Excellencies, Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
1 Very good evening to all of you. Thank you for joining us today as we commemorate the 52nd anniversary of ASEAN’s founding back in 1967. 52 years ago, Southeast Asia was quite a different place. The Cold War loomed over all of us, and the region was rife with tensions. And recognising that survival lay in coming together in unity, the original five founding members of ASEAN banded together to push for regional peace and stability. We shared, actually I should say, they shared, because I think many of the people in this room were not alive, or not yet born fifty two years ago. The pioneer leaders shared the conviction Benjamin Franklin first expressed more than 200 years ago, when he declared, “we must all hang together, or most assuredly, we will all hang separately”.
2 Since then, ASEAN has grown from strength to strength. We have expanded in size and scope, based on the principles of mutual respect and cooperation. We have been able to resolve conflicts through peaceful means and diplomacy, and we have been able to prevent the escalation of friction into wars in our region. We established the ASEAN Community in 2015 and we reaffirmed our commitment to create a stronger, more unified, and cohesive ASEAN, as well as to enhance the openness and the attractiveness of our region to development and investments. An increasingly integrated ASEAN community has enabled ASEAN to grow, and our growth has outpaced that of the global economy as a whole. In fact, we hope that by 2030, ASEAN will be the fourth largest economic block in the world. That’s after the US, China and the European Union.
3 Whilst ASEAN has done well in addressing our early challenges, I think we are all aware that we are also confronted by an increasingly complex and uncertain global outlook even now as we stand here. The major powers are caught up in a tussle for dominance. Populism, protectionism, nationalism are on the rise, and what this means is that we are seeing an inevitable fraying of the global consensus on free trade, economic integration, and globalisation that we have almost taken for granted in the past few decades. Consequently, the rules-based multilateral system that has underpinned ASEAN’s success for the past five decades is actually under significant stress. But geopolitics aside, there are broader challenges arising from the revolution in technology, in particular digital technology, and how that transforms the way we work, live, play, communicate, organise ourselves, and mobilise our societies.
4 So set against this backdrop, this year’s Chairmanship theme selected by Thailand reads “Advancing Partnership for Sustainability”. I think this has particular resonance. It underscores ASEAN’s belief that interdependence promotes stability, and is a necessary precondition for peace and prosperity in our region for the long run. In that regard, we have consistently voiced support for multilateralism and promoted deeper integration, amongst Member States as well as with our external partners. And it is with these principles in mind that we have pushed hard against the global headwinds of the current times for an expeditious conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which will not only advance regional integration but also send a clear and unambiguous signal that we continue to subscribe to the principles of free trade and win-win cooperation.
5 The theme “Advancing Partnership for Sustainability” also represents our shared commitment to move forward as equal partners as we aim to achieve a “Digital ASEAN”. And in line with this theme, ASEAN has put forth several initiatives which were targeted at building resilience to disruption, to enable our people to ride the technological waves, and to ensure sustainable development, inclusive and fair for all citizens. A key effort in this has been the ASEAN Smart Cities Network (ASCN), which we launched when we were Chair of ASEAN last year. We are very glad that Thailand and the other Member States have committed to keeping this as a combined effort for the long run. The cities from 10 ASEAN Member States will work towards a common goal of smart and sustainable urban development, and I look forward to seeing our efforts bear fruit as we strive for an ASEAN where all our cities are inclusive, vibrant and inter-connected, and with a high degree of interoperability, so that we can deliver integrated services that will meet the needs and aspirations of our citizens in this digital age.
6 I want to take this opportunity to highlight a few more initiatives that ASEAN has introduced recently to advance its agenda for integration. The ASEAN Law Academy, launched in 2018, held at the National University of Singapore is an attempt to equip policymakers, practitioners, and academics with a deeper understanding of ASEAN’s institutions and the legal frameworks that underpin these institutions. I am happy to note that participants in this year’s Academy are here with us tonight. We are also committed to speeding up implementation of the ASEAN Single Window, which builds on ASEAN’s already impressive economic integration by further reducing barriers to trade through the efficient and quick electronic exchange of customs data.
7 When we look back at ASEAN’s progress over the decades, it is always important - and this is worth emphasising - to remember the heterogeneity of our region. Southeast Asia is made up of almost 640 million people; we speak a thousand different languages and dialects; we are spread across 10 countries with unique and diverse social, economic and political structures – No other part of the world has this degree of diversity. And in the midst of this diversity, one of our defining features has been our ability to ensure that every single Member State, regardless of size or circumstances, has an equal voice. And whilst I note that some people have questioned the efficiency of ASEAN’s consensus-based approach, I firmly believe that this is not a bug, but a design feature. And this design feature has enabled us to pursue long-term regional integration, and the promotion of our interests so that we can all ultimately achieve enlightened national, long-term interests, and safeguard the welfare and the prospects for all our citizens. It is this foundation of ASEAN unity that has contributed significantly to where ASEAN stands today.
8 So let me conclude by emphasising that although we are here tonight to celebrate our history, we are also here to celebrate our achievements. But we should also reflect our humility that our work is far from complete. And we are confronting a new, fresh set of challenges. But if we get it right, this will also be a win for the second stage – a stage where I hope ASEAN will soar even higher and our people can look forward to even better lives as one stable, peaceful, and prosperous region.
9 Thank you all very much.
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