BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Despite fears of a global trade war between the United States and China, ASEAN should continue to shape its economic future by promoting a multilateral trade framework, said Singaporean minister Dr Maliki Osman.

With Singapore chairing the regional 10-country bloc this year, Dr Maliki, who is Senior Minister of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs, said the chair will continue to fight rising protectionism as one of its key priorities.

“We know some of the challenges facing ASEAN economically, regarding the way we look at multilateral trading systems,” he told The Scoop during a visit to Brunei last week. “But we need to promote multilateral trading systems in order for the economy to effectively succeed moving forward.”

At the semi-annual ASEAN Summit held in Singapore last April, leaders said they were “deeply concerned over the rising tide of protectionism and anti-globalisation sentiments”.

“The open, rules-based multilateral trading system, which has underpinned the growth of ASEAN member state, is under pressure,” Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong added, pointing out that recent tensions between the U.S. and China are “worrying concerns.”

Southeast Asian leaders also agreed to speed up negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) — a free trade frame agreement among ASEAN, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Once concluded, it would be the largest trading bloc in the world, with a combined GDP of US$49.5 trillion.

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HM the Sultan (3R) and members of the royal family share a light moment with Dr Maliki Osman (2L), Singapore’s Senior Minister of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs, during the Hari Raya open house at Istana Nurul Iman on June 16, 2018. Photo: Infofoto

ASEAN CENTRALITY

Dr Maliki said “ASEAN centrality” — the idea that the bloc is the driver of diplomacy and cooperation in the Asia-Pacific — must remain paramount, which is why Singapore offered to host the historic meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un on June 12.

“We were able to do our part in a process that hopefully will bring forward long lasting peace in the Korean peninsula and world at large. We wanted to show that Singapore, an Asian country, is able to provide the facilities as well as the needed arrangements.

“Not many people around the world understand ASEAN, although we’ve been a bloc for 50 years… But I think that platform [of the Trump-Kim summit] allows the world to see ASEAN in a different perspective — that we are trusted regional bloc.”

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un (R) walks with US President Donald Trump (L) during a break in talks at their historic US-North Korea summit, at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore on June 12, 2018. Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un became the first sitting US and North Korean leaders to meet, shake hands and negotiate to end a decades-old nuclear stand-off. AFP PHOTO/Saul Loeb

He added that shared security has always been a critical factor in the development of ASEAN:

“The security architecture of the region is solely entrenched in the principles of ASEAN centrality, non-interference of domestic policies… it continues to be a critical component of our existence.

“If you look at the history of ASEAN from 1967, it was formed during the tumultuous times of confrontasi and tensions within the region. The leaders felt that the only way we can move forward is to believe we can keep this region safe and secure, and that is a philosophy that continues to this day.”

BRUNEI & SINGAPORE – A ‘SPECIAL’ RELATIONSHIP

Speaking on the sidelines of the Singapore High Commission’s Hari Raya event last Wednesday — his sixth year coming to Brunei during Aidilfitri — Dr Maliki said the bilateral relationship between the two countries has always been “special”, founded on the relationship between Singapore’s founding father Lee Kwan Yew and the late Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien.

“We made visits to 40 open houses in five days, to introduce ourselves to the new cabinet ministers, and to also say hello to old friends.”

Dr Maliki Osman (L) hosts Brunei’s Pehin Lim Jock Seng (3R), former minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, during a Hari Raya gathering at the Royal Polo & Riding Club, Jerudong, on June 20, 2018. Photo: Facebook/Maliki Osman

“When Halimah Yacob decided on her first state visit as president, she decided on Brunei, to reinforce our bond and show appreciation,” he added.

The minister said the two nations will continue to work closely to “succeed together”, with more Singaporean firms eyeing investment in the sultanate, particularly in aquaculture.

“One thing we’ve always been impressed with is the products coming out of Brunei. They have excellent quality products, and we encourage them to produce on a larger scale so they can export to Singapore and Singapore can help export to other parts of the world. I think thats the way to go.”