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PM Lee: Multilateralism key to Asean’s growth

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He stresses importance of collaboration in shifting geopolitical landscape

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday underlined Asean's strong belief that multilateralism and working together are key to the region's growth and stability.

This comes against the backdrop of a shifting geopolitical landscape that has seen some countries, including major powers, resort to unilateral actions and bilateral deals.

"The international order is at a turning point," he said, adding that, at the same time, threats such as terrorism and climate change loomed on the horizon.

Asean will work with external partners to tackle the challenges facing an interconnected world, said Mr Lee at the opening ceremony of the Asean Summit.

"We are determined to maintain an open, inclusive and Asean-centric regional architecture," he added.

Singapore is the Asean chair this year, the 51st year since the regional bloc was formed.

Mr Lee noted that the free, open and rules-based multilateral system that has underpinned Asean's growth and stability, was now under stress.

"Countries, including major powers, are resorting to unilateral actions and bilateral deals, and even explicitly repudiating multilateral approaches and institutions," he said in his address at the Suntec Singapore International Convention and Exhibition Centre.

It is unclear if the world will settle into new rules and norms, or if the international order will break up into rival blocs, Mr Lee added.

He noted that these strategic trends of big power competition and shifts against multilateralism are pulling Asean member states in different directions.

While each member state has its own strategic outlook and national interests, Asean has shown it can still work together and find common ground.

By coming together in one collective voice, the grouping has strengthened its standing in the world, he added.

He pointed to how Asean-centric platforms like the East Asia Summit (EAS) have enabled Asean countries to engage with major countries and international organisations.

EAS members including China, Russia and the US are in Singapore for the forum.

Noting that Asean is slated to be the world's fourth largest economy by 2030, he said its future is bright.

But he also listed the new challenges it needs to address, including disruption from digital technology and transnational threats like terrorism and climate change.

Highlighting the need to pool minds and resources to tackle these issues, Mr Lee said that is the reason Singapore chose "resilience" and "innovation" as the themes of its chairmanship.

Mr Lee's remarks came at the end of a day where Thai Prime Minister and incoming Asean chair Prayut Chan-o-cha, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang all spoke of the importance of staying open and lowering barriers to trade.