Vivian Balakrishnan sets out Singapore's priorities as 2018 Asean chair

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan speaking at a lecture titled Asean: Next 50 at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, on Dec 5. PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - As Asean chairman in 2018, Singapore wants to connect Asean's people and economies seamlessly in a network of Asean smart cities.

At the same time, it wants to boost cyber security, said Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on Tuesday (Dec 5).

"We need to step up urgently on cyber security because you can't have a smarter world and seamless digital transactions if you don't have cyber security. It's the flip side of the coin," he told about 200 business leaders, diplomats and academics.

Dr Balakrishan was giving a lecture titled Asean: Next 50, in which set out Singapore's priorities as the regional grouping's incoming chairman.

His speech fleshed out the broader strokes painted by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at last month's Asean Summit in Manila, when he symbolically took over the chairmanship from Philippines.

Singapore will focus on strengthening Asean's resilience and ability to innovate, using digital technology to deal with challenges that cut across national boundaries.

Dr Balakrishnan painted a vision of a single digital market across Asean, as an example of regional integration.

This would have "norms that will guard cyber security and yet enable cross-border transactions at very much lower transaction rates".

Among the potential benefits of building such a network: Asean's many migrant workers will be able to remit their salaries at more affordable rates.

Said the minister: "These hardworking people, in my opinion, pay exorbitant rates to remit money back home. Can we make sure hardworking people get to remit the fruits of their labour to their families back home in as cost-effective way as possible?"

Freer trade and regional interdependence

Singapore also wants to strengthen Asean's economic and financial resilience while deepening the grouping's ties with external powers.

"We want to give everyone a bigger stake in our region's prosperity," said Dr Balakrishnan.

"When we meet superpowers, my usual line to them is that it is in your own long term interests for Asean to succeed because we will be your biggest trading partner," he added.

Championing interdependence, he said: "We believe that the way to secure peace is to promote interdependence and tell everyone that you gain more by working together, investing in one another, trading with each other."

To this end, Singapore as chair will step up efforts to achieve a high quality Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a trade pact involving all 10 Asean member states and six countries which Asean has free trade agreements with. The six are: China, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan.

Together, the countries in the pact represent almost a third of global gross domestic product.

The longer-term aim is for an Asia-Pacific free trade area, said Dr Balakrishnan.

"Whether RCEP or TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), to us they are just multiple roads that lead to a larger destination," he said.

Dr Balakrishnan also noted that Asean and China formally announced the start of negotiations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, at the Asean Summit in November.

"This is a very positive sign that both China and Asean countries want to achieve peace and stability and ensure that the South China remains a calm sea.

"This is crucial because it is a critical artery for free trade. And free trade is essential for the economic development and transformation of our region," he added.

Singapore will also boost regional business opportunities by pushing for the Asean Single Window, a digital platform which will boost trade by clearing cargo and releasing shipments faster.

Singapore will also work on an Asean-wide self-certification regime, which will allow authorised exporters to self-certify that their goods meet Asean requirements for receiving preferential treatment.

To strengthen regional rule of law, Singapore will also work on a Model Asean Extradition Treaty, a possible precursor to a legally-binding extradition treaty.

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