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JUST because the Asean Economic Community (AEC) will be formed by the end of this year as planned does not mean that all issues will have been resolved by then, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said.
Setting up the AEC is a big step, but would not signal the end of cooperation among the member states of Asean; more stands to be done, including accomplishing what the grouping has set out to do by December, he said. "I suspect there'll be some items which we will not have completed by then and which will be outstanding business," he told a group of Asean journalists in an hour-long interview on Thursday.
One example of outstanding business is the South China Sea dispute, which continues to be a security issue in the middle of South-east Asia. "Asean has a stand, which is that we should be negotiating a Code of Conduct. We want to complete the Code of Conduct with China. We are in the process of doing this," he said, even as he acknowledged that it was "taking a while".
He also stressed that each Asean country would have a varying position on the issue, depending on whether it was a claimant state; the dispute with China directly affects four Asean countries - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
He said that each claimant state would have a direct stake in the issue and would have to fight in its own corner; a non-claimant state such as Singapore was not in a position to back the Asean claimant states on the basis of being fellow Asean members.
"We cannot. We are not in a position to judge the claims. But we are in a position to say we are affected by how this dispute is resolved and if it is not resolved peacefully, we will have a problem, and if it is not resolved in accordance with international law or the Convention on the Law of the Sea, we will have a problem. So, that is where Asean stands."
Beyond such territorial disputes, however, Mr Lee said, Asean needed to think about its next step in regional integration and cooperation.
Referring to the high-level task force that is working on this, he said: "Part of its recommendations, I am sure, will be on working towards narrowing the development gap and how the Indo-Chinese countries can be helped to grow faster, either through human resource development or trade or technical cooperation. We look forward to the ideas."
Separately, on the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis, he said that Asean needed to discuss what can be done, but he stressed that the issue had to be dealt with "upstream, in the source countries" - by mitigating the hardships people face and by tackling human trafficking rings.
"There are many problems in the world. Asean cannot solve all of them. Even serious problems - we can work together, we can influence one another, we can encourage other countries, but Asean is not one country and it's not possible for Asean to say 'You do that' and 'You put a stop to this'."
In his wide-ranging interview with the 17 journalists, he also touched on the role of the opposition in parliament.
"I think the progress comes from the quality of the discussion in parliament. It is not the numbers which count, it is what contribution they make. And if you have an opposition which is responsible, which raises serious issues concerning the country, offers real alternatives to the population and which then debates the hard choices the country has to make . . . that is the duty of the opposition.
"If they do that - whether they have one member, whether they have 10 members - they are good opposition. If they don't do that, you may have 20, 30 members, you are not being responsible. So, I would not go on the numbers. I would go on the substance of the debate."
As for the affordability of housing in Singapore, Mr Lee said that it was an issue the government paid a lot of attention to, and that he believed it to be "well under control".
He also disclosed that the currency-interchangeability agreement between Brunei and Singapore - which has now been in place for more than 40 years - will continue to be in force.
The group of visiting reporters are in Singapore under the banner of the 7th Asean Journalists Visit Programme organised by the Ministry of Communications and Information.
The group had called on Education Minister Heng Swee Keat on Wednesday, and visited agencies such as the Urban Redevelopment Authority, National Gallery Singapore and ITE College Central.