to reach Europe's current gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of US$27,000 (S$36,000) by 2050. Its GDP per capita is currently US$8,000.
But there are two "hurdles" in the way of harnessing Asia's potential. Mr Goh said the lack of trust and confidence among Asian nations "stands in the way of greater co-operation between countries (and) gives rise to heightened nationalism and protectionism".
To build trust and confidence, countries will need to "look squarely" at their history, recognise one another's role and seek reconciliation.
For example, Asia has not satisfactorily resolved the legacy of World War II. Japan's wartime legacy continues to cast a shadow over its ties with its neighbours.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed "deep remorse" over Japan's role in World War II in a speech to the United States Congress last month. More recently, some scholars of Japanese studies urged him to address Japan's wartime history.
Mr Goh said Mr Abe has pledged to uphold the past apologies of previous governments and has expressed deep remorse and repentance. "He is a strong leader. Only a strong leader can rein in nationalist sentiment and open the way to greater trust with (the country's) neighbours."
Mr Goh also welcomed ongoing efforts by Japan and China to reconcile their differences and resolve outstanding bilateral issues.
The second hurdle to Asia realising its potential is the lack of a long-term shared strategic vision for the region, with national leaders each pursuing their own nation-centric dreams.
Here, Mr Goh suggested setting up an East Asian Prosperous Community by 2050, to give an impetus towards greater economic co-operation and integration.
It is aimed at mobilising regional resources more efficiently, through a single market and production base.
"It will unleash the massive potential of East Asia and its 2.2 billion people," Mr Goh said.
This vision needs to be anchored by strong values, including the rule of law and inclusiveness, to ensure all countries can stand to benefit and that territorial disputes do not derail the progress.
Mr Goh will wrap up his three-day visit to Tokyo today.
Aside from attending the two-day conference, he also met Japanese political leaders including Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso, and Liberal Democratic Party secretary- general Sadakazu Tanigaki.
This article was first published on May 22, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.