SINGAPORE: To boost economic integration and technology adoption in the region, Singapore will enhance its support for an initiative aimed at narrowing the development gap among the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), announced Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Thursday (Aug 2).
Three Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) centres in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos will be upgraded to Singapore Cooperation Centres, which will have an expanded range of technical assistance and new modalities for capacity building.
"Singapore hopes to share our experiences and at the same time, learn from our neighbours and partners,” said Mr Lee during the opening ceremony of the 51st ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM) and related meetings. Singapore is the ASEAN chair this year.
In his speech, Mr Lee stressed the need to continue strengthening regional architecture even as various ASEAN-led structures, such as the ASEAN Economic Community, have served the region well.
This comes amid growing geopolitical uncertainties and how each ASEAN member state is subject to “different pulls and pressures from bigger powers”.
Staying united, as well as maintaining ASEAN’s cohesion and effectiveness, will be “the only way” for the grouping to “remain relevant and be of value”, Mr Lee added.
ECONOMIC INTEGRATION AND TECHNOLOGY
He highlighted two areas where the region can do more, namely economic integration and technology adoption.
On the former, Mr Lee said it is “important” for ASEAN to continue its support for the rules-based multilateral trading system, even as this has come under pressure of late due to escalating trade tensions between US and major economies, such as China and the European Union (EU).
At the moment, ASEAN countries continue to work towards the conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) by the end of the year, and is working with the EU on a Comprehensive Air Transport Arrangement (CATA).
The latter will be the first substantive aviation arrangement between the two regional groupings.
“When established, the RCEP and ASEAN-EU CATA will send a clear signal of ASEAN’s commitment to trade liberalisation and economic integration,” said Mr Lee, even though he added that he does not expect negotiations to be easy given the growing mood of nationalism and protectionism.
Technology and innovation will also have to be embraced, so as to build up ASEAN’s digital connectivity and make itself ready for the future.
For one, the 26 participating cities of the ASEAN Smart Cities Network have held the inaugural meeting last month.
“Singapore hopes that these cities will come together to establish a common framework for smart city development and to develop city-specific action plans and innovative projects that will improve the lives of our peoples,” said Mr Lee.
Meanwhile, Singapore has launched its own efforts to support the drive towards digitalisation – in the form of a Smart Nation initiative – while stepping up cybersecurity defences, especially in 11 critical sectors including healthcare and water supply.
This latter has acquired even more urgency on the back of a major intrusion into SingHealth’s database, in which personal information of 1.5 million people were stolen by hackers, he added.
Officials from ASEAN countries and their key counterparts from the region are in Singapore this week for the annual AMM and related meetings, which started on Monday.
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who will chair the AMM, also addressed the audience at the opening ceremony.
He said that ASEAN is at an "inflexion point" given changes in the security and economic landscape.
"We are transiting into a multipolar world. We are all acutely aware of the storm clouds of the trade war and we can also see and feel the disruption that digital revolution is causing all around us."
Hence, it is vital for the regional grouping to remain anchored on its principles of unity and centrality, maintain an open rules-based regional architecture while remaining a testament to benefits of free trade and economic integration, the minister said.
ASEAN will also have to keep collaborating with external partners, Dr Balakrishnan added.
On the agenda over the next few days of meetings, the East Asia Summit will negotiate a range of statements on topics, such as cybersecurity, smart cities and counter-terrorism.
Singapore is also planning to host a cybersecurity-related ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) workshop later this year, he said.