PHNOM PENH: With less than three years to go to a deadline to establish an Asean community, the regional bloc is facing a test of its credibility as it continues in its ambitious goal to integrate and form a single market.
At stake is not only the promise of better lives for its 600 million people, but also its reputation, as the world watches to see if it can form a European Union-like community allowing the free flow of goods, services, investment and labour by 2015.
It prompted Singapore and Cambodian leaders to urge their counterparts yesterday to press on with integration efforts, as the region continues to face competition from rising giants China and India.
Giving a sobering message at the 20th Asean Summit, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stressed the need to realise the Asean Economic Community by 2015.
'We must make sure that this project succeeds, both for its own merits and because it is the test of the credibility of Asean,' he said. 'The global business community is watching carefully to see if Asean can deliver on this key project.'
Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, as the current Asean chair, also urged stronger financial cooperation and a greater political will to make integration work, in such areas as protecting migrant workers, lowering trade barriers and narrowing gaps in economic growth.
Their calls were reflected in the Phnom Penh Agenda adopted by Asean's 10 members, which had them pledging to double their efforts on integration.
In his speech, PM Lee suggested one area in which Asean could get moving: kick-starting negotiations on comprehensive economic partnerships with external partners at the next summit later this year.
Called Asean ++, the framework was launched last year to lower trade and investment barriers, but has yet to see any agreements signed, as some member nations have concerns about the potential impact on their local economies.
But, PM Lee noted, Asean should not tarry, given the competition to attract investors' funds. He outlined how Singaporeans, for instance, will benefit from the integration of Asean's 10 markets, which now have a combined gross domestic product of US$1.8 trillion (S$2.25 trillion).
Banding them together, he said, will boost Singapore's position as a regional business hub and create new opportunities in headquarter services such as financing and supply chain management. The opening up of services markets would also give Singapore companies - such as those in accountancy and medical services - greater access to the wider Asean market.
PM Lee also noted how the connectivity masterplan to link up the region through physical infrastructure, trade pacts and cultural and educational tie-ups will benefit Singapore's logistics, infrastructure development and information technology firms.
But Asean, he added, was not just about economic integration - it was also important to close the development gap between its 10 members.
'Singapore is committed to this goal,' he said, and pledged to continue to provide training courses to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. '(We will) work closely with you to keep our training courses up to date and adapted to your needs.'
He also threw Singapore's support behind a pledge by Asean leaders to achieve a drug-free Asean by 2015.
Asean, he concluded, has come a long way - it marks its 45th anniversary this year - and is today an 'effective grouping' of prospering and peaceful countries which enjoys good global standing. 'But there are many more opportunities for us to fulfil our potential,' he said.