MOVE faster to free up the skies in Asean.
And if necessary, the more developed members of the regional grouping should move first, by inking open skies deals with one or more countries.
Such 'bold steps' will position Asean to ride on the rapid growth in regional air travel, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told transport ministers from the 10 Asean countries on Thursday.
'It will also show the world that Asean can take decisive action to transform its plans into concrete outcomes,' he said.
Mr Lee called for this flexible approach when he opened the 13th Asean Transport Ministers Meeting at Raffles City Convention Centre.
Freer skies is a key issue at the two-day meeting, and Mr Lee set out Singapore's view.
An efficient and well-integrated transport system will accelerate Asean's economic development, from promoting business to stimulating tourism, he said.
Cambodia, he noted, allowed direct flights to Siem Reap - a city where travellers visiting the Angkor Wat ruins fly to - and so made it one of the top tourist destinations in the region today.
But Asean countries are at different stages of economic development, and hence have different priorities, he said.
Observers say that on one side are the more advanced and prosperous nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Brunei. On the other side are Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.
Mr Lee said: 'The more developed Asean members ought to take the lead in setting the pace of integration by moving ahead first, either bilaterally or as a smaller sub-group, based on the 'Asean minus X' approach.'
'Others can then join in later as soon as they are ready.'
He was referring to an approach first mooted in 2002 that encouraged the six more advanced Asean nations to lower trade tariffs ahead of other members.
In 2003, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and his Thai counterpart Thaksin Shinawatra spelt out a similar approach for any two or more members countries to integrate certain sectors faster, such as air cargo services, without it being seen as moves to undermine the Asean spirit of consensus.
Reiterating this approach on Thursday, Mr Lee said it 'can and should be' applied to the air transport sector.
'This is a high-profile sector closely watched by others as a key indicator of Asean's resolve to pursue closer economic integration,' he said.
He called on Asean transport ministers to 'follow through quickly' on their roadmap for integration of air travel sector, adopted in 2004, to progressively establish Asean-wide open skies.
This means meeting the first milestone of freeing access between Asean capitals by December next year.
The ministers should also 'step up' discussions to achieve an Asean single aviation market by 2015, he added.
'If necessary, those who are ready should move even faster, putting in place market- and consumer-friendly liberalisation measures such as Open Skies Agreements.'
For instance, since 2004, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei and Cambodia have a multilateral deal for unlimited all-cargo services in the four countries. Singapore, Brunei and Thailand also have a deal giving their airlines an unlimited number of passengers services on any route in the three countries and allowing them to offer passengers a wider range of travel routes and destinations.
Earlier this month, Malaysia announced it would open the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur route to budget carriers.
On the adoption of a roadmap to further develop and integrate maritime transport which is on the meeting agenda, Mr Lee it was 'timely and important'.
He urged the ministers to set out clear intermediate milestones for liberalising maritime transport services in the region.
Turning to Asean's major Asian partners, Mr Lee said the grouping should enhance transport links with them.
China and India have stated their interest to ink open skies deals with Asean, he noted, so it should 'leverage on these initiatives as 'pathfinders' to encourage similar engagements with other partners and regional groupings'.
In October last year, Asean and China agreed to work towards open skies, and in January this year, India also adopted a Singapore proposal to start negotiations on an open sky policy with Asean.