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Reflections on ASEF

Published on 21 Jun 2016

By Professor Tommy KOH, Ambassador-At-Large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore and Ms Peggy KEK, Former Director of Public Affairs, Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF)


The establishment of the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), under the auspices of Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) was a significant and concrete contribution to people-to-people relations between Asia and Europe.

At a meeting of senior officials in Dublin in December 1996, ASEM members adopted by consensus the so-called Dublin Principles that would form the foundation of ASEF. Singapore offered to host the Foundation and a year after the first ASEM took place in Bangkok, ASEF was launched in the republic in February 1997, by the 26 founding members of ASEM.

ASEF’s first home was a gracious black and white bungalow with extensive grounds at No. 1 Nassim Hill, within walking distance of the Singapore Botanic Gardens. As we were the founding Executive Director and Director of Public Affairs respectively, we had the great pleasure of working in that beautiful office from 1997 to 2000.

Unique mandate

We found those three years exhilarating. There was much to be done, and much that could be done. As far as we could tell, there was no other organisation in the world like ASEF.

While there are other organisations that aim to promote understanding between countries, they mostly do so on behalf of only one country, albeit reaching out to many others. Examples of these are the Alliance Française, British Council, Goethe Institute, Confucius Institute, Instituto Cervantes, Istituto Italiano di Cultura, and Nehru Centre.

Although the Commonwealth institutions seek in some way to promote understanding among multiple countries, the member countries all share a common history of having been part of the British Empire and share the same language.

On the other hand, ASEM membership was based on a shared vision, born in Bangkok, to reconnect two important regions and civilisations of the world. Initially, the membership was confined to the European Union, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and three states of Northeast Asia, namely, China, Japan and South Korea.

Sense of ownership

As members of the start-up team, we had the challenge and the opportunity to introduce ASEF to the world. We had to convince institutions in ASEM member countries to work with us. To them, ASEF was an unknown quantity. To succeed, we knew that we would need the support of enthusiastic and loyal champions. We were fortunate that we had some early believers, who, in turn, helped us to win over more supporters.

We needed to raise the profile of ASEF quickly, encourage participation in our projects and events, and give ASEM members a sense of ownership of ASEF.

This last challenge was particularly difficult as ASEF had a physical presence only at the house on Nassim Hill. We avoided the easy option of holding all the projects in Singapore and instead worked extra hard to find relevant and willing partners in as many different countries and to involve participants from as many member countries as possible.

We were greatly helped by a supportive board, which trusted and provided useful advice to the management team. Prof Helmut HAUSSMANN, who has been the ASEF Governor for Germany since 1997, was instrumental in opening doors to German parliamentarians, think-tanks and foundations. The late Mr Edmond ISRAEL ensured that we had a direct line to the political leadership of Luxembourg. The late Ambassador Jay-Hee OH played a critical role in the success of ASEF’s work at ASEM2, in Seoul, in October 2000.

We partnered organisations that had more established reputations and networks. In these respects, it greatly helped that Singapore was both an important destination for the world’s political and business leaders and that Singaporean institutions were part of many international networks. When the Asian Financial Crisis occurred in 1998, it was felt in many of the affected Asian countries that the crisis had been misunderstood by the Western countries and institutions including the International Monetary Fund (IMF). So, taking advantage of the pulling power of the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the presence of Europe’s media in Singapore for the WEF East Asia Summit, ASEF initiated a Colloquium for Journalists for a discussion on how Europe could help Asia without creating a backlash.

With the help of INSEAD, we were able to organise, at their Fontainebleau campus in France, a conference to discuss the idea of an Asia-Europe Education Hub. With that, a new network of Asian and European universities was launched.

Building bridges and networks

We set about our mission by being a creator of new networks, an interpreter of key developments and events, and an intellectual bridge-builder. Our strategy included making sure that the projects we organised were relevant and newsworthy. In all these efforts, institutions and individuals from think tanks, the arts and cultural sector, and the media were our earliest supporters.

We created new Asia-Europe networks of arts groups, museums, parliamentarians, school students, universities, journalists and researchers. Many of these networks have continued to thrive with the support of subsequent ASEF management teams.

We also initiated projects that helped to explain significant developments in both regions such as the advent of the Euro and Indonesia’s first democratic elections in 1999. For the latter, ASEF created a platform to help Europe better understand the historic event taking place in the most populous nation in Southeast Asia. We assembled a panel comprising representatives from all the major parties and invited journalists from all the ASEM countries to attend the Colloquium in Jakarta.

As an intellectual bridge-builder, we convened discussions on issues that often divided politicians and intellectuals of Asia and Europe - issues such as human rights and the question of Myanmar (also known as Burma). We also organised a seminar in Paris, with the support of the French Ministry of Finance, to discuss the causes of the Asian financial crisis and the prospects of Asia post-crisis.

Early challenges and champions

Singapore, France and Luxembourg were among the early champions of ASEF. The three countries made substantial financial contributions to help ASEF get off to a good start. In addition, France also seconded Pierre BARROUX as the Deputy Executive Director of ASEF.

In 1999, when Europeans were getting ready to launch the Euro, ASEF initiated a roads how to provide Europe with a platform to introduce the Euro to Asia. We took the roadshow to Hong Kong, Beijing and Singapore with Jean-Claude TRICHET, Christian NOYER and Dominique STRAUSSKAHN. This project could not have succeeded without the strong support of the government of France.

Luxembourg hosted the first Asia-Europe Editors Meeting in October 1997. The meeting was a wonderful platform to present ASEF to some 30 members of the media of Asia and Europe. Some of the editors we met at that first meeting became some of ASEF’s most ardent supporters. Among them were the late Mr Felix SOH of Singapore’s Straits Times, Mr Larry JAGAN, the founding editor of BBC World Service’s East Asia Today programme, Ms Shada ISLAM, formerly with the Far Eastern Economic Review, Mr Matthias NASS, the Editor of Die Zeit (Hamburg), Kavi CHONGKITTAVORN of The Nation (Bangkok), and Ambassador Sabam SIAGIAN, the publisher of the Jakarta Post. Many have remained great friends and supporters of ASEF and we were happy to learn that subsequent teams of ASEF have continued to maintain relations with this informal network.

Enduring flagship ASEF projects

Despite the changes in ASEM membership and ASEF management teams, some projects that were launched in the initial years of ASEF have not only survived over the years, but are in fact flourishing.

The ASEF Editors Roundtable is now a mainstay event organised biennially on the sidelines of every ASEM Summit. The ASEF Journalists’ Colloquium continues to bring the media together for significant developments and now has a regular scheduled spot on the sidelines of the ASEM Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.

The ASEF Classroom Network (ASEF ClassNet) continues to foster collaboration among secondary and high school teachers and students in Asia and Europe. The ASEM Education Hub is now known as the ASEF Higher Education Programme, and has given birth to four sub-programmes: ASEM Rectors’ Conference and Students’ Forum (ARC), Asia-Europe Education Workshops, ASEM Education and Research Hub for Lifelong Learning (ASEM LLL Hub), and the Database on Education Exchange Programmes (DEEP).

The ASEM Museum Network continues to thrive. The ASEM Informal Seminar on Human Rights continues to bring government officials, academics and civil society representatives from Asia and Europe for dialogues on difficult issues.

Major changes since 2000

ASEF has undergone many changes since 2000, when we stepped down. With these changes, there have been new opportunities and challenges.

One of the biggest changes is the number of ASEM members. From 26 members in 1997, ASEM now has 53 partners. This development alone has had significant implications on the way ASEF operates. As the founding principles had a provision for every ASEM member to be represented on the ASEF Board of Governors, this has made ASEF board meetings a much bigger undertaking now, both logistically and in agenda-setting.

On the positive side, this expansion means that there are, potentially, many more sources of support, both intellectual and financial. It also means that there are more countries to reach out to, more countries in which to raise the profile of ASEF, and more countries among which to spread the projects. This also makes it much harder for ASEF to gain traction in each specific country.

Despite all the challenges it faces, ASEF continues to grow from strength to strength. The current management team has identified new areas of focus that are relevant to today’s world. Two of the new themes to have emerged are public health and sustainable development.


Over the years, many nationals from ASEM member countries have served and continue to serve on the Board of Governors, management team and staff of ASEF. Today, 19 years after its establishment, ASEF remains the only brick and mortar institution of ASEM. It has played a unique and significant role in enhancing mutual understanding between Asia and Europe.

If ASEM members believe in the mission of ASEF, we sincerely hope that they will demonstrate this by making substantial and regular financial contributions to sustain the Foundation. After all, every ASEM member has a representative on the ASEF board, a say in the direction and work plan of ASEF, and therefore the responsibility to help ASEF thrive and succeed.

We hope the governments and peoples of ASEM countries will continue to uphold and provide staunch support for the mission of ASEF, and for the aspirations of ASEM, to build strong and meaningful multilateral relations between Asia and Europe.


This article is part of the ASEM 20th Anniversary Book on “20 Years of Asia-Europe Relations”. The publication is a collection of articles by leaders and experts from Asia and Europe on the past, present and future of ASEM. Selected articles from this collection will be compiled and published as a book by the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), which will be distributed at the 11th Asia-Europe Meeting Summit (ASEM11) in July 2016 in Mongolia.

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