SINGAPORE, Nov 11 — The 33rd edition of the semi-annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit will kick off today, and Malaysia will attend the regional meeting under the new Pakatan Harapan leadership led by Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Foreign Affairs Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah said with his return as prime minister amid anticipation by the regional community, Dr Mahathir would this time around bring up the issues of regional unity, trade, and security.
“We can expect that Tun will be raising some regional issues, among others would be the need for Asean to maintain its unity and inclusiveness in the ‘real sense’ of the word,” Saifuddin told Malay Mail in a recent interview in Putrajaya, referring to Dr Mahathir.
Saifuddin pointed out that the Asean population is over 600 million, but intra-regional trade makes up less than a quarter of the total.
“Tun may want to impress upon his counterparts that one of the areas of unity and cohesion among Asean member states is to really make full use of this huge market,” he said.
Dr Mahathir has already repeated the argument several times in his bilateral meetings, the most recent in Bangkok last month, where he said the Southeast Asian region holds great potential and is simply waiting to be tapped, to become a strong and resilient economic region.
Similarly in the Asean Leaders Gathering in Bali before that, Dr Mahathir had lamented that Asean is not utilising its abundant resources for manufacturing and value-added production.
Saifuddin said Dr Mahathir will also call for Asean to expedite the formalisation of the code of conduct, when it comes to the movement of battleships in the South China Sea.
“He wants Asean to speak in one voice to ensure the non-militarisation of the area.” he said.
One compelling topic that Dr Mahathir will likely not be shy on is the massacre of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, which he had mentioned during his address at the 73rd United Nations General Assembly in September.
“I think he will be very strong on Myanmar, he was very strong in the statement in UN general assembly ... I think he would be loud,” said Saifuddin.
Saifuddin intimated that at the sidelines of the general assembly, he and his Indonesian counterparts had already proposed that Asean foreign ministers take action so repatriation of the Rohingyas can start, to prevent a massive exodus and inevitably an ethnic cleansing there.
He said the troika of Singaporean and Thai foreign ministers — both the current and next chair of Asean — and the Asean secretary-general had planned to review the situation in Myanmar, and hopefully, a report could be delivered during the summit here.
“Better you let us do it then someone outside,” Saifuddin said, referring to handling the Rohingya situation.
Saifuddin also downplayed the perception of a thorny relationship across the Causeway, amid back-and-forth statements in the media between Malaysia and Singapore over issues such as water price, the construction of the “crooked bridge”, and the High-Speed Rail project.
The 9th Malaysia-Singapore Leaders’ Retreat originally scheduled late this month was also postponed, leading speculation of a unilateral decision. The High Commission of Singapore later explained that the delay was requested by Putrajaya due to a scheduling conflict.
“My take is that our relationship with Singapore is good, cordial. At least between the two foreign ministers we can call, text each other on many issues. We are now good friends.
“Yes. there are one or two delicate issues, but so far I think both sides are managing it quite well ... The media is another story, it’s beyond us,” he explained, assuring that both sides will always find solutions amicably.
Dr Mahathir is scheduled to arrive in Singapore tomorrow morning, before meeting his Singaporean counterpart Lee Hsien Loong at the Istana.
The Asean Summit will run until Thursday, November 15.