Asean is tangible reality for many, Najib says at opening of summit

When many Malaysians found themselves trapped on the ground in the ongoing turmoil in Yemen, their government undertook a dramatic evacuation, transporting its citizens from Aden to Djibouti, and then to Jeddah on a Malaysian army aircraft.

Malaysia also helped evacuate citizens from fellow Asean countries, including Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia, Prime Minister Najib Razak said on Monday at the opening of the Asean summit.

"I am gratified that similar exercises were carried out by the other Asean governments as well, each rendering assistance to the other's citizens, as one. That is the spirit of Asean," he said.

Mr Najib cited this example to illustrate how the ties that bind people across South-east Asia - "and the great idea that is Asean" - are a tangible, personal reality for many as the grouping seeks to achieve a "people-centred Asean" and declare a more united Asean Community by the end of this year. 

Asean countries have agreed to help provide emergency assistance to nationals of Asean neighbours in crisis situations.

Earlier this month, Singapore's Foreign Ministry had also evacuated eight Singaporeans alongside nationals from Brunei, Cambodia, Malaysia and Vietnam from Tarim in Yemen to Salalah in Oman.

"A people-centred Asean is one in which our citizens feel that they are not just part of Asean, but that regardless of who they are - rice farmers, Forex dealers, business owners, fishermen, engineers - our citizens actually feel that they are Asean, and its future is their future," Mr Najib said.

Later on Monday, the 10 Asean leaders will meet MPs as well as representatives from business groups, youth and civil society groups to listen to their views on how the grouping can work with them better.

There will always be differences between countries, Mr Najib added, saying this was inevitable in a diverse grouping.

"We believe the way to iron out any differences of opinion is amicably, with tolerance, mutual understanding and respect. That is the Asean way," he said.

This approach, Mr Najib added, also extended to managing differences over overlapping maritime claims in the South China Sea, where he called for Asean to address developments in a proactive, but positive and constructive way.

Respect for international law must be the basis of the rules of engagement and activities in the South China Sea, he said.

Leaders are expected to discuss the South China Sea, as well as progress on the Asean Community and the threat of extremism, during their meetings on Monday.