PM Lee Hsien Loong urges Asean to push forward on measures to draw region closer together

KUALA LUMPUR - Asean countries are making good progress in implementing blueprints for a more integrated region, but Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Monday urged them to give the remaining items "a strong push over the finish line".

These items, he noted, are the most difficult to implement, but will yield significant benefits.

Mr Lee was speaking at a closed-door plenary session for leaders of 10 Asean members at the grouping's 26th summit here.

He highlighted three issues he felt was important for the region to move forward on.

One, greater services liberalisation.

Mr Lee noted that members were already negotiating their tenth and final Asean Framework Agreement for Services Package, yet many still find it hard to get services sectors to liberalise to the degree that has been agreed.

Two, air transport services.

While the region had made good progress in implementing the Asean Open Skies agreements, it had to complete its ratification by the end of this year, and engage key partners on air services liberalisation.

Three, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

Mr Lee said negotiations on this Asia-Pacific wide free trade agreement had been slow thus far.

"Asean has to show leadership and aim for a high quality agreement rather than set ourselves a low bar," he said, saying the pact would benefit all people in the region.

Mr Lee touched on the issue of sustainable growth, saying he welcomed Indonesian President Joko Widodo's commitment to tackle the issue of forest fires behind transboundary haze pollution.

"That all 10 ASEAN Member States have ratified the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution show that we recognise the importance of this issue," he said.

"The next step is for us to operationalise the Haze Monitoring System and develop more cooperative projects," he added.

Mr Lee also touched on the Asean Community's post-2015 vision, and suggested three priorities members could focus on.

First, they had to deepen economic cooperation, for example by tackling more challenging behind-the-border issues like non-tariff barriers.

Second, they should widen cooperation to new areas like disaster management, regional nuclear safety, and transboundary pollution.

Third, they should strengthen the organisation and secretariat of Asean.

He noted that officials had discussed making Asean processes more efficient to allow for more time for meaningful discussions.

Mr Lee said he was also in favour of leaders having the flexibility to decide whether they needed to hold one or two summits a year.

In this regard, he was glad the foreign ministers meeting on Sunday had agreed to Laos' proposal to host the 28th and 29th summits back-to-back in November 2016.

"We can endorse this interim approach while our officials work towards a long term solution," he added.

PM Lee put on record Singapore's support for an Asean common time zone, which Malaysia had propose but which was still under discussion.

He also thanked his counterparts for their kind words and tributes to first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who died on March 23.

"He, together with other pioneering Asean leaders, including pioneering PM Tun Abdul Razak, worked hard to make Asean a success," PM Lee said.

"They fostered peace and stability, and set us on a path of regional integration. It is incumbent on us to build on their legacy," he added.

zakirh@sph.com.sg