PM Lee on Asean: No 'single spectacular sexy things' but 'multiple patient positive things'

Asean makes a difference in the accumulation of several patient works, PM Lee said.

Keyla Supharta | September 10, 2023, 04:33 AM



"That's what Asean is about. You don't have single spectacular sexy things, but you will have multiple patient positive things," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said during a media wrap-up interview at the 43rd Asean Summit on Sep. 7.

He was answering a question on what Asean is doing to maintain its relevance after having previously warned that the bloc was at risk of losing its relevance should it "remain passive" and "avoid taking positions on all issues".

On maintaining relevance

Asean makes a difference in the accumulation of several patient works, PM Lee said.

Some of the things that Asean is doing to maintain relevance: Updating the agenda to enhance the bloc's cooperation, discussing areas where there is potential for growth and partnership, talking about topics that concern Asean and the region, as well as coming up with substantive agreement and cooperation projects and stances and policies, which will help countries.

This includes discussions on digital economy, which "has a lot of promise" if executed well, and the green economy.

In the matter of cooperation, PM Lee pointed towards the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), which he said has "become a framework which enables [Asean] to cast our cooperation with the region".

The AOIP cooperation touches on tangible, specific areas that fit into a coherent perspective.

This includes connectivity, maritime cooperation, UN Sustainable Development Goals, and economic cooperation, which helps Asean to pursue cooperation and "strengthen Asean centrality in the regional architecture".

"By accumulating all this patient work, Asean makes a difference and has made a big difference to them," PM Lee said.

Asean on the international stage

PM Lee highlighted the importance of Asean in creating a space for leaders from all over the world to come for a discussion with other Asean countries.

He said "there would not be a forum" where world leaders would come to Southeast Asian countries without Asean.

"People from all over the world come and they meet us and they won't do that to come to Singapore. They won't even necessarily do that to come to bigger members of Asean. But because there is Asean every year, we have this forum, and it's very valuable to us," PM Lee said.

Asean can make a statement

PM Lee asserted that "Asean can make a statement" on the international stage.

This is especially so as it carries a substantial population and a substantial amount of gross domestic product (GDP).

"If we didn't have it (Asean) we would be significantly poorer off and less secure," PM Lee said.

Enhancing capabilities, competitiveness, cooperation

Noting the global economic downturn, PM Lee remained positive on Asean's economic growth, adding that Asean is expecting about "4 per cent growth" this year, though it is uncertain what might happen next year.

Asean, with its share of natural gas, oil, and minerals, will be propped up in the longer term.

However, PM Lee said he "wouldn't worry too much about the transients": "I think what you need to do is to enhance our capabilities, and our competitiveness and our cooperation, so that whatever the environment, we can do better for our peoples. And that's what Asean is trying to do."

Asean's latest moves to address Myanmar

When asked about the latest moves to address Myanmar, PM Lee said he didn't think "anything [Asean] do will immediately change the situation in Myanmar".

The topic of Myanmar is a "difficult subject" and a problem that does not have a quick solution.

However, Asean has taken some decisions and steps which will strengthen the bloc's response to the matter.

This includes an engagement with the parties in Myanmar through a kind of "troika".

"We do want to engage the parties in Myanmar, we would like to encourage them, nudge them in a constructive direction to encourage them to talk to one another and to work out a solution which will work for Myanmar," PM Lee said.

New troika to tackle the crisis in Myanmar

PM Lee elaborated that this includes having a new "troika mechanism" comprising of previous, current, and incoming Asean chairs to tackle the crisis in Myanmar.

This would mean the new troika comprises Cambodia, Indonesia, and Laos.

This grouping would ensure that there is a "certain continuity" when engaging the parties in Myanmar, and will make overall engagement with Asean more effective.

"The reporting back to members will be more systematic, and the engagement with three members, hopefully, more can be done," PM Lee said.

"As for how it will be able to cause the violence to stop, to cause solutions to be worked out, to cause humanitarian aid to flow better - those are consequential results, which we hope with better engagement in new course, that will come about but I think it will take time," PM Lee added.

Myanmar will take on chairmanship when they are ready

The summit that took place in Jakarta also discussed the question of the chairmanship of Asean.

Asean's chairmanship rotates annually based on the alphabetical order of the English names of member states.

Myanmar was scheduled be the chair of Asean in 2026, even though the country may or may not be in a position to hold the position by 2026.

During the summit, Asean decided, and Myanmar has agreed, that in 2026, the Philippines will move their term forward to helm the chairmanship instead.

"Myanmar will take on the chairmanship when they are ready," PM Lee said.

"These are useful moves. It won't solve the situation in Myanmar, but it will help us to manage Asean's response to the problem better."

Going to G20

PM Lee is currently back in Singapore after the Asean Summit.

He is making a three-day working visit to New Delhi from Sep. 8 to 10 to attend the G20 summit where he will participate in discussions on the importance of rules-based multilateralism, digital public infrastructure, health, energy transitions and sustainable development.

Top image via Asean Indonesia 2023