We started with only 12 economies – six from ASEAN and six others. No formal structure, organizational plan or secretariat support. But we had a vision for a vibrant Asia-Pacific, and recognised that we needed to enhance our economic cooperation to achieve this.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is no stranger to APEC. On 6-7 November 1989, he led the Singapore delegation at the ministerial meeting that launched it. Twenty years later, as Prime Minister, he served as APEC Chair during Singapore’s hosting throughout 2009 and in total has represented Singapore at the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting every year for the last decade.

On the occasion of the 2014 APEC Economic Leaders’ Week in Beijing, which will coincide with the 25th anniversary of APEC’s founding, Prime Minister Lee offered his thoughts on what collaboration between member economies has achieved, its value to Singapore and his expectations for the upcoming Leaders’ Meeting and road ahead.

APEC Bulletin: What are your thoughts on the creation of APEC, having led the Singapore delegation at the ministerial meeting that launched it in Canberra in November 1989?

Lee: APEC has come a long way since then. We started with only 12 economies – six from ASEAN and six others. No formal structure, organizational plan or secretariat support. But we had a vision for a vibrant Asia-Pacific, and recognised that we needed to enhance our economic cooperation to achieve this.

Challenges were aplenty. Countries were pursuing individual economic goals. The levels of development among the Asia-Pacific economies differed vastly. 

The founding members, led by Australia and Japan, got things started. We built on earlier work of the region’s academics and business people, which gave the impetus for an inter-governmental gathering. We agreed on a common agenda of free and open trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific.

Today, APEC is a significant grouping. The APEC family comprising 21 economies is home to almost three billion people. APEC’s GDP has doubled since 1989, and represents more than half the world’s GDP. APEC contributes to almost half of world trade, an increase of more than six times since 1989. Where we used to talk about economic cooperation in the region, APEC is now in the forefront of forging regional economic integration. 

APEC Bulletin: Could you describe the development of cooperation between Singapore and other member economies since that time?

Lee: Our cooperation has grown tremendously. In 1989, Singapore’s key trading partners were ASEAN neighbours. The six ASEAN member states were working towards an ASEAN Free Trade Area in response to other emerging regional groupings. The multilateral trading system in the form of the World Trade Organization (WTO) had not yet come into play. We had not yet embarked on bilateral free trade agreements. APEC was Singapore’s first foray into regional economic cooperation beyond ASEAN. 

Singapore cooperates both with APEC as a whole collectively, and also with member economies individually. The APEC platform is valuable. Member economies come together several times a year at all levels for meetings. Ties also strengthen because of the multi-year nature of APEC’s work as one economy hands over chairmanship to the next. 

When Singapore was Chair in 2009, we collaborated with Vietnam – 2007 Chair – and Peru – 2008 Chair – to start initiatives which Vietnam and Peru carried on. The new addition to regional free trade agreements, the Trans Partnership (TPP) Agreement, was built on our P4 Free Trade Agreement with three other APEC member economies – Brunei, Chile, and New Zealand.

APEC Bulletin: How has Singapore benefited from engagement in APEC? To what extent has its impact lived up to your original expectations?

Lee: Singapore and the region have benefited from more trade and investments. Intra-regional trade among the 21 APEC economies has grown by about eight per cent per annum since 1992. In 2012, intra-regional exports accounted for about 70 per cent of APEC’s total exports.

Singapore depends heavily on our trade, investment and political links with regional economies.  Our membership in APEC is essential to our prosperity and well-being. For Singapore, APEC accounted for almost three-quarters of Singapore’s total trade in 2013. Sixty-three per cent of Singapore’s outward investment was into APEC economies. APEC economies’ investment was more than a quarter of the total investments into Singapore in 2012. 

APEC has certainly lived up to expectations. For instance, towards achieving the Bogor Goals, we have been looking at complex issues such as trade facilitation, regulatory reforms, services trade, and economic integration. APEC has also moved beyond trade to address key non-trade issues that are important to its member economies. Counter-terrorism was introduced into APEC’s agenda after the events of 9-11. Health is another salient issue given the challenges brought about by the outbreak of diseases such as SARS and Ebola. 

APEC Bulletin: As Singapore Prime Minister, you have been involved in 10 APEC cycles – more than a third of APEC’s existence – and you of course chaired APEC when Singapore hosted in 2009. How have you and Singapore endeavoured to strengthen APEC’s relevance and value?

Lee: When Singapore hosted the APEC Summit in 2009, the world was emerging from an unprecedented global recession. We chose the theme of “Sustaining Growth, Connecting the Region.” We believed the APEC family needed to continue deepening relations in difficult times.  To move forward together meant growing together.

We developed initiatives that we hoped would be valuable and relevant to APEC not just in 2009, but over several years. We worked closely with other APEC economies to ensure that initiatives would be meaningful and inclusive for everyone. 

As a token of our commitment, we have hosted the APEC Secretariat in Singapore for more than 20 years. We want to steer, with other member economies, the work of APEC, so that APEC remains relevant and continues to improve the lives of people in the member economies.

APEC Bulletin: What is your view of the current landscape in the Asia-Pacific? What are the most important challenges to greater progress?

Lee: The Asia-Pacific region is generally peaceful and stable. However, there are several territorial and maritime disputes in the region, and also the security situation on the Korean peninsula. These situations must be carefully managed so that they do not destabilize the region.

That said, the US and China continue to be two of the most important players in the region. The relationship that these two countries have with each other and the other Asia-Pacific countries will be critical to regional growth and stability.

Economically, the region needs to deepen connectivity further. APEC’s Connectivity Blueprint will help us to identify the gaps for improvements, and to measure our progress. 

Other challenges include addressing new issues, such as modern services and the role of technology in trade.

APEC Bulletin: Can you describe Singapore’s priorities for improving growth and development in the region? How does APEC figure into this equation?

Lee: When we talk about growth, we understand it to comprise balanced, inclusive and sustainable growth. Balanced growth means taking care of issues today so that they do not cause new problems in the future. Inclusive growth seeks to generate opportunities for the majority of our populations so that they will support policies which make this prosperity possible. And we want sustainable growth, because climate change and energy efficiency are important too.

With competition, it is natural that some economies will do better than others. The solution is not to prevent those who can from moving faster, but rather to help those who lagging behind to catch up more quickly. 

APEC is a platform from which Singapore can share our experiences with others on a wide array of issues, beyond trade, to anti-corruption, health and education. By the same token, APEC also allows us to learn from others in all these fields. In this way, all economies are able to mutually benefit and grow.

APEC Bulletin: Why is the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Beijing in November important to Singapore? What do you look to achieve on this occasion?

Lee: The deliverables China has planned are significant to Singapore. The Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, or FTAAP, is the next crucial step that APEC must take. Multiple regional economic architectures are evolving. The TPP is one, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is another. Then there is the China-Japan-Korea FTA, and the Pacific Alliance (PA). The FTAAP is necessary to anchor the APEC economies in one broad architecture, based on the multiple pathways of these other FTAs.

The Connectivity Blueprint will bring APEC closer together in a tangible manner.

The Beijing meeting will be an opportunity for us to reaffirm our commitment towards the 2020 Bogor Goals. We must make sure we are on track to implement our obligations towards the Bogor Goals, including those that are due by 2015. 

It will also allow us to signal our commitment to the multilateral trading system. Several current WTO initiatives need a political push, for example, the Information Technology Agreement (ITA) expansion, the Environmental Goods Agreement (EGA) negotiations, and the implementation of the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA). Where APEC economies can play a part, we must.

It will be a happy occasion too as we celebrate APEC’s 25th anniversary.   

APEC Bulletin: What is your take on the road ahead for cooperation between Singapore and other Asia-Pacific economies? Where do you see APEC in another 25 years?

Lee: APEC has a lot more to offer in the next 25 years. I believe the region will remain vibrant and peaceful. There will be challenges, but these will create opportunities for further collaboration.  We must engage businesses to help them operate better; be a pathfinder for multilateral trade initiatives; stand ready to address new economic issues; and ensure good quality FTAs as pathways towards an FTAAP.

China has been an excellent APEC Chair this year. I look forward to a successful APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting (AELM). We have the next eight years of Chairs ready to take us forward, so I am confident we will make further progress.

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For more:           

For an overview of the issues and actions in focus during the 2014 APEC Economic Leaders’ Week in Beijing, click here

Program details for Leaders’ Week can be viewed at this link

Current and former APEC Leaders describe how member economies are building on the region’s progress in the new APEC 25th anniversary video.