SINGAPORE: The centrality of ASEAN has to be strengthened, and the grouping needs to find new areas and fresh commitment to work together in order for it to stay relevant and forward-looking, and central to the region’s architecture and future.
Speaking at the opening ceremony of the 32nd ASEAN Summit on Saturday (Apr 28), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made this point to leaders of the ten-member grouping, stressing the importance of redoubling its integration and community-building efforts.
“ASEAN can only maintain its centrality if it is a substantial endeavour, and its members see value in the shared enterprise,” he said.
“The alternative of a looser ASEAN, where each member state is left to fend for itself, and goes its own separate way, will make ASEAN less relevant not only to its members but also to its partners and to other powers.”
He noted that it would be difficult for each ASEAN state to make much impact on their own. “But when we speak in one collective ASEAN voice, we can be effective.”
Leaders are in Singapore this week for the summit and related meetings. It is the first gathering of ASEAN leaders hosted in Singapore this year.
In his speech, Mr Lee also explained the rationale for its chairmanship themes of “resilience” and “innovation”, pointing out that these themes “encapsulate the situation we are in today”.
“We need to be resilient to both conventional threats, and also unconventional threats such as terrorism and cyber-attacks,” he said, noting that cyber-attacks are increasing amidst the push for digitalisation.
But at the same time, countries need to be innovative and make creative use of technology to grow its economies.
“If ASEAN members can cooperate in this effort, we will strengthen our economic community,” he said.
Mr Lee also outlined the various initiatives that the grouping have agreed on in their vision statement released on Friday (Apr 27).
For one, leaders have adopted a statement on cybersecurity cooperation, which he said “captures our vision for a peaceful, secure and resilient cyberspace.”
He added that leaders have also agreed to launch the ASEAN Smart Cities Network. This network, which is an initiative spearheaded by Singapore, is envisioned as a collaborative platform where up to three cities per ASEAN country work towards a common goal of smart and sustainable urban development.
Mr Lee also said that Singapore will launch a number of initiatives to strengthen the ASEAN Community.
For example, an annual training workshop called the ASEAN Law Academy programme will be established, for ASEAN officials, legal practitioners and legal educators to promote legal integration and education.
Singapore will also provide a S$5 million top-up to the Singapore-ASEAN Youth Fund, which promotes leadership development, community service and entrepreneurship amongst ASEAN youth.
“Taken together, these initiatives will position ASEAN for the future, and strengthen ASEAN’s value proposition to external partners.”