AS THE deadline for the Asean Economic Community (AEC) nears, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Monday urged his fellow Asean leaders to focus on the remaining tough issues and give the AEC a "strong push" over the finish line.
The Singapore leader highlighted three important issues that need tackling: greater services liberalisation; air transport services; and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
"We are already negotiating our 10th and final Asean Framework Agreement for Services Package," Mr Lee said at the plenary session of the 26th Asean Summit. "Yet many of us still find it hard to get our services sector to liberalise, to the degree that has been agreed."
So Asean leaders and officials must press on, he said.
Mr Lee noted that air transport services are opening up with good progress made in implementing the Asean Open Skies agreements, but he said the economic grouping must wrap up the ratification by end-2015.
As for the RCEP, the Singapore leader felt talks have been slow. "Asean must show leadership and aim for a high quality agreement rather than set ourselves a low bar," he urged.
He pointed out that this is a major trade liberalisation move which will benefit everyone in South-east Asia.
Looking beyond the AEC deadline, Mr Lee said the high level task force on the Asean Community's post-2015 vision must achieve three priorities. The first is to deepen Asean economic cooperation - and it can do this by dealing with more challenging behind-the-border issues like non-tariff barriers.
The second is to extend Asean cooperation to new areas like disaster management, regional nuclear safety and transboundary pollution. And the third priority the task force should focus on is to boost the organisation and secretariat of Asean.
The Asean foreign ministers and officials have looked into the streamlining of Asean meetings and Mr Lee noted that their goal is to make Asean processes more efficient to provide more time for meaningful talks.
"Leaders should have the flexibility to decide whether we need to hold one or two summits a year," he said, indicating that Asean foreign ministers have agreed to Lao's proposal to host the 28th and 29th Asean Summits back-to-back in November 2016.
Mr Lee said Asean should not neglect issues like transboundary haze pollution, which could make economic growth unsustainable. Welcoming Indonesian President Joko Widodo's pledge to tackle the forest fires issue, he noted that Asean countries recognise the importance of this issue - they have ratified the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.
"The next step is to operationalise the Haze Monitoring System and develop more cooperative projects," he said. Mr Lee also put on record Singapore's support for Malaysia's proposal for an Asean Common Time zone.