MANILA: Calling ASEAN a “bright spot in the global economy”, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Saturday (Apr 29) said the group must not succumb to the wave of anti-globalisation and protectionism.
Mr Lee, speaking at the 30th ASEAN Summit Plenary, also urged member nations to safeguard ideals of unity and centrality, saying a united ASEAN gives it a place on the international stage.
Mr Lee noted that ASEAN grew twice as fast as the global average in 2016, and the region is enjoying demographic dividends of a young population and a growing middle class.
Against a backdrop of protectionist sentiments and inward-looking policies, the Prime Minister said ASEAN must instead build on its growth. One way it can do this, he said, is by deepening its economic integration, through supporting efforts for a “credible and high quality” Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP).
The RCEP will provide for a free trade agreement (FTA) between ASEAN nations and its existing partners - China, South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and India. It has gone through 17 rounds of negotiations, with the next round to be held in Hanoi in May. At the ASEAN Summit in Laos last year, Mr Lee noted negotiations were not progressing as quickly as hoped.
“Rather than set a low bar, (we) should push hard to conclude the RCEP speedily with the participating countries to maximise benefits for our businesses and people,” he said on Saturday.
"This will be an important signal to demonstrate that the region remains economically vibrant, is open for business and is confident about our economic trajectory," he said.
ASEAN’S VALUE PROPOSITION MUST NOT BE TAKEN FOR GRANTED
The regional bloc celebrates its 50th anniversary this year; it was established with the signing of the ASEAN Declaration in Thailand in 1967. The association started off with five members, including Singapore and Indonesia. It now has 10 member nations.
Mr Lee said even as member nations celebrate achievements, they have to keep ASEAN strong and relevant for the next 50 years. He said there is a reason why major powers engage the grouping, and participate in ASEAN-led processes such as the East Asia Summit.
"It is because a united ASEAN gives us a place on the international stage. Individually, our influence is limited but together, ASEAN has amplified our collective voice in the world," he said.
“We cannot take for granted that ASEAN’s value proposition will last indefinitely, especially in today’s uncertain regional and international strategic climate."
Mr Lee said there is a growing divergence in opinion on socioeconomic and political issues, both within and between countries. By safeguarding ideals such as unity, ASEAN can build its resilience and maintain its relevance and value to its people as well as its external partners.
Mr Lee also paid tribute to the civil service, calling it “the backbone” of good governance in the region.
Later on Saturday, leaders are expected to sign a document - the ASEAN Declaration on the role of the Civil Service as a catalyst for achieving the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 - that aims to strengthen the role and enhance closer cooperation among the region's civil service sectors.
Mr Lee called it heartening that ASEAN civil services are closely cooperating to develop critical capabilities and share best practices.