SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has called for greater cooperation and economic integration among ASEAN members amid challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As countries strive to get their economies back on track, Mr Lee said: "How ASEAN countries respond to this crisis will decide whether ASEAN will forge ahead of the competition or fall behind."
Speaking on Friday (Jun 26) at the 36th ASEAN Summit, which was held via video conference, Mr Lee highlighted three ways to strengthen cooperation - by sharing technologies, ensuring a steady supply of COVID-19 treatments and by working to prevent the virus from permanently damaging their economies.
“We can use the ASEAN Smart Cities Network to exchange ideas and experiences on using technology to fight COVID-19. For example, technology to enhance contact tracing," Mr Lee said.
He highlighted Singapore's TraceTogether app, which uses Bluetooth signals to record those who have been in close contact with one another.
Mr Lee said Singapore has made it an open source project, so that fellow ASEAN members and others who want to use or adapt it can do so freely.
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On treatments for COVID-19, Mr Lee said ASEAN should work as a region and with its external partners to procure "an equitable, steady and affordable supply of treatments and vaccines" when they become available.
He noted that Singapore is investing heavily in the research and development of diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutics.
"We are also building up our vaccine manufacturing capacity, so that vaccine manufacturers can use facilities in Singapore to meet the demands of the region,” Mr Lee added. "ASEAN countries should also explore working together to facilitate and promote cooperation on to produce and distribute vaccines."
Even as economies around the world have been hard hit by the impact of COVID-19, countries must work together to uphold a rules-based international trading system and maintain supply chain connectivity, said Mr Lee.
"ASEAN needs to show the world that we are open for business. With many countries increasingly turning inwards, an open, stable and integrated ASEAN will attract many investments to our region," he added.
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Mr Lee also called on member nations to develop a protocol to progressively and safely lift the intra-ASEAN restrictions on travel. "Such a protocol can also be a valuable guide in future public health crises,” he added.
Besides COVID-19, leaders also discussed the South China Sea, as well as a trade agreement known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
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Mr Lee described RCEP as an "important piece of our regional economic architecture", saying he is happy that the recent RCEP Ministerial Meeting reaffirmed the commitment of the 15 parties to sign the agreement this year.
"I hope we can fix the date soon. A signing of the RCEP will give a boost of confidence that will help our economic recovery," he added.
ASEAN must also continue to work together on longstanding transboundary challenges such as climate change, transboundary haze pollution and transnational crime, said Mr Lee.
"We must also continue to strengthen ASEAN centrality and unity," he added. "This is the way to be a safe and prosperous region, and a beacon of hope for multilateralism in these trying times."