May 12, 2023
LABUAN BAJO – It may take awhile for Timor-Leste to accede to the slew of agreements that Asean has already signed, but Singapore and the bloc will help it fully participate in the group, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
The island-nation attended the recently concluded 42nd Asean Summit as an observer, following the decision made at the 2022 summit to admit it to the bloc in principle.
Speaking to reporters after the two-day summit, held in the town of Labuan Bajo on the western tip of Indonesia’s Flores Island, PM Lee said on Thursday that joining Asean is a very heavy responsibility because the bloc has grown in so many directions.
“There are something like 66 Asean agreements, and it will take a while for Timor-Leste to accede to all of them. And I think it’s important that Timor-Leste completes all this process so that by the time it joins Asean, it’s really truly an Asean member and not just a half-member or member-in-waiting,” he said.
“So that is something which we will work on, and help Timor-Leste to work on.”
On the summit’s first day on Wednesday, Asean adopted a road map that spelt out the steps that Timor-Leste must take so that it can gain full membership to the bloc.
Timor-Leste gained independence from Indonesia in 2002, making it Asia’s youngest democracy. The resource-rich country of 1.3 million people immediately started the process of joining Asean, but formally applied for membership only in 2011.
Despite being rich in offshore oil and gas resources, Timor-Leste faces major challenges in rebuilding its infrastructure, strengthening civil administration and generating employment for youth who have entered the workforce since independence, according to Indonesia’s Finance Ministry website.
In 2017, Timor-Leste’s gross domestic product stood at US$7.426 billion (S$9.85 billion), and per capita income was US$6,000, according to ministry data.
PM Lee highlighted how Singapore has put together the Singapore-Timor-Leste Asean Readiness Support training package, which the Republic launched in December 2022. The programme aims to train hundreds of Timor-Leste officials in support of the country’s bid for Asean membership.
Singapore has always helped Timor-Leste with capacity building, and PM Lee noted that it has conducted courses for some 800 of its officials, and that it stands ready to support more.
“We’ve also gone and conducted courses in Timor-Leste for the officials to help them to understand what is the issue, but I think that it is not easy because it’s a small country… and to generate this bureaucracy, the officials who can master all of this and participate – I think it will take them awhile. But we will help them to do it as soon as possible,” he said.