VIENTIANE - Terrorism, improving trade and maintaining Asean's credibility are the three big challenges facing Asean, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told fellow leaders of the 10-member grouping.
At the 29th Asean Summit Retreat on Wednesday morning (Sept 7), Mr Lee focused on these three issues, and called on his counterparts in the region to intensify cooperation on them.
Chief among them is terrorism. While this is an issue that Asean leaders have discussed in recent summits, the threat has evolved, said Mr Lee.
First, self-radicalisation is a growing problem, and lone-wolf attacks such as the truck rampage in Nice, France, and the night-club shooting in Orlando, Florida, are on the rise. The attack in Nice killed 86 people and injured more than 300. In the Orlando attack, 49 people died and 53 were injured.
"These are single individuals, self-radicalised, acting alone, difficult to stop," he said. "In Singapore too, we have been meeting some of these people, and we have picked them up, a steady trickle, one or two a month, and we see this as a continuing problem."
Terror groups are also linking-up with one another, especially in South-east Asia, he pointed out, with groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah and the Abu Sayyaf talking to the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), as well as Uighurs from China.
The frequency of attacks has also increased, he added.
"It used to be a significant attack every few months, now we hear of attacks every few weeks, sometimes every few days in different parts of the world - and you have the Jakarta bombings and shootings in January, the attack in Puchong, Putrajaya, in June and most recently, the bombing in Davao," he said.
The conclusion is that leaders have to work more closely together, such as by sharing intelligence and each country's analysis of threats, counter extremist doctrines, exchange views on fighting terror and "take concerted actions against terrorist groups", he said.
On the other two issues, Mr Lee welcomed efforts to conclude the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade pact to give Asean businesses more opportunities. But he noted that negotiations "have not progressed as quickly as we had hoped".
He also called on Asean countries to stand together on the South China Sea issue
"The South China Sea has become a barometer of Asean's unity and credibility," he said.
He urged Asean members to reaffirm the grouping's commitment to maintaining peace and stability, the principle of freedom of navigation and overflight in the sea, and upholding the practice of resolving disputes peacefully, in accordance with international law.
He added that the grouping should "build on the positive momentum" gained from an agreement Asean and China have reached - to establish hotlines and adopt communications protocols to avoid potential naval clashes in the disputed waters.
These should help build momentum to conclude a binding Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, he said.