16 November 1997

At first sight Ithaca, especially if one had arrived as I did tired on a drizzling, windy and cold late afternoon of early November, is not impressive.

But on closer acquaintance, and after a good night's rest at the friendly Statler Hotel run by the University Hotel and Hospitality School, Ithaca is a welcome change from New York City even though my apartment overlooks the famous Central Park. I have an enchanting view there, and the park is just a stone's throw.

Ithaca, the home of Cornell University, situated in the heart of New York's Finger Lakes region, nestled among the ghosts of glaciers, rocky gorges, beautiful lakes, rolling hills, waterfalls, farm lands, vineyards and state parks, has a population of between 35,000-40,000 people, half of whom are students, and one-third are graduate and research scholars.

The Cornell campus, I think, is one of the most attractive in the East Coast. I was, I must say, quite struck by the beauty of Cornell's environment and the majesty of Ithaca and the Cayuga valley. Cornell is 250 miles northwest of the Big Apple.

Cornell, which was founded by Ezra Cornell in 1868, is a most sought-after Ivy league university which has produced 26 Novel laureates either as students or faculty members. Two of the three 1996 Nobel prize winners in physics, Professors Robert Richardson and David M.Lee teach at Cornell.

Who was Ezra Cornell? He was a farmer, an inventor, an entrepreneur, a politician, who had come out of poverty, lived by his wits, made and lost a fortune, and made it again! He was a rebel, excommunicated from his religion and marrying outside his religion (actually from a different Christian denomination only).

Cornell's dream was to provide the education he had never received, to people who needed the chance to better themselves: to found " an institution where any person can find instruction in any study ." Today, Cornell is a great university acknowledged by all.

I had gone to Cornell on Friday, Nov 7 to participate in a forum the following afternoon on ASEAN: its past, present and future cultural ties organized by the Organization of Southeast Nations Students (OSEANS).

Professor Alberto Florentino of the New York University, Professor Cao Duong Pham of the University California Los Angeles (UCLA), Rizal Indrakesuma of the Indonesian Consulate-General in New York and Chettaphan Maksamphan from the Thai Consulate-General , also in New York, were the other speakers.

The forum was attended by about 200 students and scholars in Southeast Asian studies. The moderator was Professor M. Hatch, an Indonesian scholar, from Cornell's Department of Music.

This was what I told the gathering: "By any standard the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is a success. It is a good omen for the future. As an idea, Asean unity, even Asian unity, has always appealed to the hearts and minds of the people of Southeast Asia and Asia.

"Whether this unity is achievable is another matter, the European Union exists even it not as inspiring as most Europeans have hoped for. Perhaps, in good time an Asean Vision, even a state of union will emerge.

"I have always been an optimist all my life that everything is going to finish well. I believe - despite the fact that the nine nations which make up Asean are so unlike in so many ways and things; there are also fortunately common bonds which bind us together; hopefully even closer as time passes.

"As of today, Asean, despite all members sometimes tending to put their national interests ahead of the common weal, had not failed, It is a growing concern which could grow faster if each of the nine-member nations were more open and more enthusiastic to embrace greater regional cooperation. I am glad that even though Malaysia itself is under economic and currency pressures or economically limping, so to speak, we have been able to offer help of US$ 1 billion (RM3.3 billion) to Indonesia and Thailand each which are in even worse trouble that us or, economically-speaking, on IMF supplied-crutches, Brunei and Singapore, I am told, have also chipped in.

"All of us in Asean have a common past except for Thailand. Imperialism was forced upon us and invariably, as expected, ended in rebellion, rejection and humiliation for the colonial powers.

"The imperialist masters imposed different political and economic systems and cultural values, and worse, general deprivation and near loss of our own identities. Our sense of belonging suffered. The result of all this is that we are now at different stages of development and economic resilience and independence.

"That was the past. No person nor a nation can thrive and capture its potential by looking backward. There is no time for basking in the greatness of the past. We have to move on, ever forward looking. There are, of course, deeper and less obvious causes of our disparate conditions. Attitude, suspicion and old habits are very difficult to alter or abandon. Still we must, as indeed we have, sustain unity in diversity.

"And what can we see on the horizon? Life and politics are too complex, and changeable, no government can govern everything wholly, and as a result we are all subject to fast and not necessarily good changing circumstances. Who would have thought - just a few months ago, to be exact, on July 2, a day, after Hong Kong returned to China - what happened and is still happening to the economies of Asean, and now to Asian generally, could have occurred?

"Few foresaw then that the fast-track economies of East Asia and the Asean tigers would be mauled quite savagely the way they were. The question now is: Will there be a prolonged period of adjustment before we resume our fast-track development and life?

"Some people and prophets of doom are already predicting the downfall of another one or two so-called shaky Asean leaders besides the forced resignation of Thai Prime Minister General Chavalit Yongchaiyud. A former prime minister, Chuan Leekpai, has taken over.

"Thailand is an exception, of course. There has been a rapid turnover of their prime ministers and cabinets in the past five years. I not believe slow or slower economic growth will claim many political casualties, especially if, as I expect, the countries affected will scrupulously and quickly strengthen the mechanisms for correcting errors, mistakes and excesses.

"I believe Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, once what needs to be done is in place, will recover, perhaps within two to three years, even faster.