Straits Times: Asean has benefited all living in the region: PM Lee Hsien Loong

On a cold and rainy day yesterday, warm food was particularly enticing.

At the Experience Asean festival at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, the crowd headed for stalls selling dishes such as Singapore laksa, Vietnamese pho and Myanmar mohinga - a rice noodle and fish soup.

More than 30 food stalls serving up dishes from around the region drew more than 5,000 people to the event, which launched Singapore's chairmanship of Asean.

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted in his speech, food items from the region - like Thai rice, Vietnamese coffee and Filipino dried mangoes - are readily available in Singapore at "very affordable prices", thanks to the free flow of goods and services among Asean countries.

This is among the ways that people have benefited from the 10-nation grouping, which has brought peace, economic growth and prosperity to the people in the region since it was formed in 1967, he said.

"Asean has benefited all of us who live in South-east Asia, including Singaporeans," he added, expressing the hope that Singaporeans would get to see more aspects of the grouping this year.

As Asean chair, Singapore will start projects to strengthen the region's resilience against common threats such as terrorism, cyber crime and climate change, and promote schemes to help member economies innovate and use technology, he said.

Singapore "will do our best to take the group forward", in line with the chairmanship themes of resilience and innovation, he pledged.

Tracing the grouping's history, he said South-east Asia was "far from being a tranquil place" before Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore came together to form Asean.

Singapore had just separated from Malaysia; Konfrontasi - or confrontation - waged by Indonesia was barely over; and the Vietnam War was threatening to spread to the rest of the region.

Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia joined later, bringing Asean membership to 10.

Had the region remained troubled by conflicts, said PM Lee, Singapore, a small and vulnerable country, might not have survived.

He added that Asean has increased the region's influence internationally. "We have been able to engage major countries like the United States, China, India and Japan to pursue mutual cooperation and to deal with problems which concern us all," he said.

Asean's economic community has also opened up many jobs and business opportunities. With the Asean Free Trade Area, for instance, companies here can reach a combined market of 630 million people, more than 100 times Singapore's population, he said.

The three-day festival aims to bring Asean closer to Singaporeans through performances and food.

Administrative executive Mok Chingny, 36, was there with her six-year-old son to introduce him to the different cultures of the region.

Philippine Ambassador Joseph Del Mar Yap told The Straits Times: "After our successful chairmanship of Asean last year, we are relieved at being able to pass on the baton to Singapore, whom we know will do a great job in steering the organisation."

Asean's chairmanship rotates annually, and Singapore was last chair in 2007. During this term, the Republic will have to grapple with some thorny issues, such as the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar's Rakhine state that has strained Asean unity.