Think Tank (3/2021)
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RSIS-WTO Virtual Parliamentarian Workshop 2021
17 May 2021

From 17 to 19 May 2021, the Centre for Multilateralism Studies hosted the joint RSIS-World Trade Organization (WTO) Virtual Parliamentarian Workshop with support from the Temasek Foundation. As a capacity-building event, the workshop provided a platform for the exchange of ideas, information, and experiences to enable lawmakers to better contribute to trade policy and the multilateral trading system (MTS). Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Singapore’s Speaker of Parliament, opened the event, with welcome remarks from Mr Benedict Cheong, CEO of Temasek Foundation International; Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, WTO Director-General; and Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, RSIS Executive Deputy Chairman. Thereafter, three panels focused on the state of the global economy and WTO, as well as ways forward.

Among the key themes discussed were the outstanding economic challenges of widening inequalities and the slow pace of rulemaking for both longstanding and modern-day trade issues, such as fisheries subsidies and digital trade. Other hurdles requiring immediate action are the resumption of safe travel and the drop in global cargo delivery capacity, which delay the reopening of service sectors and raise shipping costs respectively. Within the WTO itself, speakers noted the need to strengthen the institution’s negotiating, monitoring, and enforcement functions.

Several recommendations to expedite an economic recovery aligned with sustainable development goals emerged from the workshop. Ramping up vaccine production and distribution is critical. Some panellists noted, however, that a zero-tolerance COVID policy is unfeasible. Countries must learn how to live with the virus, while policymakers must reasonably adjust their risk levels as the virus is likely to remain in the coming years. Domestic reforms are necessary to update economic and social protection policies for a world marked by significant inequalities and accelerated digitalisation. This may include including unemployment benefits, stronger provisions for labour rights, and reskilling programmes.

Meanwhile, WTO members must capitalise on growing political momentum to conclude negotiations for priority areas during the 12th Ministerial Conference — an event whose outcomes will signal the WTO’s credibility and relevance for years to come. Members should also act responsibly in enforcing trade rules, reporting trade measures transparently, restoring the dispute settlement mechanism, and finding ways to diplomatically resolve disagreements instead of relying on litigation. Finally, parliamentarians play an important role in defending the WTO and MTS. Hence, lawmakers should make credible arguments in support of multilateralism to their governments and constituents despite the appeal of populism and economic nationalism by, for instance, better communicating the real and concrete benefits of trade to their populations.

Photo (Clockwise from top-left): Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Speaker of the Parliament of Singapore, Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, Executive Deputy Chairman of RSIS, Mr Benedict Cheong, Chief Executive of Temasek Foundation International and Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Director-General of the WTO, touched upon COVID-19, the WTO and Singapore’s role in economic multilateralism during their opening remarks.
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