By Professor Tommy Koh: What Asia, Europe can do to fight world's 3 major crises

July 25, 2020

The world is simultaneously faced with three crises: a health crisis, an economic crisis and a global governance crisis. To tackle them effectively will require countries of the world to work together to find practical common solutions.
Asia and Europe have a major role to play in this endeavour. We wish to argue, in this essay, that by acting together, the leaders of Asia and Europe can provide the world with the leadership, resolve and policy ideas. They should also enlist the support of like-minded countries in other regions of the world.

Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM)

A historic meeting took place in Bangkok, on the 1st and 2nd of March 1996. At the suggestion of the then Prime Minister of Singapore, Goh Chok Tong, 10 leaders from Asia met with 16 leaders from Europe, to begin the process of building a new bridge connecting the two regions and their peoples. The bridge would have three pillars: (a) political; (b) economics and finance; and (c) social, cultural and educational.
The meeting also established the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), which was set up the following year and based in Singapore.
ASEF is the only institution which ASEM has established. Its mandate is to promote better mutual understanding between Asians and Europeans through intellectual, cultural and people-to-people exchanges. Over the past 23 years, ASEF has brought together more than 40,000 Asian and European participants in seminars, conferences, internships and projects covering culture, education, governance and economy, media, public health, sustainable development, human rights and civil society.
ASEM has expanded from the original 26 to 53 partners: 30 European countries and the European Commission and 21 Asian countries and the Asean Secretariat.
As a grouping, ASEM accounts for 60 per cent of the world’s population and 65 per cent of the world’s economy. It is therefore a group of countries with weight and influence. We appeal to the leaders of ASEM to rise to the challenge and provide the much-needed leadership and resolve to steer the world through its current crises.

The First Crisis

The first crisis is the health crisis. COVID-19 has caused the world’s worst pandemic since the Spanish Flu. To date, it has infected over 14 million people and killed over 600,000. The virus has spread to all parts of the world. Here is what the leaders of ASEM can do to defeat COVID-19.
First, share good practices with one another. Some ASEM partners have done better in fighting the virus than others. Those who have done well should be willing to share their best practices with other countries.
Second, ASEM should agree and persuade others not to impose restrictions on the export of personal protective equipment (PPEs) such as surgical masks, isolation gowns, gloves as well as alcohol rubs ventilators, test kits and medicines. It can also utilise the ASEF Public Health Network, which deals with capacity building and stockpiles of anti-viral drugs and PPEs.
Third, ASEM should encourage the scientists and doctors of the two regions, to share their research and to do joint research on vaccinations and therapeutics.
Fourth, if a vaccine or a cure is discovered, ASEM should agree to make it an international public good. In this way, it will become affordable and available to all the countries of the world.

The Second Crisis

The second crisis is the economic crisis. COVID-19 has essentially forced the world economy to shut down. The International Monetary Fund has stated that this economic crisis will be as bad as the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to more than a third of the world’s population being placed on lockdown, to stop the spread of the virus. There is a rapid increase in unemployment in many countries. The tourism and hospitality industries have collapsed. The energy industry has been badly hurt. Remittances have dried up. The poor and the migrant workers have suffered the most.
What can ASEM do to shorten the recession and to accelerate the recovery?
First, ASEM should agree to keep their economies open, to support free trade and regional economic integration. There is a grave danger that, because of the crisis, countries will become protectionist and will seek to de-globalise. This should be resisted, and a serious attempt made to persuade major countries beyond Asia and Europe to join in this effort.
Second, they should agree to keep their seaports and airports open. They should facilitate, not obstruct, the resumption of travel, as soon as possible and provided the necessary safety measures are observed.
Third, they should allow the market to determine the supply chains of companies and industries. Because supply chains have been disrupted during the crisis, some countries may be reluctant to restore them. Other countries may have political reasons to exclude some countries from those chains. ASEM can play a leadership role to demonstrate how inclusive and open supply chains can benefit all countries determined to do their part.
Fourth, they should use their influence to prevent international trade and technology from being split into two rival blocs: a US-centric bloc and a China-centric bloc. History has shown that rival trade and economic blocs are detrimental to all parties. ASEM should prevail on both sides to look at concrete ways to work together to address these global crises and, in the process, rebuild the trust to settle their differences peacefully.

The Third Crisis

The third crisis is the crisis of global governance. Multilateralism is under attack. Multilateral institutions, such as, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) are being undermined. The Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are facing challenges on several fronts. The leaders of Asia and Europe can play a valuable role in defending multilateralism and the environment.
First, ASEM should continue to strongly support multilateralism and its institutions.
Second, in the case of the WTO, ASEM’s position should be that it is for the reform of the institution. However, it will oppose any attempt to destroy the institution in the guise of reform.
Third, ASEM should support the WHO, which plays an indispensable role in safeguarding the health of the people of the world. Partners should strengthen the organisation and its finances. A higher percentage of WHO’s budget should come from the assessed contributions of member states. This will strengthen WHO’s independence and reduce its dependence on voluntary contributions.
Fourth, climate change and sustainable development should be accorded the highest priority. This is because if we don’t embrace sustainable development and fight climate change, our very existence on this planet will be in peril. ASEM must take a strong stand on these issues.


The world is faced with three crises simultaneously. The world is adrift because of the absence of a leader.
We appeal to the leaders of Asia and Europe, acting through ASEM, to lead the world in tackling the three crises.


The Tembusu (Fagraea fragrans) is a large evergreen tree in the family Gentianaceae. It is native to Southeast Asia. Its trunk is dark brown, with deeply fissured bark, looking somewhat like a bittergourd. It grows in an irregular shape from 10 to 25m high. Its leaves are light green and oval in shape. Its yellowish flowers have a distinct fragrance and the fruits of the tree are bitter tasting red berries, which are eaten by birds and fruit bats.