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Openness to trade vital for economic growth, say Asean leaders

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Asean leaders at World Economic Forum stress importance of tech, collaboration for economic growth

Several Asean leaders yesterday stressed that openness to trade must remain a key priority and strategy for economic growth.

Their message comes as countries grapple with the impact of disruptive technology on jobs and a rising tide of protectionism globally.

Speaking at the opening plenary of the annual World Economic Forum on Asean, the leaders said countries can collaborate and ride on entrepreneurship and technology.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said further economic integration in Asean is vital for the Fourth Industrial Revolution "because it is about building networks, creating new synergies and staying connected".

Asean members are working towards an economic blueprint that will let businesses operate more seamlessly across the region. They play a key role, Mr Lee said, as the private sector - especially small and medium-sized enterprises - is the backbone of Asean economies and the source of entrepreneurship.

Asean, which Singapore chairs this year, is working with like-minded partners to strengthen the open and rules-based multilateral trading system.

"It is a system that has underpinned our growth and stability, but is under pressure, and even threat," said Mr Lee.

This, he added, is why Asean is doing its utmost to make progress on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade deal with six of its key partners, hopefully achieving a substantial conclusion by the end of the year.

Mr Lee met Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and they agreed on the importance of bringing the RCEP to a substantive conclusion this year.

Speaking before Mr Lee, Mr Phuc said Asean nations need to craft policies based not just on their own perspectives but those of the entire grouping.

He suggested the region could start a network to link start-up incubators and provide single-rate mobile coverage across South-east Asia.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo added levity when he cited characters from the superhero film Avengers: Infinity War - villain Thanos and the Avengers who try to defeat him.

"We are heading towards Infinity War," Mr Joko said to laughter.

"But rest assured, I and my fellow Avengers stand ready to prevent Thanos from wiping out half the world population," he added.

"Thanos is not any individual person, sorry to disappoint you. Thanos is the misguided belief that in order for us to succeed, others must surrender..."