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PM Lee calls for reform of WTO system, notes that 'further work remains' for RCEP

THE prevailing World Trade Organisation (WTO) system of global trade must be updated for relevance, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Asean leaders and key guests on Wednesday.

"To sustain our economic dynamism, we need to remain open and connected, and safeguard the multilateral trading system as the basis of global commerce," he said.

"At the same time, we should consider seriously how to update the WTO system to address current economic realities, such as e-commerce and the rise of emerging economies. These reforms are necessary to keep the system relevant."

Mr Lee was speaking at the close of a working lunch, held during the Asean Summit, that served as a platform to exchange views on free trade and the global economy.

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His opening and closing remarks from the closed-door session were later released to the press.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera and International Monetary Fund (IMF) managing director Christine Lagarde were also present at the event, with Mr Lee calling these partners "strong advocates of multilateralism" who join Asean in upholding a free, open and rules-based multi-lateral system.

Canada is the president of the Group of Seven (G-7) informal bloc of advanced economies, which also includes France, the United States, Britain, Germany, Japan and Italy, while Chile is the incoming chair for the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) forum.

Mr Lee also noted in his opening remarks that "tremendous progress has been made this year" in regional economic integration, with negotiators "now close to the finishing line" for the planned Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) free trade deal.

The RCEP would involve all 10 Asean member states, as well as Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand, with negotiations ongoing since 2013.

Yet, Mr Lee added, "further work remains to finalise the remaining technical details" - echoing statements earlier in the week, made by dignitaries such as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, that have pointed to a conclusion no earlier than 2019.

High-level functionaries - including then Minister for Trade and Industry (Trade) Lim Hng Kiang; Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing; and Mr Lee himself - had said on numerous occasions in 2018 that they hoped for a substantial conclusion to RCEP talks by year-end.

The world is now being shaped by two divergent trends, Mr Lee said at the beginning of the lunch.

"First, we are becoming more inter-dependent and inter-connected, due to digital technologies and trans-boundary challenges like climate change and cyber security," he said. "Yet, at the same time, we may become more divided and insular because of growing nativism and protectionism."

But, Mr Lee said, Asean - which he called "one of the most politically stable and economically vibrant regional groupings in the world" - is stepping up its efforts at regional economic integration even as the multilateral system of global trade comes under pressure.

For instance, he noted, Singapore and three other South-east Asian nations - Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam - have already jointly inked the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, with Canada, Chile and five more countries.

The Asean Economic Community was set up in 2015 and "has lowered entry barriers and reduced transaction costs", the Prime Minister also said.

He added that Asean has undertaken various initiatives "in response to the digital revolution" in 2018, such as the Asean Smart Cities Network, the Asean Single Window for trade that now has five member states on board, and the Asean Agreement on E-commerce, signed on Monday.

Singapore has billed the Asean Smart Cities Network, meant to bring together development efforts and share best practices among member states, as "a flagship deliverable" under the Republic's chairmanship of the South-east Asian bloc.

Mr Lee maintained, as he wrapped up, that "despite these uncertain times, our region's prospects remain bright".

"And Asean values the continued support of our external partners, including Canada, Chile and the IMF," he said.

"We also look forward to your participation in key Asean initiatives, such as the Asean Smart Cities Network, which will better prepare our cities and our peoples for the future."