Asean ministers ink deal to grow e-commerce as summit starts

Singapore leaders flag need to press on with integration to keep economies growing

The Asean Agreement on Electronic Commerce seeks to strengthen trust and confidence in online transactions and help members seize opportunities in the sector to grow their economies. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

People and businesses across Asean will be able to buy and sell goods and services within the region more easily following deals sealed by the grouping's economic ministers yesterday.

They signed a landmark pact to create a more conducive environment for e-commerce in the region - the Asean Agreement on Electronic Commerce - that seeks to strengthen trust and confidence in online transactions and help members seize opportunities in the sector to grow their economies.

It will encourage cooperation in areas such as consumer protection and privacy, legal and regulatory frameworks, and electronic payments, among others.

The ministers also concluded talks to better integrate service sectors in the region, as well as on enhancements to an existing investment pact so that South-east Asia remains attractive and competitive for foreign investors.

Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, who chaired the meetings, said he was heartened by these outcomes, adding that they were testament to Asean's commitment to free and open trade.

"Against the backdrop of rising anti-globalisation sentiments and trade tensions, Asean will need to continue to stay open and connected, and leverage on our collective strength to navigate disruptive trends and anchor our relevance to the global economy," he said.

Asean's Internet economy is tipped to quadruple in value from US$50 billion (S$69 billion) last year to US$200 billion by 2025, as the pool of its Internet users - now numbering 330 million - grows.

Economic ministers and business leaders from Asean countries were among the first to arrive ahead of today's official opening of the Asean Summit, the last key event of Singapore's chairmanship of the group.

Speaking at the opening of the Asean Business and Investment Summit earlier in the day, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that Asean members had made strides because their governments pursued economic cooperation.

But the grouping, which turned 51 this year, can draw closer still.

PM Lee noted that its businesses have not always been keen on opening their home markets to foreign competition, at times lobbying governments to impose regulations or keep industries closed, even though they have benefited from Asean integration and open and connected economies.

He urged them to adapt to and accept more competition in their home markets in return for more access to their neighbours' markets.

"The more integrated and open our markets are, the more conducive our rules and business environments to foreign investment, the larger the pie will grow, and the more we will all benefit," he said.

Over the next few days of frenzied back-to-back meetings, one key topic Asean leaders are set to speak up on is the need to remain open and uphold the multilateral trading system, a call many have made in a year coloured by trade disputes and growing protectionism.

The role businesses can play to foster economic growth in an increasingly uncertain environment was also highlighted by President Halimah Yacob at the Asean Business Awards gala dinner - to recognise enterprises which have contributed to the region - last night.

"To fully tap into Asean's economic potential, we will need to continue to harness the energy and capacity of Asean's private sector, including our women, youth and social entrepreneurs," she said. "We are in a good position to shape our region's success story on the global stage... Together, Asean is stronger."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2018, with the headline Asean ministers ink deal to grow e-commerce as summit starts. Subscribe