KUALA LUMPUR: Amid much fanfare on the second and final day of the ASEAN Summit, leaders from the 10-member bloc signed a declaration formally establishing the ASEAN Community at the end of the year on Dec 31. It is a move that is set to bring deeper integration in the region, with a single market and free movement of goods and services.
Also signed was the ASEAN 2025 declaration, charting the group’s vision for community building over the next 10 years beyond 2015.
Speaking to the Singapore media at the end of the meetings, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said there is still work to be done, pointing out that some of ASEAN’s 2015 goals have not been completed.
He said Singapore has programmes to work towards contributing to ASEAN integration, but hopes to look at other areas as well.
"Apart from these specific, tangible items, we will be able to discuss with our other ASEAN partners on ideas (like) how we can strengthen the sense of ASEAN one-ness and identity,” he said. “Because one of the constraints on the governments, and one of the reasons ASEAN finds it difficult to make progress together is because there is not a very strong sense of ASEAN identity.
“It’s really a Singaporean identity, or Malaysian or Indonesian. So that’s the first priority. People don't think of themselves as being ASEAN, except when you have an ASEAN meeting and then you sing songs together and then you see what the ideal is. But to go from that ideal to a reality, I think there is some distance yet."
Mr Lee said this will take some time through initiatives like what Singapore Polytechnic is doing in its youth expedition projects in ASEAN countries or mock student ASEAN meetings. The polytechnic has been presented the ASEAN People’s Award for their contributions toward community building efforts.
ASEAN, G20, APEC SUMMITS
The ASEAN Summit comes on the back of the G20 Summit in Turkey and the APEC Summit in the Philippines, which Mr Lee attended over the past week.
Giving his impressions on the meetings, he said countries share common problems and concerns, for example, terrorism, which was discussed at all three meetings, and dealing with the slow global economy.
“We all have to work together in order to better our lives and to deal with shared problems, including problems between ourselves,” he said. “It is patient work, you go meeting by meeting and item by item, and sometimes it seems to take a long time. But cumulatively, if you look back at where we are today, when we started this process 20 years ago, when we first started having regular ASEAN summit meetings and talking about an ASEAN Free Trade Area, I think we’ve come a long way.
“In practice of course, countries have their own preoccupations and priorities, so ASEAN is never the only item on the agenda. There’s always some domestic issue, which they’re attending to, or some other urgent matter, and they’ve got to trade off. But the fact that we meet, means that our officials have got pressure, have got a deadline, have got to settle matters, and show progress, as indeed you have seen here.”
One example is the upgrade of the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area, which ran into some last minute difficulty on Saturday, resulting in its signing being postponed to Sunday. Mr Lee said because all parties were present and were close to agreement, the document was able to be signed.
As Singapore approaches the end of its Golden Jubilee year, Mr Lee was also asked for his thoughts on Singapore’s relevance in the wider world, given that many ties were reaffirmed or renewed this year. Mr Lee said all that depends on whether Singapore is successful and able to add value to other countries.
Mr Lee cited Singapore’s relations with New Zealand as an example. He shared how when he met New Zealand Prime Minister John Key on Saturday, neither were aware of a little-known fact that their countries established diplomatic relations exactly 50 years ago on Sunday.
“We both should have known this and we could have had a little drink together,” he said. “But the point is for 50 years, we have been friends, and we have found each other useful, valuable, congenially cooperating economically, at multi-lateral forums, defence cooperation, military training and it is because we find them useful, they find us useful.
“I think it's the same with all other partners. With India, we are going to have the 50th anniversary. With Japan and US, in each case, we are looking back at progress and we are trying to look forward and trying to do more. It depends on Singapore being successful, being a constructive member of the global community, being trusted and reliable. You may not always agree but people know that you are straight, you are dealing with them, and we can do business.”
Mr Lee said while there will always be issues among ASEAN countries, the group does give members the opportunity to talk about it and hopefully find a solution.