Address by H.E. Ong Keng Yong, Secretary-General of ASEAN

(Association of Southeast Asian Nations)


13 May 2003


Excellencies, Distinguished delegates, Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Greetings from the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia.

I would like to thank the organising committee for inviting me to share with you my thoughts on the SARS crisis.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell once said” “Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear.”

This is indeed the case when we met the challenge of SARS.

Fear is taking charge of businesses and people world-wide and that is why our economies are suffering.

ASEAN member countries have experienced serious challenges to their economies in the past but they have managed to overcome them over time.

SARS is no different. In fact, it has only brought ASEAN member countries closer and more resolute in their efforts to intensify regional and international cooperation and to help every ASEAN member country cope with the current situation

I am confident that we will overcome the negative impact of SARS in time to come given the commitment of ASEAN governments to deal with the epidemic.

My confidence is based on the fact that the ASEAN Leaders agreed at an unprecedented pace to convene a Special Meeting (on 29 April 2003) and took concrete measures to detect, prevent and contain this virus.

Going a step further, China and Hong Kong were also invited to participate at this Special Meeting as without them, we would only be dealing with half the problem. SARS knows no boundary.

I will briefly touch on ASEAN’s response before talking about my ideas on how the private sectors can help in this situation.

The Leaders agreed that it was of utmost importance that the ASEAN borders remain open. By closing it we would only be hurting ourselves.

Going by this principle, the three main areas that ASEAN Leaders agreed on are as follows:

1) Information Sharing for Combating SARS

We recognised the importance of Information Sharing on SARS. Contact tracing and proper follow-up is one method of combating and containing this virus. Mobile phone numbers have been exchanged and the ASEAN, China and Hong Kong health authorities are in touch with one another.

2) Coordinated Method to Prevent the Spread of SARS

Recognising that “blanket bans” would only be detrimental to our economies, we agreed to adopt an “isolate and contain” strategy to ensure that those not affected by SARS be able to travel smoothly within the region. Taking the World Health Organisation’s advice, we are working on harmonised pre-departure screening procedures. It is comforting to note that some countries already have set these in place.

3) Communication Strategies

Finally, and of very high importance, is the public awareness and continuing education on SARS. Communication is fundamental in alleviating the panic that is penetrating into all levels of social and economic life. The ASEAN Secretariat has taken the lead in this and is drawing up a communication strategy for this purpose.

Apart from alleviating the SARS anxiety, communication and education measures are also aimed at instilling social responsibility among ASEAN citizens and travellers alike.

A simple act of washing your hands or sneezing with your mouth closed can actually prevent one from contracting the virus.

The upside of the SARS situation is that people are now becoming more conscious of their personal hygiene. We just have to ensure that when the SARS epidemic subsides, people still continue maintaining their general hygiene and not take their health for granted.

Though such measures have been adopted by the ASEAN Leaders, it will require time to put them in place on a regional scale. It is heartening to note that ASEAN member countries have also taken individual steps such as pre-departure and arrival health screening, establishment of national task forces, research on SARS, implementing the World Health Organisation’s guidelines on international travel and so on.

At the governmental level we can set guidelines and policies. But the responsibility does not stop here. Everyone, collectively and individually, has to play a role. With improved knowledge of what SARS is and the purposeful responses, we can manage the outbreak and the adverse consequences.

ASEAN is a conducive region for investment, business and travellers alike. We provide businesses with various economic benefits and offer travellers with easy access and better deals than before.

For businesses, there is always an opportunity in every situation and now is the time to take that opportunity. Remove the mask of fear and start breathing. Grab your competitive edge now and have a head start over others.

Now is the time to exploit technology to its fullest capability. If businessmen are afraid to travel, then don’t stop doing business, but just change the style of doing business. Utilise telecommunication, video conferencing, internet facilities and e-commerce facilities in all possible ways to continue your businesses.

If need be, localise your business – hire and train local residents to do your businesses.

Don’t be hasty to retrench staff. This could be a good time for businesses to train or re-train staff.

Medium term strategies such as requesting employees to take staggered or unpaid leave is another solution. Perhaps some employers could even offer an encouraging solution to their employees by offering them short holiday into other ASEAN countries.

So, let us think out of the box to move forward. Let us change our attitude, convert our fears to strength and courage and reach for the opportunity arising from the situation.

With this positive note, I thank you.