Asean not just for diplomats and officials: PM Lee Hsien Loong

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong naming a new orchid Renanthera Asean 2018 with National Parks Board chief executive Kenneth Er.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong naming a new orchid Renanthera Asean 2018 with National Parks Board chief executive Kenneth Er.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

SINGAPORE - In supermarkets today, Singaporeans can buy Thai rice, Vietnamese coffee and Filipino dried mangoes at "very affordable prices" - this is one of the ways people here have benefited from a free flow of goods and services among Asean countries.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cited this on Friday (Jan 12) at an event to launch Singapore's chairmanship of Asean, adding: "Asean is not just for diplomats and officials.

"Asean has benefited all of us who live in South-east Asia, including Singaporeans," he said.

As chair of the 10-nation grouping this year, Singapore will start some projects that will strengthen the region's resilience against common threats such as terrorism, cybercrime and climate change. It also hopes to promote schemes to help member economies innovate and use technology.

PM Lee pledged that Singapore "will do our best to take the group forward", in line with the chairmanship themes of resilience and innovation.

Tracing the grouping's history, he said it has brought peace, economic growth and prosperity to the people in the region.

Asean's economic community has also opened up many jobs and business opportunities.

With the Asean Free Trade Area, established since 1992, companies here can reach a combined market of 630 million people, more than 100 times of Singapore's population, he said.

Asean has brought peace and stability to the region as well, said PM Lee.

He added that South-east Asia was "far from being a tranquil place" before Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore came together to form Asean in 1967.

Singapore had just separated from Malaysia; Konfrontasi - or confrontation, waged by Indonesia - was barely over; and the Vietnam War was threatening to spread to the rest of the region.

Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia joined later, bringing Asean to 10 member states.

Had the region remained troubled by conflicts, said PM Lee, Singapore, a small and vulnerable country, might not have survived.

He added that Asean has given its members a voice on the world stage and increased the region's influence internationally.

"We have been able to engage major countries like the US, China, India and Japan, to pursue mutual cooperation, and to deal with problems which concern us," he told the thousands of people who turned up for the event, including Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Trade and Industry (Trade) Lim Hng Kiang, Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee, and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Josephine Teo.

The three-day Experience Asean festival at Ficus Green in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park aims to bring Asean closer to Singaporeans through performances and food from around the region.

It has over 30 food stalls, including those set up by Asean members states' embassies and High Commissions.

Among members of the public who turned up on Friday were administrative executive Mok Chingny, 36, who was with her six-year-old son.

"I thought it would be fun to bring him here and introduce him to the different cultures of our region," said Ms Mok, who added that she is unfamiliar with the different Asean countries.

"Asean, to me, simply represents the countries around us," she said.

Mr Jonathan Chen from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' (MFA) Asean directorate said: "Asean is about its people and its rich diversity. It is also about celebrating inclusivity. This is why MFA is organising this event in a heartland setting."

A spokesman for the Indonesian Embassy expressed hopes that the event will show people how similar, yet unique, Asean's member countries are.

Philippine ambassador Joseph Del Mar Yap also told The Straits Times: "After our successful chairmanship of Asean last year, we are relieved at being able to pass on the baton to Singapore, whom we know will do a great job in steering the organisation."

Asean's chairmanship rotates annually among member states, and Singapore last chaired Asean in 2007.

During this term, the Republic will have to grapple with some thorny issues, such as the humanitarian disaster and mass exodus of refugees in Myanmar's Rakhine state that has strained Asean unity.