Asean must not succumb to the wave of anti-globalisation and protectionism sweeping the world, and instead press on with economic integration.
This was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's message to the leaders of all 10 Asean member nations yesterday. Speaking at the 30th Asean Summit in Manila, he also stressed the need for the regional grouping to safeguard its unity and speak with one voice on key issues.
It is this unity which has given the group a place on the international stage and is what will ensure its value to other countries.
"Individually, our influence is limited, but together, Asean has amplified our collective voice in the world," he said.
The summit, which is chaired by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, involves a series of meetings to discuss issues such as the ongoing South China Sea maritime dispute as well as ties with China and the United States.
MORE CHANGES TO SINGAPORE'S CABINET NEXT YEAR
I expect to do a much bigger change next year... There will be more ministers, more changes by that time, and then more new ministers will be helming their own ministries.
PM LEE, when asked about last week's Cabinet changes.
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The heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula have also dominated the agenda, after North Korea defied warnings from the international community and tested another ballistic missile yesterday.
Trade is also one of the issues.
To secure its future, Mr Lee said, Asean has to build resilience, and maintain its relevance and value to its own people and other countries.
One way to do so is to press ahead with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and Mr Lee urged his counterparts to support negotiations for a high-quality and credible trade pact between the regional grouping and Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.
Asean should push to conclude the agreement speedily to maximise benefits to its businesses and people, he added.
Said Mr Lee: "The RCEP will be an important signal to demonstrate that the region remains economically vibrant, is open for business and is confident about our economic trajectory."
For the RCEP to work, Mr Lee told Singapore media later, it must be "substantial, meaningful, and have balanced benefits for all of the participants in the package".
It should also bring more benefits than existing trade deals that Asean has with some of the six partners.
This would involve difficult trade-offs, he acknowledged, but "unless we are prepared to make some of these difficult trade-offs... the RCEP risks becoming much ado about nothing, and that will really be a big pity".
The trade deal has gone though 17 rounds of talks since 2013, but hit snags along the way and missed a 2015 deadline for completion.
Asked whether negotiations would finish this year, Mr Lee said: "I'm not a betting person but I think that we need to work on it a little bit longer."
During the meetings, Mr Lee also said it was vital for Asean to continue engaging China and the US, both of which are setting new directions in security, trade policy and other issues.
Noting that US President Donald Trump has said he would be attending the Asean-US Summit and the East Asia Summit in November, Mr Lee said: "It is important to signal that Asean wants to strengthen our relationship with both big powers."
The leaders yesterday also signed a pact to deepen cooperation among their civil services and improve the quality of governance in Asean.
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