17 May 2021
Monday, 17 May 2021
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is my pleasure to address the eleventh Parliamentarian Workshop on International Trade co-hosted by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, and the World Trade Organization (WTO). On behalf of my fellow Members of Parliament in Singapore, I wish our Parliamentary colleagues from across the Asia-Pacific a warm welcome.
2. It has been two years since we last met for this Parliamentarian Workshop. Unlike previous Workshops, we are compelled to meet virtually this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has ravaged the world and caused unprecedented economic, social and political upheavals. With more than 155 million people infected globally and more than three million fatalities to date, it is imperative that the international community band together to find pragmatic ways to fight the virus and support post-pandemic economic recovery. Allow me to highlight three key points.
3. First, the WTO can, and must, play a key role in the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite its many challenges, the WTO remains an irreplaceable institution. It is the embodiment of the rules-based multilateral trading system that has been a force for good. Throughout the pandemic, the WTO has undertaken various practical measures to keep global trade flowing despite the initial scramble for vital medical equipment and supplies. For instance, the WTO began to track the proliferation of export-restrictive measures and analyse how these measures were causing disruptions to global supply chain connectivity. Besides providing useful studies, these actions by the WTO raise awareness among Members about the adverse impact that trade-restrictive measures can have on the international community’s efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
4. Together with WTO Members, Director-General of the WTO Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has also been spearheading efforts to increase production of vaccines and enhance their distribution. A WTO event held on 14 April brought together all the key stakeholders, ranging from vaccine developers to manufacturers, as well as civil society organisations (CSOs), to identify real-life challenges in scaling up vaccine production and to try and find practical solutions. The experts and manufacturers clearly identified impediments such as export restrictions, disruptions to supply chain connectivity, and domestic regulations as limiting factors.
5. A group of Members, including many countries represented here today, including Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore, are also working actively on a Trade and Health initiative to encourage Members to avoid imposing export restrictions, streamline customs and regulatory procedures and ensure supply chain connectivity, which would facilitate post-pandemic economic recovery.
6. As much as we must address immediate challenges such as vaccine shortages, the WTO must also consider how it can play a meaningful role in the post-pandemic economic recovery. Amidst the disruptions and shut-downs, e-Commerce has taken firm root as people migrate to the digital sphere to work, shop and play. This unstoppable trend is reflected in the fact that 36 per cent of the 400 million digital services consumers in Southeast Asia in 2020 are new users. Consumers in Southeast Asia also spent an average of one hour more per day on the internet during the shut-downs, especially in areas such as e-Education, entertainment and online grocery shopping. In this connection, Singapore, together with Australia and Japan, have convened the Joint Statement Initiative (JSI) on E-Commerce, which is a plurilateral initiative to develop digital trade rules. We are actively working to push for the development of e-Commerce rules to enhance digital inclusion and forge a 21st century global economy.
7. Second, countries must behave responsibly and contribute meaningfully to the recovery efforts. Every country must participate in strengthening the global system. This includes building up its own public health capabilities. As parliamentarians, we have a duty to ensure that our countries work closer and better, and translate our words into actions. We all say that “no one is safe until everyone is safe”, but we have to back this up with concrete action to support fair and equitable access to vaccines. Even as each of us gears up to secure our own vaccine supplies, we must cooperate internationally so that all countries, including LMICs, or low-income and middle-income countries, have access to vaccines for their people.
8. In this context, we must respond seriously and responsibly to the feedback that vaccine manufacturers from both developed and developing Members have provided concerning the key barriers to ramping up vaccine production. Particularly, export restrictions and cumbersome domestic regulatory measures. In this connection, we must support the WTO’s efforts to find practical ways to resolve these issues and increase vaccine production and improve their distribution by: a) bringing vaccine developers and manufacturers together in order to understand the real situation on the ground, including the challenges that they face; (b) identifying existing and future capacities to ramp up vaccine production, including fill-and-finish; and (c) overcoming domestic obstacles that delay and/or distort distribution of vaccines.
9. Third, while we recognise that the fight against COVID-19 will be long and arduous, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Key stakeholders such as governments, researchers and pharmaceutical companies have been actively collaborating to innovate, develop, produce and distribute COVID-19 vaccines at an unprecedented pace, within the context of an enabling ecosystem underpinned by the protection of IP rights. The COVAX Facility is one such example of innovative multilateral collaboration or “vaccine multilateralism”. Singapore is proud to participate in the COVAX Facility and contribute to the COVAX Advance Market Commitment (COVAX-AMC), which supports vaccine access for 92 LMICs. We were also the founding co-chair of the informal Friends of the COVAX Facility group that helped shape and support the mechanism. To date, it has distributed 53 million doses to 122 participating economies. We can do more to support it and build on its momentum, especially to countries that are hardest hit.
10. Economic recovery is also slowly but surely picking up. Many countries are making the right choices to keep global supply chains open and are committed to economic openness and fostering trade. The International Monetary Fund’s latest World Economic Outlook, for instance, projects that growth in Asia will outpace other regions after facing only a 1.5 per cent contraction in 2020, with GDP growing 7.6 per cent in 2021.
11. In conclusion, I hope that this Workshop will enable all of us to gain deeper insights into the WTO so that we can collectively work to strengthen the WTO, which has played a critical role in promoting development, peace and stability. More importantly, as Parliamentarians, we play an important role as the legislative body as well as representing the voice of the people. During a prolonged crisis, like the one we are experiencing, there will be tremendous frustration on the ground. Parliamentarians can contribute in the fight against COVID-19 and in its recovery by supporting proposals and legislation which are forward-looking and explaining them to the people when tough decisions have to be taken – whether in terms of promoting public health; curbing the spread of COVID-19; letting go of some jobs to create new future-proof ones; developing infrastructure to embrace the emerging digital economy; or keeping supply chains and borders open, rather than closed.
12. I look forward to hearing some of the ideas that will emerge from this Workshop so that we can learn from one another. Thank you and have a pleasant afternoon ahead.
Last updated on 19/05/2021