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The Southeast Asian Young Leaders’ Programme
The 16th Asia Security Summit, Singapore, 2–4 June 2017.

Dr William Choong, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security, IISS–Asia; Dr Tim Huxley, Executive Director, IISS–Asia and Alexander Neill, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security, IISS with the young leaders

The Southeast Asian Young Leaders’ Programme (SEAYLP) at the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue built and expanded on the success of an inaugural event organised in conjunction with the previous year’s Dialogue, convening 36 enthusiastic young leaders, almost half of them female, from ten Southeast Asian and four other countries. Reflecting the diversity of the region, these delegates represented key sectors with security interests, including government departments and agencies, the armed forces, business, research institutes, universities and the media. SEAYLP delegates participated in an additional series of meetings as well as the full Shangri-La Dialogue programme. The special SEAYLP element of the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue included four dedicated sessions, a reception aboard a warship and a seminar the day after the summit. The 2017 SEAYLP benefited from the generous support of Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Canadian High Commission in Singapore, the Embassy of Japan in Singapore, the British High Commission in Singapore and two corporate sponsors: OUE Limited and Giti.

SEAYLP delegates made their presence felt at the Shangri-La Dialogue through critical and insightful interventions during question-and-answer sessions over the course of the summit. Following Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s keynote address, Dr Lynn Kuok, Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Centre for International Law questioned Turnbull on the substance of Australia’s commitment to promoting and maintaining the rule of law. Nur Asyura Salleh, a Bruneian postgraduate student at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, asked defence ministers during the Second Plenary Session whether their respective countries were willing to fill the leadership vacuum left by American withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Paris agreement on climate change. In the final Plenary Session of the Dialogue, Nurul Izzah Anwar, a Malaysian Member of Parliament, asked Russia’s Deputy Minister of Defence whether Russia was committed to a lasting resolution to the Syrian conflict.

Social media engagement

A hallmark of the 2017 SEAYLP cohort was their active engagement in online discussions throughout the Shangri-La Dialogue and their use of social media – notably Twitter – for debates amongst themselves and with other Shangri-La Dialogue delegates. For example, Gullnaz Baig, a Singaporean SEAYLP delegate acted as coordinator for the programme and pursued an online discussion with Malaysia’s defence minister on the need for stronger regional coordination in counter-terrorism messaging.

Dedicated sessions

Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister of Australia with the Young Leaders


The first special event on the 2017 SEAYLP agenda was an exclusive discussion session with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull held early on the Dialogue’s Saturday morning. Announcing that the Australian government would contribute sponsorship to the programme for three years, Turnbull affirmed Australia’s belief that SEAYLP was ‘integral to forming the foundations of future security’. The meeting, which allowed SEAYLP delegates to engage in a candid discussion at close quarters with the Prime Minister, set the tone for the SEALYP agenda. The exchange between the Australian Prime Minister and the SEAYLP delegates focused on Australia’s commitment to the rules-based order and the contribution of other regional states to maintaining such an order, as well as on specific concerns including freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Ong Ye Kung, Singapore’s Second Minister for Defence with Southeast Asian Young Leaders’ Programme delegates

On Sunday morning, the Young Leaders participated in two closed-door discussions: a breakfast meeting with Ong Ye Kung, Singapore’s Second Minister for Defence, and a meeting with Commander of the US Pacific Command (PACOM), Admiral Harry Harris, Jr. Ong engaged in a lively debate on a wide range of issues including Singapore’s vision for its ASEAN chairmanship in 2018 and ASEAN’s ability to maintain unity of vision against the backdrop of regional tensions. The discussion addressed the management of the South China Sea dispute, and the regional security implications of disruptive technologies. Ong’s overall prognosis for the region was optimistic, though, and he noted that Southeast Asia had a history of embracing differences and diversity, and was able to draw upon strong leadership, and possessed a younger generation intent on ensuring that the region does well. Admiral Harris, who – as in 2016 – spoke only from a SEAYLP platform during the Shangri-La Dialogue, described his own session as his most gratifying experience of the Shangri-La Dialogue. After opening comments in which he gave useful advice on managing the challenges of a career as a leader, the PACOM Commander responded to a range of questions, some of which touched on regional security issues of the day.

A highlight of the second day was a reception for SEAYLP delegates aboard the visiting Royal Canadian Navy frigate HMCS Winnipeg at Changi Naval Base. The SEAYLP delegation was given a private tour of the vessel including a visit to the ship’s bridge and helicopter hangar. The reception was hosted by Canadian Chief of Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance, who reiterated Canada’s commitment to contribute to security in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. In her speech at the event, Canadian High Commissioner to Singapore Lynn McDonald highlighted the importance of the Southeast Asian Young Leaders’ Programme in both building a new generation of peacebuilders and promoting a network of future leaders of the region.

SEAYLP luncheon

Jane Duke, Australian Ambassador to ASEAN and Dr James A Boutilier, Special Advisor to Canada’s Department of National Defence at the SEAYLP luncheon

At the SEAYLP luncheon on Sunday, Young Leaders had the opportunity to discuss ASEAN’s role in, and relevance to, global strategic developments. A panel of speakers, chaired by Dr Tim Huxley, Executive Director of IISS-Asia, comprised: Singapore’s Senior Minister of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs, Dr Mohamad Maliki bin Osman; Australian Ambassador to ASEAN, Jane Duke; and Special Advisor to Canada’s Department of National Defense, Dr James A Boutilier. The panellists agreed that the current international system harboured greater uncertainty than previously, and that ASEAN had a role to play in managing this uncertain environment. Boutilier invited Young Leaders to eschew ‘historical amnesia’, and emphasised the importance of a facts-based and principled approach towards negotiating strategic challenges. Dr Maliki and Ambassador Duke reflected on ASEAN’s varying degrees of success over the previous 50 years and the potential it held for tackling new security challenges. The panellists broadly agreed that the international system appeared to have reached a turning-point and that the next generation of ASEAN leaders would need to be even more creative than their predecessors in managing strategic and security challenges. In the discussion, SEAYLP delegate Stephanie Martel from the University of British Columbia questioned how ASEAN could preserve its unity despite the tendency of its member governments to favour wider multilateralism and narrower minilateralism in responding to challenges. Dr Vannarith Chheang from the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace noted the lack of attention given to the involvement of major powers in the Mekong region, a contrast to the focus on the South China Sea. Dr Hoo Chiew Ping from the National University of Malaysia asked why Southeast Asian governments had failed to focus on the North Korean challenge, despite international sanctions against the regime there in response to its nuclear-weapons and missile programmes.

Closing seminar

The Monday of the Young Leaders’ programme featured a seminar discussing ‘Challenges and Prospects for the Future: Negotiating the Asia Pacific Security Landscape’. Dr Tim Huxley chaired a panel comprising: Professor Paul Evans from the University of British Columbia’s Institute of Asian Research; Professor Tosh Minohara from Japan’s Kobe University; John Virgoe, Head of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Southeast Asia Department; and Dr Brendan Taylor from the Australian National University. The panellists focused in their opening remarks on the management of the future security landscape, with much attention in the subsequent debate directed towards the difficult and important question of how to define a rules-based international order. Evans suggested that the Young Leaders consider a ‘coalition of middle powers’ as the region’s best asset in maintaining a rules-based order, while Colonel Gaurav Keerthi from the Singapore Armed Forces invited panellists to consider what a Chinese-led rules-based order might involve. Minohara drew parallels between the pre-Second World War and current international orders, suggesting that engagement with China and greater certainty from the United States was needed to mediate the insecure environment. Jonathan Miller from the Council on Foreign Relations questioned Minohara on Japan’s view of the TPP, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Japan’s regional leadership role. Virgoe invited delegates to consider the nexus between security and economic interdependence in the context of the BRI. Gullnaz Baig asked what role the United Kingdom might have in the potential middle-power coalition suggested by Evans. Kyaw Khant from Myanmar’s Diem Company suggested that her country’s enthusiasm for the BRI was borne of its severe infrastructural deficit, and asked what security challenges this might engender. Taylor observed that that the region was sliding into crisis but there was a chronic lack of imagination in conflict resolution. Blake Herzinger of Booze Allen Hamilton invited Taylor to consider the implications of the presence of Chinese maritime militia vessels in Southeast Asian waters. Sharon Awang Sitai from Brunei’s government raised the question of shortfalls in tackling interconnected security crises within the current rules-based order.

Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellows Alexander Neill and Dr William Choong jointly chaired the programme’s final session, during which a number of SEAYLP delegates expressed strong interest in maintaining the momentum of their discussions. There was broad agreement among the delegates that maintaining a stable and predictably peaceful security order in the Asia-Pacific would depend on strengthening the region’s relevant institutions. The challenges for the emerging generation of Southeast Asian security policymakers would be substantial. Finally, there was consensus that the integration into SEAYLP of delegates from non-Southeast Asian countries – hopefully, including China in the future – not only represented the real-world reality of Southeast Asia’s security policymaking environment, as reflected in frameworks such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asian Summit and ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meetings-Plus (ADMM-Plus), but also importantly augmented the substance of SEAYLP debates.

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