BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Brunei Darussalam will take over the ASEAN chairmanship in 2021, after Vietnam handed over the symbolic gavel at the close of the 37th ASEAN Summit in Hanoi on Sunday.

Although the pandemic forced this year’s ASEAN meetings to go online — with leaders participating via video link — Brunei’s ambassador to Vietnam Pg Hj Sahari Pg Hj Salleh accepted the chairmanship gavel on behalf of the Brunei government.

Speaking from Bandar Seri Begawan, His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah said despite the disruptions caused by COVID-19, Vietnam has guided ASEAN to create a cohesive response to the pandemic.

He added that Brunei will continue to advance regional recovery and community-building efforts.

“Although ASEAN is a prosperous region with a growing economy and improved connectivity, the region has faced financial crises, energy shortages, natural disasters and climate change,” he said.

“The severe challenges to global activities brought about by the [coronavirus] has also shown us that ASEAN must continue to strengthen ASEAN solidarity and centrality to overcome them.”

The logo for Brunei’s ASEAN chairmanship in 2021.

The monarch revealed the theme for Brunei’s 2021 chairmanship, “We Care, We Prepare, We Prosper”, which reflects the chair’s three priority areas:

  1. Caring for the people and each other’s well-being
  2. Preparing for future opportunities and challenges
  3. Prospering together as a unified region

“In today’s polarised world, ASEAN must continue to advance together,” His Majesty said.

“ASEAN was formed over fifty years ago with a vision for a better and more peaceful future based on the shared understanding that ASEAN as a whole, is greater than the sum of its parts.

“Integration, unity and solidarity, have and must continue to be, the foundation of ASEAN’s relations in advancing together.”

The sultan added that the support and contributions of ASEAN’s dialogue partners are important to help shape the regional outlook and ASEAN’s post-2025 vision.

The Brunei government has yet to announce how ASEAN-related meetings will take place in 2021 — whether they will continue to held virtually, or whether it plans to hold in-person gatherings at some point during the year.

ASEAN leaders signed a declaration last Thursday agreeing to the establishment of a travel corridor in 2021, which may exempt travellers from COVID-19 quarantine restrictions.

But the feasibility of regional travel by next year remains unclear, with the pandemic at different stages in ASEAN member countries.

Although the sultanate has not recorded any new coronavirus cases since October 14, its borders remain shut to non-essential travellers.

At its peak, infections numbered 148, but there are currently no cases in active treatment, with Brunei observing a recovery rate of 97.9 percent.

Since the government started easing social distancing measures back in June, the country has begun to resemble pre-COVID normality, although large gatherings of over 350 people are still not allowed.

Brunei last held the ASEAN chairmanship in 2013.