BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Brunei kicked off its ASEAN chairmanship for 2021 by hosting the first virtual meeting of senior economic officials at the International Convention Centre on Monday.

Dr Hjh May-Fa’ezah Hj Ahmad Ariffin, permanent secretary at Brunei’s Ministry of Finance and Economy (MoFE), chaired the ASEAN Senior Economic Officials Meeting (SEOM) Retreat where officials discussed post-pandemic economic recovery efforts.

“Last year has been an unprecedented and challenging year for all of us,” she said addressing officials via video link.

“However, Vietnam has made the best out of the situation and in spite of the pandemic, Vietnam concluded its chairmanship successfully and the world witnessed the signing of the RCEP, the world’s largest trading agreement.”

“It is now Brunei’s turn to continue the ASEAN process of advancing the ASEAN integration agenda and recovery in this region. It is our hope we can continue the momentum and efforts of the previous chair,” she added.

According to a statement from MoFE after the conclusion of the meeting, Brunei proposed 10 economic deliverables during the meeting, divided into three strategic thrusts.

The first, to accelerate post-pandemic recovery with a focus on clarifying rules around non-tariff measures and the facilitation of investment in the region. This includes developing a roadmap for recovery in the tourism sector, a huge contributor for economic growth in Southeast Asia. Officials seek to open new markets and partnerships for ASEAN, particularly by launching negotiations for a possible ASEAN-Canada Free Trade Agreement.

The second thrust focuses on digitalisation and fostering a resilient ASEAN by leveraging on new technologies to provide “a safe, secure, and harmonised e-commerce environment and digital ecosystem”.

The third thrust centres on advancing inclusive and sustainable economic growth in ASEAN, with a focus on providing support to micro, medium and small enterprises, sustainable energy transition and cooperation in the area of minerals.

With the spectre of the COVID-19 pandemic still hanging over much of the region, all ASEAN meetings this year are likely to be held online until infection rates in the region can be brought under control.

Brunei has outlined its priorities as chair of the 10-member bloc, under the theme “We Care, We Prepare, We Prosper”.

Following the close of the ASEAN SEOM Retreat, the first official SEOM and Related Meetings for 2021 will take place virtually from January 20-28.