MANILA: A stabler world to live in, a safer Southeast Asia to operate in and a more prosperous region to grow the economy, these are what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong envisions for Singapore under the Republic’s stewardship of ASEAN.
Speaking to Singapore media on the last day of the 31st ASEAN Summit on Tuesday (Nov 14), he said that Singaporeans should be positive about Singapore’s ASEAN chairmanship. If the regional bloc is effective, it will mean “a stabler world to live in” and a safer and more prosperous region, he said. Singapore will assume the role of chairman next year.
“ASEAN is a lifeboat for all 10 countries in Southeast Asia, to come together, to work together, to have our voice heard on the world stage, to be able to manage our own issues among ourselves,and to cooperate to improve the lives of the people in Southeast Asia,” he said.
Mr Lee officially announced the themes of Singapore’s chairmanship – resilience and innovation – in an acceptance speech during a ceremony to mark the end of the summit. On why these themes were picked, he said careful thought went into what Singapore can contribute as chairman.
Resilience is needed to deal with terrorism, non-traditional and cybersecurity threats which ASEAN is facing, he said.
“These are issues that confront all of us and if we can deal with them, we can make ASEAN a more effective and more valuable organisation,” he added. Innovation was chosen because it was one way all ASEAN member states can make progress together, he said, adding that a large part of that has to do with a digital economy.
While Singapore has Smart Nation, a nationwide push for transformation through technology, other countries have their own start-ups and projects, Mr Lee said.
“If we come together on the theme of innovation, and smart cities, for example, then I think we have something valuable we can do together. And we can get all 10 countries to participate in their different ways and different levels. All of them can join in and all of them can benefit,” he said.
US-CHINA TIES WITH ASEAN
When asked how Singapore, as chair of ASEAN next year, can prevent member states from being made to take sides if ties between the United States and China fray, Mr Lee said: “You cannot prevent member states from doing one thing or another.”
What ASEAN can do as a group is to enhance its cooperation with China and the US at the same time, he said.
“This conference has shown that ASEAN values the relationships with these two powers. These two powers are also paying attention to their relationship with ASEAN,” he said.
US president Donald Trump and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang attended summits at the three-day event.
In an interview with CNBC in October this year, Mr Lee said Singapore does not want to pick sides between the US and China, if there are tensions between the two superpowers. On Tuesday, he said that while US and China would like to deepen cooperation with ASEANin “quite different” ways, the regional group can work with both.
He added that negotiations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea would likely start early next year.
During the ASEAN-China summit, Mr Lee said that ASEAN member states have agreed to officially start negotiations with China on a code of conduct that will govern how South China Sea disputes are handled. China lays claim to almost all of the South China Sea. The other claimants are the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.
The code of conduct is expected to establish legally binding rules and guidelines on avoiding conflicts, and is meant to reduce the risk of armed confrontations in the disputed waters.
Separately he announced that next year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be attending the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual defence summit attended by ministers and military officials.
Mr Lee hopes that Mr Modi will also be able to make an official bilateral visit to Singapore, he said.
“We will be able to have a programme for him which will enhance our really very considerable relationship with India, and perhaps extend our mindshare in India,” he said.