Transcript of speech delivered by PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Opening Ceremony of the 50th ASEAN Economic Ministers Meeting on 29th August 2018.
ASEAN Economic Ministers, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
I am very happy to welcome all of you to Singapore for the 50th ASEAN Economic Ministers’ Meeting.
ASEAN was established 51 years ago, with peace and prosperity as its founding principles. Southeast Asia at that time was a troubled and unstable region, rife with hostilities and confrontation. The original five members – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – came together to form a regional platform so as to put this history behind them, build trust amongst themselves, and bring about peace and stability in the region. That way, each country could focus on its own nation building, and improve its peoples’ lives.
Over the next decade, ASEAN progressively achieved this initial objective. It was a political objective. ASEAN expanded its focus to economic cooperation, so that Member states would not only prosper alone, but thrive together. From the late 1970s, economic cooperation and integration became an important part of ASEAN’s agenda. Eventually, economic cooperation became a key pillar that underpinned ASEAN’s success and cohesion. With stronger linkages came mutual economic interdependence and benefit. It gave Members greater incentive to work together, which further reinforced peace.
It took some time for economic co-operation to gain traction. The five founding Members adopted the ASEAN Preferential Trading Agreements (PTAs) in 1977. But because the Member states’ economies were at different stages of development, and had had very different historical experiences, we naturally held different views about whether and how to liberalise trade among ourselves. Economic integration therefore took a little longer. But over time, as our economies developed, perspectives on these issues evolved, and we took further steps towards deeper economic integration and openness. Supply chains became more intertwined, markets became more open, and countries encouraged more foreign direct investments in one another.
In 1992, ASEAN Members, which had grown to six by then, signed the Framework Agreement on Enhancing ASEAN Economic Cooperation. This was a landmark agreement covering five broad areas of cooperation. Trade; Industry, Minerals and Energy; Finance and Banking; Food, Agriculture and Forestry; and Transportation and Communications. In the same year, we launched the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), which was a major milestone in our economic co-operation.
Thus over half a century, ASEAN has brought peace and growth to Southeast Asia, transforming the lives of 630 million people. The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) is one of the more successful economic groupings in the world, and a prime example of how a united ASEAN is much larger than the sum of its parts. ASEAN is forecast to become the fourth-largest economy in the world by 2030, after the US, China and the EU. 60% of our population is under 35 years old – a growing, educated and young workforce, and an emerging middle class. And ASEAN is projected to continue to grow. GDP growth has averaged 5.4% in recent years, well above the global norm. It is projected to grow around this rate for the next five years. Four of the fastest growing economies in the world belong to ASEAN.
So ASEAN’s potential is clear. But for this potential to be fully realised, we must continue to strengthen regional economic cooperation and integration. All of us are concerned about the growing geopolitical uncertainties. Trade tensions between the US and our other Dialogue Partners including China, the EU and Canada have escalated. The rules-based multilateral trading system, which has underpinned ASEAN’s growth and prosperity, is under pressure. At the same time, each ASEAN Member state is subjected to different pulls and pressures from the bigger powers. In these circumstances, all the more Members must stay united and strive to maintain our cohesion and effectiveness.
It is therefore important that we press on with regional economic integration and fully implement the AEC Blueprint 2025. This will enable ASEAN businesses to operate more seamlessly across the region, and make our companies, and economies, more competitive globally. We must also continue to support an open and inclusive multilateral system, and work with like-minded partners to deepen cooperation. An open and economically integrated ASEAN will be a more attractive and valuable partner to the other economies. To date, ASEAN has concluded six Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with seven of our key trading partners, namely Australia and New Zealand, China, India, Korea, Japan and Hong Kong. ASEAN has also exerted significant effort to make progress on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
The RCEP builds upon the existing five ASEAN Plus One FTAs to strengthen economic linkages, and enhance trade and investment flows. It will be the world’s largest trading bloc, covering a third of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP), bringing tangible benefits to our people and our partners. Of course, given the diversity of RCEP’s members, we all have to make trade-offs and compromises. But we should weigh these against the significant strategic and economic value of the RCEP. The RCEP will be an important signal to the world that ASEAN Members, and our partners, place high value on free trade, regional integration and international cooperation.
The RCEP negotiations have continued for some time, and have now reached a critical stage. After a great deal of work, the possibility of substantively concluding the RCEP negotiations is finally in sight. I encourage RCEP countries to take a long term view, to keep up the momentum, to engage constructively and with maximum flexibility, so that we can deliver a high quality RCEP Agreement this year.
Singapore’s ASEAN Chairmanship has focused on the themes of “Resilience” and “Innovation”. We hope to foster practical steps which promote ASEAN’s growth and integration. Through innovation and technology, we can bring ASEAN economies and cities closer together. We have formed the ASEAN Smart Cities Network, with 26 participating cities. The Network held its inaugural meeting last month. Singapore hopes that the Network will establish a common framework for smart city development in ASEAN, and work out city-specific action plans and innovative projects that will improve the lives of our peoples.
That ultimately is the goal of every ASEAN government – to improve the lives of our 630 million people. Given the diversity of our economies and development levels, it is vital for ASEAN to identify and advance shared interests and goals. So let us all work hand-in-hand to make our vision of an “innovative and resilient ASEAN” a reality for all of us.
Thank you very much.