SINGAPORE - Asean must aim to boost intra-regional trade to open up more opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises in the light of growing investments in the area, said Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Tuesday (Nov 13).
Tun Dr Mahathir said that the current level at around 25 per cent "has been stagnant", and should be raised to more than 30 per cent.
Additionally, intra-regional investment is now close to 20 per cent, up from 5 per cent 20 years ago, which shows "great promise" and "must be capitalised".
"Achieving over 30 per cent intra-trade in Asean is seemingly an ambitious target but still all in Asean must pursue and embrace this," he said in his keynote speech to policymakers and business leaders at the Asean Business and Investment Summit (Abis) on the sidelines of the main Asean Summit.
"Raising intra-regional trade does not mean Asean is inward-looking but rather opening up opportunities for SMEs as well as exploring new possibilities," he added.
The 93-year-old leader said the region needs foreign direct investments to create quality jobs in the region but warned against being mere consumers of foreign goods and services.
Asean should emulate successful Asian countries and develop its own capacities to produce goods and services for itself and for export.
It should also improve its infrastructures and strengthen economic connectivity, and "make full use" of the 640 million people of Asean as a domestic market.
"Although we may be poor, but numbers count in the strength of markets," he said.
The ongoing trade war between the two world powers is bound to create a "domino" effect, prompting other developed countries to adopt protective measures against developing countries including Asean members.
These could be in the form of quotas, levies and other restrictions to regulate markets, among other things.
Dr Mahathir said he is seeing the rise of trade protectionism, resurgent nationalistic movements and inward-looking policies slowly taking place within Asean itself.
"However, this is not the time to close our doors by invoking trade protectionism measures but instead we should be actively engaged in finding amicable solutions and resolving trade issues through multilateral dialogues such as between Asean countries," he added.
This is Dr Mahathir's first official visit to Singapore after regaining his post as Malaysia's prime minister after the Pakatan Harapan coalition he led won stunningly in the May general election.
On Monday, Dr Mahathir and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reaffirmed the strong ties between Singapore and Malaysia.
Dr Mahathir also met President Halimah Yacob and was hosted to an official lunch by Mr Lee.
He also posed for a photo of an orchid named after him and his wife, Tun Dr Siti Hasmah.
Earlier on Tuesday, Dr Mahathir was conferred an honorary doctorate in law by the National University of Singapore.