Dr Ong Kian Ming,
Deputy Minister of International Trade and Industry, Malaysia
Associate Professor Simon Tay,
Chairman, Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA)
Distinguished panellists and guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,
1. Thank you Simon and the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) for inviting me to join you at this event.
2. As Chamberlain says, “We are living in interesting times”. The external environment is increasingly volatile as geopolitical and trade tensions rise. There are also serious challenges to the global trade and international economic order.
3. Today, I don’t intend to give a long speech but I will just state three propositions to tickle our minds for discussion.
4. First proposition, Southeast Asia will be at the intersection of China and US geostrategic interests.
a. The strategic lines of communications for China and the US intersect in Southeast Asia.
b. This makes us an area of potential contest of influence.
c. If we position ourselves well, we will be the connector, appreciated by all.
d. If we do not position ourselves well, we may soon come under pressure from all sides.
5. Second proposition, ASEAN must maintain and strengthen its centrality.
a. ASEAN disunited, can easily be torn apart by competing interests from beyond.
b. Or as the saying goes – we either hang together or we are hung alone.
c. ASEAN-centrality can only be achieved if we are individually coherent, committed, confident and consistent.
(1) Coherence – meaning that we will resist populist polices and pressures.
(2) Commitment – meaning that we will adhere to the rules-based system that has been established and the commitments that we have set for ourselves.
(3) Confidence – will require all of us to build strategic trust with one another.
(4) Consistency – will require us to stay the course and not waver in the face of changes or challenges, even if governments change.
6. Third proposition, we will need to redouble our integration efforts to be a viable and attractive partner amidst a fragmenting world.
a. To do so, we will need to muster the political will to tackle more complex and difficult issues. These include:
(1) Addressing Non-Tariff Barriers (NTBs) – Over the last 15 years, the NTBs in ASEAN have tripled and can potentially erode the gains from tariff elimination.
(2) We need to stay the course and promote the exchange of ideas and talent: By remaining open, ASEAN can be a meeting point of talent and ideas, sparking new jobs and opportunities for our people and businesses, and allowing us to be globally competitive.
(3) We need coherence and coordination in our standards and regulations: Aligning our standards and regulations through mutual recognition initiatives, amongst others, in areas such as food, medicine and Intellectual Property, will all add levers to enhance our value proposition and competitiveness in an increasingly knowledge-based, innovation-driven world.
(4) Enhancing our digital connectivity: To unlock the region’s potential and allow the smallest enterprises to overcome its geographical constraints, ASEAN countries will need to deepen the non-tangible aspects of connectivity, beyond the physical aspects of air, land, sea connectivity, and the non-physical dimensions of data, finance, technology, talent and regulations. These non-physical dimensions of connectivity will become, if they have not already, more important than the physical aspects of connectivity.
(5) ASEAN must continue to forge strong external networks and diversify our partnerships across the globe: ASEAN is leading the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations to improve its existing FTAs and underscore the value of an open and rules-based multilateral trading system. The greatest beneficiaries of the RCEP will not just be ASEAN. ASEAN already has various bilateral FTAs with our six partners. The greatest beneficiaries will be the other six partners who do not yet have bilateral FTAs between themselves. When concluded, the RCEP will bring together 16 economies into a single cooperative framework for shared prosperity. At this moment, the RCEP is more than just an economic agreement. It is a strategic signal to the rest of the world that this part of Asia continues to believe in upholding a global, multi-lateral trading order. We are also expanding our external engagement in newer areas such as the ASEAN Smart Cities’ Network. This will add to our global relevance.
7. Ladies and Gentlemen, notwithstanding the challenges, we see tremendous opportunities for the region to distinguish ourselves amidst the uncertainties. The greater the uncertainties, the greater the opportunities for ASEAN to distinguish ourselves. But that is provided we can band together, tackle the tough integration issues and leverage new growth areas to make us an attractive proposition for partners beyond ASEAN.
8. On that note, I will be happy to hear your thoughts. Thank you.