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Asean an important 'life raft' in uncertain climate: PM Lee

He calls on the 10-nation grouping to boost air links, tap potential of tourism and develop talent

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The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is an important "life raft" for all the ten member states in the current uncertain global environment, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday.

Singapore

THE Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is an important "life raft" for all the ten member states in the current uncertain global environment, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday.

The spirit of regional cooperation has become more important than ever, as a result of recent global events such as Britain's decision to exit the European Union and the election of Donald Trump, a non-establishment candidate, as the next US president.

"In many countries, the mood is to go it alone, unilaterally push for their own interests, and doubt the value of mutual give-and-take in a rules-based international order," said Mr Lee at a gala dinner at the Shangri-la Hotel to open the three-day Asean Tourism Forum (ATF).

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The 36th edition of this annual event was organised by the Singapore Tourism Board together with the Singapore Hotel Association and the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore. It is the first time the Republic is hosting the ATF since 2007.

Speaking to a 750-strong audience that included Asean Secretary-General Le Luong Minh and tourism ministers from around the region, Mr Lee noted how Asean members have worked steadily and hard over the decades to build up cooperation and benefit one another.

The past year saw the establishment of the Asean Community, and regional cooperation has proven to be a success in Southeast Asia. As such, there is "good reason" for Asean to celebrate its 50th anniversary together in 2017.

But while Asean has made significant progress, Mr Lee stressed that there is much work that still needs to be done.

"In the economic field, we have to press on to deepen economic integration and boost connectivity among Asean countries," he said, citing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Master Plan on Asean Connectivity (MPAC) as two examples.

The RCEP is a proposed mega free trade pact between the ten Asean member states and the six partners with which Asean has existing free trade agreements (China, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan). The MPAC is Asean's flagship project to realise a closer and more integrated Southeast Asia.

Mr Lee also said that Asean members have to work together in security and counter-terrorism, and foster greater people-to-people links in the social and cultural space.

"Asean's objectives are not as ambitious as the European Union's, but if Asean can build on what we have achieved, and deepen our cooperation across the board, all our peoples will benefit," he added.

Turning to tourism, Mr Lee said there is "huge potential" to tap and Asean countries should work together in order to enjoy mutual benefits, grow their economies, create jobs and bring their populations closer.

The latest statistics paint a rosy picture: Visitor arrivals to Asean have increased from 62 million in 2007 to 109 million in 2015, which works out to a compound annual growth rate of almost 7 per cent. Southeast Asia was also the region with the fastest growth in the world in 2015 in terms of tourism's contribution to GDP.

Mr Lee said Asean aims to increase the number of international arrivals by 10 per cent to 121 million, and he described this as an "entirely achievable" target.

He outlined three tasks for Asean to tackle in the coming years.

First is to strengthen air links to make it easier and more affordable for travellers to get from one place to another.

Second, there is also much potential to build up cruise tourism, and Mr Lee said this needs to be a multi-lateral effort.

Third, Asean needs to continue to develop its talent, as investing in people also opens up new opportunities and creates good jobs for them.

The first day of the ATF saw the launch of the "Visit Asean@50" campaign, which looks to showcase Southeast Asia as an attractive, multi-faceted destination for tourists.

The Asean Tourism Research Association will also be offering two post-graduate scholarship schemes. Four universities in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia have pledged to offer scholarships to support the scheme.

Before settling down to dinner, Mr Lee unveiled a special orchid called the Papilionanda Asean Golden Jubilee, a pink hybrid to commemorate Asean's 50th anniversary.

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