Good evening everybody, Ambassadors, Excellencies, fellow Singaporeans and all our ASEAN friends.
Very happy to be with all of you here today because this year is Singapore’s turn to chair ASEAN and today’s event marks the formal start of our Chairmanship.
The ten ASEAN member countries take turns to chair the organisation. The last time we chaired ASEAN was in 2007 and we are very happy to be chairing it again. We will be hosting many ASEAN meetings during the year, big and small. We look forward to welcoming many of our ASEAN friends and partners to attend these meetings and to visit Singapore.
But ASEAN is not just for diplomats and officials. ASEAN has benefitted all of us who live in Southeast Asia, including Singaporeans. Let me explain why.
The older generations would remember that, before ASEAN was formed in 1967, just over 50 years ago, Southeast Asia was far from being a tranquil place. Singapore had just separated from Malaysia; Konfrontasi was barely over; the Vietnam War was heating up, and threatening to spread to the rest of the region.
In those circumstances, five Southeast Asian countries came together to form ASEAN – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore. Later Brunei joined, and later still Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia, bringing ASEAN to ten member states. Working together in ASEAN, the members have promoted cooperation with one another, and fostered a stable environment for all in Southeast Asia. The result has been peace, economic growth, and prosperity for our peoples.
ASEAN has also increased our influence internationally. It has given members a collective voice on the world stage. We have been able to engage major countries like the US, China, India and Japan, to pursue mutual cooperation, and to deal with problems which concern us all.
Looking back, if the leaders of the five founding ASEAN members had not taken a leap of faith and established ASEAN in 1967, the region could still be troubled by conflicts. Singapore, a small and vulnerable country, newly independent, might not have survived in such a difficult neighbourhood, let alone won a place in the world.
Today, ASEAN is not just a security anchor for the region. We have built a community that also cooperates on economic and social issues. We support one another through difficult times, for example, the Asian Financial Crisis, the SARS outbreak and natural disasters. We work together to solve common problems and improve the lives of our peoples.
Together, our ten economies make up a dynamic and attractive group. ASEAN’s economic community has opened up many job and business opportunities. Singapore companies have benefitted. With the ASEAN Free Trade Area, Singapore companies can reach ASEAN’s market of 630 million people – 100 times Singapore’s own population and more. And of course, Singaporeans also benefit from the freer flow of goods and services. In our supermarkets we can buy Thai rice, Vietnamese coffee, Filipino dried mangoes, Indonesian kerupok and Malaysian Musang King durians, all at very affordable prices especially durians right now. And with many direct flights between our countries, millions of Singaporeans travel to other parts of Southeast Asia every year, for work and leisure.
As the ASEAN Chair, Singapore will do our best to take the group forward. We have chosen two ideas as themes for our Chairmanship: “resilience” and “innovation”. We hope during Singapore’s term as Chair, we will start some ASEAN projects that will strengthen our collective resilience against common threats such as terrorism, cybercrime, and climate change. We also hope to promote schemes that capitalise on innovation, that help ASEAN economies to use technology, to make us a more dynamic and connected community. Through all these, we aim to make ASEAN a better home for our future generations.
We have a full agenda ahead. We will work with the other member states, and with ASEAN’s dialogue partners, to make 2018 a meaningful year for ASEAN.
Today, we mark the start of our ASEAN Chairmanship by celebrating ASEAN’s achievements and its vibrancy the ASEAN way – with songs, dances and of course, food! The performances and stalls today are just a sliver of ASEAN’s rich cultural diversity. I hope during our Chairmanship term, Singaporeans will get to see more aspects of ASEAN and you will all join me to graciously host our ASEAN friends and partners, and make sure they have a memorable and happy time in Singapore.
Have a good time this evening, and a very good evening to all of you! Thank you very much.