Asean's digital economy may have immense potential to grow but it will not flourish if the regional bloc does not facilitate trade and investment between its members, said Trade and Industry Minister (Trade) Lim Hng Kiang.
The region's trade architecture might have served the grouping well, but it has to be strengthened so that goods, services and investments can continue to flow across the region, he added.
Mr Lim was speaking yesterday at the opening of an annual retreat of economic ministers from the 10 Asean member countries.
In his speech at the Asean Economic Ministers' Retreat, he outlined Singapore's priorities and initiatives for Asean on the economic front this year.
Singapore, which chairs the regional grouping this year, wants to promote innovation, improve digital connectivity, and facilitate e-commerce flows in the region.
It also seeks to improve trade facilitation, deepen the integration of services and investment, and cultivate a regulatory environment conducive to trade and investment.
Deepening Asean's ties with external partners is also on the cards.
Asean's digital economy is tipped to grow to US$200 billion (S$265 billion) by 2025, with e-commerce making up about US$88 billion, a 2016 study by Google and Temasek Holdings found.
Mr Lim said Asean needs to lay the groundwork now to make full use of these opportunities.
He said: "Our trade architecture might have served us well over the past years, but we need to enhance and update it to ensure that trade and investment flows continue unhindered throughout our region."
Asean is poised to benefit from the recovery of the global economy this year precisely because it laid the foundations well, he added.
It has improved its trade and investment regimes, as well as infrastructure, under efforts to build an Asean Economic Community (AEC). As a result, the rise in investment, manufacturing and trade around the world is expected to boost exports and growth in Asean economies, he said.
This week's meeting, he added, was a chance for ministers to discuss frankly the economic issues confronting the region, and deliberate on how to better integrate Asean's economies, in particular, through the AEC Blueprint 2025.
"The region will benefit from pushing forward the implementation of the AEC," he said. "To do this, all Asean member states must stay the course in pursuing deeper economic integration and liberalisation, so that our citizens can enjoy the benefits of our collective community-building efforts."
Today, Mr Lim will chair the Asean economic ministers' consultations with European Union trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, and they are expected to discuss the next steps to resume talks on an Asean-EU free trade agreement, which were halted in 2009.
Tomorrow, Asean ministers will meet their counterparts from the six key partners involved in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
Malaysia's International Trade and Industry Ministry said it will hold talks on speeding up negotiations, in particular, on market access on goods, services and investment as well as on rules geared towards facilitating trade and investment, to support the expansion and deepening of regional value chains.