President Halimah Yacob interacting with Rotary International president Shekhar Mehta during the Rotary Intercountry Committee Asean's inaugural assembly. PHOTO: ROTARY INTERCOUNTRY COMMITTEE ASEAN

SINGAPORE - Rotary clubs from 10 Asean countries were united under a single committee on Saturday (May 14) in a signing that will help to strengthen member efforts in supporting social and environmental issues in their communities.

The new Rotary Intercountry Committee Asean brought together more than 42,000 members from 1,600 Rotary Clubs across the region. It held its first assembly at the Suntec Singapore Convention and Exhibition Centre on Saturday.

President Halimah Yacob was present at the event and said in her keynote address: "The formalisation of this platform is indeed a significant milestone, and will provide opportunities for Rotarians from Asean member states to connect, exchange ideas, and innovate as you advance your social mission."

She noted that the past two years have highlighted the important work of organisations like Rotary International.

For example, the Rotary Club of Singapore set up a Covid-19 unemployment fund for those who lost their jobs due to the pandemic. It also donated face shields, surgical masks and gowns to frontline workers.

Madam Halimah added that the new committee will support Asean in fulfilling commitments around building a socially responsible, inclusive and sustainable regional community.

"Community-building cannot rely solely on top-down policies and must be complemented by ground-up efforts that engage people at the personal, individual level," she said.

Asean secretary-general Lim Jock Hoi said that given the increasingly strong regional presence, Asean Rotary members should take a leading role in embracing the Asean identity in their activities.

Dr Philbert Chin, founding committee chair of Rotary Intercountry Committee Asean, said the committee will be the largest of its kind in the world and will be a partner of Asean in delivering social and cultural services.

Some US$150,000 (S$209,000) was pledged at the event to support humanitarian projects.

Focus areas in Asean include supporting the environment, education, healthcare and gender equality, said Rotary International President Shekhar Mehta in an interview with The Straits Times.

"I see there is need for bringing literacy and education right up to the best possible level. So we need to introduce technology," he said.

"There is need for strengthening the healthcare system. So Rotary is ready to support that."

He added that the overarching theme of empowering girls will also be a focus of Rotary clubs going forward.

Concerning the environment, the Rotary club in Singapore is going to start a mangrove project, he noted.

"Creating awareness is something we are very good at... and awareness is very important. Till people are aware of the climate issues and till it reaches the grassroots level, it will become difficult (to make the green transition) because each of us contributes or does something against the environment without realising it. But when we become aware, I think that these drops in the ocean will make a difference."

Such work can be achieved through this larger intercountry committee too, he said, adding that he hoped it would foster greater friendships, networking opportunities, collaboration and cooperation, alongside more goodwill and understanding of one another's cultures.