PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Special ASEAN Summit on COVID-19

SM Lee Hsien Loong | 14 April 2020

Intervention by PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Special ASEAN Summit on COVID-19 on 14 April 2020.


Your Majesty and Excellencies,

First may I thank Vietnam for convening this meeting and secondly, may I congratulate and welcome the Prime Minister of Malaysia Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin to our ASEAN meeting.

COVID-19 is the gravest public health crisis that mankind is facing in this century.

It is critical for ASEAN to mount a united response, because of how connected and interdependent we are. Four of the world’s 10 busiest air routes are between ASEAN Member States, and we also have the world’s busiest land crossing, the causeway between Johor Bahru and Singapore. Therefore, none of us in ASEAN can be truly safe unless the entire region is safe.

I would like to suggest three ways for ASEAN to respond together.

Firstly, by sharing information, strategies and experiences. We face a common enemy, so what works in one country may well be relevant in other countries. We should therefore keep one another updated on the situation in our own countries and cooperate with one another on issues which have to be handled together, for example, repatriation of citizens from other countries back home.

Also in terms of sharing of information, we should make use of technology to deal with this pandemic. For example in Singapore, we have used WhatsApp and Telegram to set up dedicated channels to disseminate updates and advisories. We have also developed a mobile app, TraceTogether, to facilitate contact tracing, and used technology to monitor compliance with quarantine orders. We see other examples of the use of technology across ASEAN. The ASEAN Smart Cities Network can be a platform to share these best practices, and help cities better prepare for future public health emergencies.

Secondly, ASEAN should collaborate to keep trading routes and supply lines open. Especially for essential goods, such as medical supplies and food. None of us are self-sufficient in these essential items. 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. One practical example of cooperation is the Singapore-Malaysia Special Working Committee on COVID-19. Through this Working Committee we have kept goods flowing between us, despite current restrictions on the movement of people. Under stress, the global network of trade is fracturing. ASEAN members cannot control what other countries do, but we should stand together, maintain trade among ourselves and persuade our partners to keep trade flowing. Let us task our Economic Ministers to follow up on what more we can do together to preserve supply chain connectivity, particularly among ASEAN member states.

Thirdly, we must build resilience to deal with future economic shocks. 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. 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. The ASEAN Coordinating Council Working Group on Public Health Emergencies should study this issue.


This crisis will fundamentally change globalisation. There will be controls on movement of people across borders. Governments will intervene to prevent over-dependency on other countries for food, medical products, and other essential goods. And on all parties, I fear that there will be diminished confidence that international rules will hold and be respected in a crisis.

ASEAN countries will have to consider these issues too, but we should do our best to build cooperation and trust with one another. Whatever the shape of the post-pandemic world, economic and strategic ties with our partners will still matter. We should build on the relationships and institutions that ASEAN has created over half a century. We must resist the temptation to turn inwards and away from one another.

As leaders, we have a responsibility to rebuild domestic confidence in the value of cooperating with one another, and maintaining an open approach to our partners in the region and around the world, even during this extraordinary period. We should put in place systems and guidelines to effectively handle future public health emergencies. Because this will not be the last one. We should also not lose sight of the work that is in progress. Therefore, I propose ASEAN should still aim to sign the 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.

Thank you, Mr Chairman.