Cooperate to mitigate economic damage: PM Lee

Even as countries battle the coronavirus pandemic, they need to work together to mitigate the economic damage and find ways to return to a sustainable new normal, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

To do this, countries should maintain a level of trade and economic activity, develop safe and controlled ways for people to resume travel, and strengthen support for one another using regional platforms.

"The natural instinct of every government is to put their own people first, and to secure resources and supplies for themselves.

"But unless we are able to maintain trust and work with one another, our supply chains will break, production will be disrupted, and we will go back in the ultimate limit, to autarky and everyone will be much worse off," PM Lee said.

The Prime Minister was speaking at the Special Asean Plus Three (APT) Summit, which included leaders of the 10 Asean countries as well as China, Japan and South Korea. Also present at the virtual meeting was World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The leaders stressed the importance of mounting a collective response to the pandemic, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang emphasising that countries need to demonstrate the APT's "positive and special role in fighting the epidemic and revitalising the economy".

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said his country, having borne the brunt of the outbreak earlier than most, is gradually entering a phase of stabilisation.

"Intensive testing and tracing, rigorous epidemiological surveillance, along with voluntary participation of the people based on transparent information-sharing, have proven to be indispensable in our fight against the pandemic," he said.

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha proposed that an Asean Response Fund be set up to finance the purchase of medical supplies.

The special summit on Covid-19, conducted via video conference, was convened by Vietnam and chaired by its Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

PM Lee said maintaining a level of trade and economic activity is important because when the pandemic subsides, more workers will have kept their jobs and economies can recover more quickly.

He noted that no country wants to lift travel restrictions prematurely, for fear of introducing a new wave of infections.

"But it is possible to work out bilateral or even multilateral arrangements... as one by one, countries bring the Covid-19 outbreak under control, and gain confidence in the success of others in the fight against the virus," he said.

PM Lee also spoke on the importance of regional platforms, like the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralisation.

The currency swap arrangement is a significant layer of the regional financial safety net and provides market confidence and financial stability in the region, he said.

"Other initiatives, like the Asean Plus Three Emergency Rice Reserve, enhance our food security, give confidence to our people, and remind them about the benefits of a globalised world," he added.

No country knows when the pandemic will end or what the world will look like in that future, PM Lee noted.

"But Covid-19 is neither the first, nor the last crisis that will befall us," he said, expressing the hope the meeting would spur more cooperation between Asean and the Plus Three nations to tackle the pandemic.

"With this spirit of collaboration, I am confident that we will emerge from this crisis stronger together."

Linette Lai

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 15, 2020, with the headline Cooperate to mitigate economic damage: PM Lee. Subscribe