Ladies and Gentlemen.
It is a great pleasure for our government and people to host the Foreign Ministers of ASEAN. I am delighted to welcome you all, and our guest, His Excellency Jose Ramos-Horta, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Democratic Republic of East Timor.
This is the third time we have hosted this annual gathering. Each occasion has been a special privilege for us. It has given us a wonderful opportunity to present ASEAN to our people at first hand.
I am sure the coming days will show them how relevant our association is to their lives.
In the more than thirty years of its existence, ASEAN has responded well to many difficult challenges. Time and again, it has demonstrated its resilience. This reflects the commitment of its members to cooperation and many common understandings.
It is these qualities ASEAN leaders called upon at last year’s ASEAN Summit. We will be asking for them yet again from our Foreign Ministers this week. We hope this week they will look very closely at ASEAN’s current progress.
At the Summit, we stressed the need for action to implement our programmes of development. We hope that the next few days will clearly indicate that our call is being answered.
This, I believe, is the most important overall aim to be met over the next few days.
For the hundreds of millions of people we represent, the most pressing item of business on our regional agenda is economic progress. It is the biggest challenge for our ministers.
We feel we are making real progress in recovering from the financial crisis in 1997. Yet we still face enormous difficulties.
The news from many stock markets this month is clear evidence of this. It once more highlights the sheer speed of changing events in today’s world.
This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of government nowadays.
Just as one challenge is met, another seems to emerge.
It means that we must move equally rapidly. We have to be sure that events outside our control do not affect our ability to attract investment and gain access to markets. Investment must continue to flow into our region. In many cases, we must win back the confidence and trust of investors.
At the same time, we have to take into account the needs and the priorities of other regions and other countries. We recognise them as potential markets but they are also our competitors.
As we have said many times recently, ASEAN must have strategies that acknowledge all these factors. They must operate in the interests of all our members.
The ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) and the ASEAN Investment Area (A.I.A.) have been central to our efforts. They have been the means by which ASEAN has tried to compete for investments and markets. The realisation of AFTA at the start of this year was an essential step.
Nevertheless, we have to recognise the full implications of globalisation and ever-increasing competition. They will continue to test us.
Even as cooperation in AFTA and the AIA deepens today, can we still be sure that this is enough? Will it guarantee that we will be able to cope with tomorrow’s level of competitiveness?
These questions need urgent answers.
In some quarters at the moment the reply is not the one we wish to hear.
At best, it is a dubious ….. “maybe”.
At worst, it is a definite …. “no”!
Those who offer this perception would say that ASEAN’s efforts are well-meaning but they would claim that our market will remain fragmented. They say that rather than cooperating with each other, we are more likely to end up competing against each other. They would state that we are not in a position to establish ourselves as a base for doing business.
Those voices should not be ignored.
There are few who doubt our potential. But there are many who doubt our ability to transform it into reality.
Are such perceptions correct?
I am confident that they are not.
Nevertheless, such voices can echo alarmingly in the minds of our people.
So, the challenge they offer is clear.
What can ASEAN do to make sure they are incorrect?
To start with, we have agreed on our roadmap for the integration of ASEAN, known as “R.I.A.” This shows us the way to bridge the development gap between us. It gives us a real chance to deepen economic cooperation and improve economic integration.
We have also commissioned the ASEAN Competitiveness Study. It is to be completed next year. We are prepared to use its recommendations to consider any changes that may be needed in our strategies. In short, we have every intention of continuing to be a very good place in which to live, work, do business and prosper.
So, I see great potential in this study.
We are going to need strong political will, however. Nevertheless, I am sure that this will be given.
The last summit set ASEAN in the right direction.
I hope you will go through some of the decisions made at the Summit and check on the speed and efficiency with which they are being implemented. I look forward to hearing from you on this, before the next summit in Phnom Penh later this year.
Having said that, your attention this week, will, of course, not be directed solely to regional affairs. ASEAN’s challenges are not only economic, and internal. Many come from beyond our region, sometimes far beyond.
To assess them, you will be once more meeting our dialogue partners from Asia, Europe, the Pacific and America. You will be renewing friendships and cooperation.
In some cases, these go almost all the way back to the founding of our association. These relationships are now an integral part of ASEAN itself. They add great strength to our cooperative programmes. They increase our effectiveness in international affairs. As such, they have to be constantly strengthened.
In these efforts, I make no distinction among our partners. Every one of them is extremely important.
Nowadays, however, it is clear that our relations with our neighbours from northeast Asia have naturally taken on special significance. I therefore hope that your session with China, Japan and the Republic of Korea will serve to give continued momentum to this process.
Ten years ago at the summit in Singapore, ASEAN leaders explicitly called for ” a widening and deepening” of our external relations. The fact that we are not totally overwhelmed by today’s challenges speaks much for the wisdom of that call.
International cooperation has become critical, especially since we expanded our membership. We all know the special challenges this poses. There are different levels of development between our countries. This gap has to be narrowed if the association is to operate effectively in the interests of all our members.
We also face far-reaching social and environmental problems. Most were localised in origin but they now affect us all.
Our natural environment is being degraded at a speed far greater than current efforts to sustain it.
AIDS and other deadly contagious diseases are destroying the lives of many of our people. They are undercutting the very basis of family life in our communities.
The effects of transnational crime in all its dreadful forms is equally devastating.
No single ASEAN member can deal with them on its own.
The only fully effective way to address all these matters is by concerted action at regional and international level. So, it is heartening to see that we and our dialogue partners are committed to doing this. I encourage our ministers to do all they can to promote our existing programmes and develop new ones.
Having said that however, like all my fellow leaders in ASEAN, however, I am deeply aware of other new matters. These profoundly condition our responses to international affairs.
The most sinister in the world today is terrorism.
We recognise the particular threat it poses to us and to all other developing regions. As an association we succeed or fail on the durability of peace and stability in Southeast Asia. That has always been the pre-requisite for lasting cooperation. Unless it exists, we cannot bring economic and social benefits to our people.
That is where I see terrorism’s greatest threat.
It lies not just in the horrifying menace it poses to ordinary innocent people’s lives. At its deepest level it directly threatens all international order. It is therefore an attack on the very structure of our association. That is why we are fully committed to removing its sponsors, its criminal perpetrators and every aspect of its influence from our region.
Without peace and stability, all ASEAN’s work will ultimately founder. For this reason, terrorism challenges the fundamental values our founding fathers set down in the Bangkok Declaration. This, I believe, will be uppermost in your minds in all your meetings this week.
Certainly, we must do all we can to remove frustration and resentment among our people. But it had to be made absolutely clear, however, that these offer no justification whatsoever for acts of terror.
What is required on our part, I believe, is a comprehensive strategy. Such a plan would involve action on more than just the military front. It would take into account the complex pattern of terrorism’s fabric. It would acknowledge the economic, financial, social, cultural and religious strands that are woven into it.
In the coming few days, you will be meeting your partners in the ASEAN Regional Forum. You will be looking closely at this, of course. I hope you will reach decisions that will strengthen our resolve and our practical ability. I hope you will produce further plans to counter this profound attack on all our societies.
Lastly, Your Excellencies,
At all our summits we have expressed confidence in ASEAN.
So, to end, may I offer a message from all my colleagues, past and present.
We wish to assure our visitors and guests of one unchanging aspect of our association’s unique quality. That is our unity and our solidarity.
We know that ASEAN countries, individually and as a group, have enormous strength, vigour and dynamism. We also know that there is no want of resolution, foresight and sheer talent in the region. There is, however, one fundamental question we must ask ourselves over and over again.
What precisely does our association mean to the people we represent?
The answer we would all like to hear, of course, is that it means a great deal to them. That answer, however, will only be given if our people are brought closely into our work.
Not as mere beneficiaries but as partners with each other.
In nations and communities.
In businesses and governments.
In cities and villages.
Young and old.
Men and women, no matter where they come from and no matter what their culture, religion or background.
That was the dream of our founding fathers and the vision we set ourselves for the new century.
I am sure that over the next few days you will again do all you can to bring it one extra step closer to reality. If you can do this, I believe it will move us significantly closer to ” ASEAN integration” in its deepest sense.
I wish you every success and a most enjoyable series of meetings.
And with the kalimat “Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim, Wassalatu Wassalamu ‘Ala Asyarafil Mursalin, Sayyidina Muhammadin, Wa ‘Ala Alihee Wasahbihi Ajma’een”, I have great pleasure in declaring the 35th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting officially open.