BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN — The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) has proposed a budget of $122.26 million for the 2021/2022 fiscal year, a seven percent hike from the previous year.

In his budget readout on the fourth day of the Legislative Council, Second Minister of Foreign Affairs YB Dato Seri Setia Hj Erywan PDPJ Hj Mohd Yusof said $9.3 million will be spent on development expenditure.

About one-third ($42.1 million) of the budget will go towards staff salaries, while $20.8 million has been allocated for recurring expenses.

The minister did not elaborate on MFA’s planned spending, including the budget for Brunei’s hosting of ASEAN meetings after taking over the chairmanship this year.

Speaking on Brunei’s ASEAN chairmanship, he said the world has seen significant changes since the sultanate last led the regional bloc in 2013.

“In addition to all the challenges that ASEAN has faced since its inception over 53 years ago such as SARS, H1N1, financial crisis, energy crisis, and food security, ASEAN has never faced the [kind of] challenges posed by COVID-19,” YB Dato Hj Erywan said.

He said the pandemic’s impact has been far-reaching and exposed weaknesses in the ASEAN Community system across the three pillars — political-security, economic; and socio-cultural — as well as ASEAN sectoral bodies.

HM the Sultan joins the 37th ASEAN Summit from Istana Nurul Iman on Nov 12, 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced ASEAN meetings to move online. Photo: Infofoto

‘ASEAN must unite to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccine’

YB Dato Hj Erywan said it is crucial that ASEAN have timely access to COVID-19 vaccines and at an affordable price.

“Given the uncertain geopolitical challenges and major Western nations racing to get a hold of the vaccines, it would be difficult for ASEAN member states to address the COVID-19 impact alone. But we can make a greater impact collectively and staying united,” he said.

“We also need to pay close attention to people’s mental health, including youth and children due to issues such as long or recurring quarantine periods.”

The ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund has also received contributions from within and outside the region, he added.

The minister said Brunei will be implementing various initiatives to better prepare ASEAN members countries for future crises and disasters.

One of the initiatives include establishing a mechanism at the ASEAN level that allows the public to make donations to disaster-hit areas in the region.

A tour boat carries tourists along the river in Malacca, in Malaysia. Tourism in Southeast Asia took a huge hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with tourist arrivals declining 80% in 2020.

ASEAN pins hopes on travel corridor to speed up post-pandemic recovery

The regional bloc hopes the setting up of the ASEAN travel corridor will facilitate essential business travel and subsequently accelerate regional economic recovery. 

“Given that the region is heavily dependent on tourism, investment and foreign trade, the ASEAN travel corridor arrangement is one of the efforts to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak,” he said.

International arrivals to ASEAN member countries declined 80.5 percent last year, which resulted in a 75.8 percent loss to tourism receipts.

Brunei’s tourism sector remains at a standstill as borders are still closed to non-essential travellers since March 24 last year.

Government data showed that tourist arrivals plunged more than 70 percent year-on-year last March.

Earlier this month, ASEAN economic ministers proposed a common digital vaccination certificate that would allow people to travel across the region once they show proof of COVID-19 inoculation.

YB Dato Hj Erywan further said unsafe political and economic conditions will affect business and investor confidence.

“We do not want our region to be considered weak in the global economic landscape. ASEAN will continue to strive to maintain peace and stability as a priority.

“It is important for ASEAN to continue to be governed by a rules-based regional architecture and international law that will benefit all,” he added.