SINGAPORE: To build resilience for future economic shocks, countries in the region should have common criteria on travel and trade restrictions, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday (Apr 14).

“It would be useful for ASEAN to have a set of common criteria or guidelines on when to impose travel or trade restrictions, and when and how we can relax them and with what appropriate safeguards,” he said at a virtual Special ASEAN Summit on COVID-19.

“We each have our own domestic considerations, but clear guidelines would help us take a balanced, rational approach that takes into account both health and economic considerations.” 

READ: ASEAN leaders meet online to tackle COVID-19

The ASEAN Coordinating Council Working Group on Public Health Emergencies should study this issue, he added.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks to leaders in the region via video conference during a Special ASEAN Summit on COVID-19 on Apr 14, 2020. (Photo: MCI)

Mr Lee and Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan joined the summit via video conference on Tuesday morning. The summit convened by Vietnam, the ASEAN chair for 2020, was chaired by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

Mr Lee said that the crisis will “fundamentally change globalisation”, as he predicted controls on movement of people across borders and that governments will intervene to prevent over-dependency on other countries for food, medical products and other essential goods.

ASEAN countries should therefore do their best to build cooperation and trust with one another, he said.

“We must resist the temptation to turn inwards and away from one another.”

The 10 ASEAN countries have reported at least 20,000 COVID-19 cases in total, but the number is likely to be higher given the lack of testing capability in some areas. Countries have imposed measures to restrict the movement of residents, including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

READ: Philippines ramps up coronavirus testing to find thousands of unknown infections

READ: COVID-19: Crowds, minor infractions on first working day after social restrictions imposed in Jakarta

Mr Lee emphasised that ASEAN countries should maintain trade among themselves and persuade their partners to keep trade flowing. Malaysia and Singapore have kept goods flowing although Malaysia has extended its movement control order to Apr 28 and Singapore is in circuit breaker mode until May 4.

“Many of us also export goods and agricultural products overseas. Closing our borders completely would therefore only deprive us all of goods and products that we can produce together, hurting our economies and worsening unemployment,” he said.

He proposed that the regional bloc should still aim to sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) this year and should also continue pursuing the Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement with the European Union. 

“Dealing with the immediate crises, while not losing sight of the longer-term objectives is the best way to enable our economies to survive this crisis, and to bounce back after COVID-19 passes,” he said.

READ: Singapore reports record 386 new COVID-19 cases and another death

READ: Singapore, China agree to strengthen cooperation to address global COVID-19 threat

At the summit, leaders of the ASEAN nations shared information about their states’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and discussed ways in which ASEAN could strengthen cooperation on COVID-19, Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information said in a media release.

Special ASEAN Summit on COVID-19 on Apr 14, 2020

Regional leaders in a video conference during a Special ASEAN Summit on COVID-19 on Apr 14, 2020. (Photo: MCI)

They also emphasised the importance of keeping trade routes open and preserving supply chain connectivity especially for essential goods such as medical supplies and food. 

The leaders also adopted a joint declaration of the Special ASEAN Summit on the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Commentary: Farmers hold key to feeding Asia amid COVID-19 restrictions

Mr Lee said that it was critical for ASEAN to mount a united response, because of how connected and interdependent the countries are. 

Four of the world’s 10 busiest air routes are between ASEAN member states and it has the world’s busiest land crossing – the Causeway between Johor Bahru and Singapore. 

“None of us in ASEAN can be truly safe unless the entire region is safe,” he said.

By sharing information and keeping each other updated on the situations in each member state, the countries may learn from each other as well as co-operate on issues such as the repatriation of citizens from other countries back home, he added.

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