Asean must stay cohesive and united, given troubled external environment, says PM Lee

He also stressed that economic integration must always remain Asean’s priority.

Hariz Baharudin

Hariz Baharudin

The Straits Times


PM Lee Hsien Loong (left) stressed that economic integration must always remain Asean’s priority. He was speaking at the Asean summit chaired by Indonesian President Joko Widodo. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

May 11, 2023

LABUAN BAJO – Asean countries cooperated well during the Covid-19 pandemic and the grouping must stay cohesive and united at the highest levels given the troubled global outlook, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday.

Addressing fellow South-east Asian leaders on the first day of the 42nd Asean Summit, PM Lee called on them to continue providing opportunities for the region’s people to prosper and engage external partners.

Leaders of the regional grouping are in Labuan Bajo, a town on the western tip of Indonesia’s Flores island, for the two-day summit chaired by Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

Said PM Lee: “The world has come through the Covid-19 pandemic, but the global environment is increasingly troubled. Against this backdrop, Asean must press on with our regional integration efforts.”

One way for the bloc to do so is to deepen its economic collaboration and expand into new growth areas, such as the digital and green economies.

PM Lee stressed that economic integration must always remain Asean’s priority.

Underscoring how effective regional integration underpins Asean centrality, he said the grouping needs to upgrade its core agreements, such as the Asean Trade in Goods Agreement, to keep them relevant to evolving business practices.

PM Lee also said Singapore strongly supports Indonesia’s efforts to develop the Asean Digital Economy Framework Agreement, and welcomes the proposed Leaders’ Statement to develop the agreement, which is targeted to be issued later this year. “We can reap tremendous economic gains by improving the digital connectivity and literacy of our peoples,” he said.

Turning to the green economy, he said Singapore supports the strengthening of energy interconnectivity under Indonesia’s chairmanship of Asean. PM Lee held up the success of the Lao PDR-Thailand-Malaysia-Singapore Power Integration Project, and said it shows that multilateral power trading in the region is feasible.

The intergovernmental project was set up in 2014 to study the feasibility of cross-border power trade, and Singapore began importing renewable energy from Laos via Thailand and Malaysia in 2022.

“We should build on this and work towards an Asean Power Grid, which will strengthen member states’ energy security and resilience, and advance regional decarbonisation,” said PM Lee.

On Asean’s external partners, PM Lee noted that negotiations on the Second Protocol to Amend the Agreement Establishing the Asean-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area (AANZFTA) were recently concluded, and negotiations on a second upgrade of the Asean-China Free Trade Area (ACFTA) have begun.

“Both upgrades include new areas such as the digital economy, green economy and supply chain connectivity,” he said.

Beyond the economic sphere, Asean should also step up cooperation on transnational issues. PM Lee said this includes protecting the region’s people from increasingly sophisticated cross-border threats.

Singapore supports Indonesia’s initiative for a Declaration on Combating Trafficking in Persons Caused by the Abuse of Technology, he said. Indonesia had earlier announced that human trafficking will be one of the main issues discussed at this week’s summit, amid growing concern over the rising number of cases in the region.

Asean also should enhance cyber security cooperation, said PM Lee, who added he was happy that good progress has been made on the Asean Regional Computer Emergency Response Team (Cert) proposal. This team will strengthen regional cyber cooperation and incident response capabilities against sophisticated cyber threats, he added.

Deepening cooperation in Asean requires strong political support, said PM Lee as he called on the leaders to stay united and embrace a shared vision for Asean’s future.

He welcomed statements from the leaders on the development of the future Asean community as well as strengthening the bloc’s capacity for institutional effectiveness. The statements, which are planned to be adopted at the summit, affirm the bloc’s shared commitment to the proposed core elements of the Post-2025 Vision submitted to Asean last year, said PM Lee.

He added that among other things, this vision calls on the Asean community to remain open, transparent, inclusive and rules-based, with deeper external engagements, as well as to pursue new areas of cooperation.

The vision also seeks to strengthen Asean as an institution, and PM Lee said that Singapore welcomes efforts to review the grouping’s capacity and institutional effectiveness. “We should streamline and optimise Asean processes, and strengthen the Asean Secretariat and the role of the Asean secretary-general to enable them to more effectively implement our key priorities,” he said.

Timor-Leste Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak attended this week’s Asean Summit for the first time as an observer. This comes after the grouping decided at its previous summit in Cambodia to admit the island-nation in principle as its 11th member.

PM Lee said Asean looks forward to welcoming Timor-Leste into the grouping, adding that the bloc took a significant step on Wednesday by adopting the road map to its membership.

Timor-Leste Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak attended this week’s Asean Summit for the first time as an observer. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

This plan sets out the obligations and commitments of membership which Timor-Leste needs to fulfil. PM Lee said the road map is robust and comprehensive, and has been extensively discussed and carefully designed.

He noted that the road map also has Asean’s full support, and Singapore looks forward to working with Timor-Leste to complete all the requirements, including negotiations to accede to Asean’s extensive set of treaties and agreements, so that Timor-Leste can join the grouping soon.

“Singapore will continue to support Timor-Leste to build its capacity as it prepares to join Asean. I am sure fellow member states and our external partners will do so too,” he said.

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