Asean has to mount united response to Covid-19 pandemic, should not lose sight of longer-term goals: PM Lee

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stressed the importance of sharing information, given that what works in one country may be relevant for another. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

SINGAPORE - Asean has to mount a united response to the coronavirus pandemic as the region is deeply connected and interdependent, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday (April 14).

He suggested that countries can work together by sharing information, collaborating to keep trading routes and supply lines open, and building resilience to deal with future economic shocks.

At the same time, Asean should not lose sight of longer-term objectives, which are key to enabling economies to survive and recover once the storm is past, said PM Lee, who spoke at a Special Asean Summit on Covid-19 via video conference.

"None of us in Asean can be truly safe unless the entire region is safe," he said, describing the pandemic as "the gravest public health crisis that mankind is facing in this century".

The summit was convened by Vietnam, this year's Asean chair. It was chaired by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

During the summit, countries spoke of the need to mount an urgent response to address the public health, economic and social impacts of the pandemic.

They also shared information about their individual states' responses and discussed ways in which Asean can strengthen cooperation to tackle the crisis.

In his speech, PM Lee stressed the importance of sharing information, given that what works in one country may be relevant for another.

"We should therefore keep one another updated on the situation in our own countries and cooperate with one another on issues which have to be handled together, for example, repatriation of citizens from other countries back home," he said.

Technology can also be used to deal with the pandemic, PM Lee added.

He highlighted Singapore's efforts to use channels like WhatsApp to disseminate information, its work on the TraceTogether app, and its use of technology to monitor compliance with quarantine orders.

PM Lee speaking at the Special Asean Summit on Covid-19 via video conference on April 14, 2020. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

The Asean Smart Cities Network can be a platform to share these best practices, and help cities better prepare for future public health emergencies, he said.

PM Lee also noted that none of the Asean states are completely self-sufficient in essential items such as medical supplies and food. In addition, many export goods and agricultural products overseas.

"Closing our borders completely would therefore only deprive us all of goods and products that we can produce together, hurting our economies and worsening unemployment."

Even as the global network of trade begins to fracture under stress, PM Lee called on Asean countries to stand together to maintain trade among themselves and persuade other trade partners to keep trade flowing.

For instance, the Singapore-Malaysia Special Working Committee on Covid-19 has kept goods flowing between both countries, despite restrictions on the movement of people, he said.

He also called for the adoption of clear guidelines across Asean to help the region take "a balanced, rational approach that takes into account both health and economic considerations" when dealing with such crises.

"It would be useful for Asean to have a set of common criteria or guidelines on when to impose travel or trade restrictions, and when and how we can relax them and with what appropriate safeguards," he said.

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Rounding up his speech, PM Lee noted that the crisis will fundamentally change globalisation.

"There will be controls on movement of people across borders. Governments will intervene to prevent over-dependency on other countries for food, medical products and other essential goods," he said. "And on all parties, I fear that there will be diminished confidence that international rules will hold and be respected in a crisis."

Even as Asean considers these issues, member states must do their best to build cooperation and trust with one another, he said.

Leaders have the responsibility to rebuild domestic confidence in the value of cooperation and maintaining an open approach to partners both regionally and around the world.

"We should build on the relationships and institutions that Asean has created over half a century. We must resist the temptation to turn inwards and away from one another," he added.

PM Lee said Asean should still aim to sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement this year, and also continue pursuing the Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement with the European Union.

"Dealing with the immediate crises while not losing sight of the longer-term objectives is the best way to enable our economies to survive this crisis, and to bounce back after Covid-19 passes," he said.

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