24 April 2023
Professor Kumar Ramakrishna, Dean of RSIS
Ladies and Gentlemen
Participants of the 14th Asia-Pacific Programme for Senior National Security Officers (APPSNO)
Good morning and a very warm welcome, particularly to the many speakers and participants who have come from overseas.
2 It has been more than four years since the last APPSNO was held. I thank you for inviting me to address you and to participate in this programme. This year’s theme asks us to contemplate how to “reframe resilience” in the face of a new world disorder.
3 Traditionally, resilience is associated with the ability to bounce back from adversity. Indeed, the fact that we are gathered here today is testament to our collective resilience in the face of a global pandemic that has disrupted the world for almost three years. As of 2022, the value of global trade in goods was about 33% higher than in 2019. Similarly trade in services was 15% higher compared to 2019. International aviation traffic in 2022 has recovered to about 62% of 2019 levels and air passenger demand is projected to exceed pre-pandemic levels in 2019 by the end of 2023.
4 But the post-pandemic world is a much more complex, troubled and dangerous one. We are not facing just one storm, but several that have the ability to significantly impact a small state like Singapore. The war in Ukraine continues unabated after more than a year, with no good outcome in sight. Disruptions in global energy, food and fertiliser supplies have resulted in higher prices. The crisis has also significantly impacted international relations. US-China relations have deteriorated sharply, and is now marked by mutual suspicion and mistrust. If things continue on this trajectory, there will be profound costs for both countries, and big trouble for the rest of the world.
5 The international norms that underpin peace and prosperity in the world are under severe strain – including the promotion of mutual interdependence and strengthening of the multilateral system.
6 In such a troubled world, “resilience” has to be much more than simply bouncing back from adversity. As a small nation, Singapore has to take the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. But we are far from powerless in shaping our environment to bring about better outcomes. In Singapore’s view, building resilience means investing in our relationships and partnerships, playing an active role to address pressing issues facing the international community, and building a united and cohesive society at home.
Investing in relationships and partnerships
7 First, we must continue to make common cause with as many countries as possible by building overlapping circles of friends to advance our shared interests. Our innermost circle consists of our immediate neighbours and our fellow ASEAN countries. Singapore’s relationship with our two neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia are excellent, stable and positive. We have made progress in putting longstanding issues to rest, and have put in place a strong, collaborative and forward-looking agenda that encompasses promising new areas such as the digital economy, sustainability and connectivity.
8 Within our region, Singapore advocates strongly for an open and inclusive, ASEAN-centred regional architecture. ASEAN-led mechanisms like the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Plus-Three, and the Plus-One summits bring all major powers and regional players, including the US, China and India, to the same table. By engaging all major players, everyone will have a stake in the peace, stability and development of the region, and can create a stable balance of power in the Asia Pacific.
9 Further afield, Singapore looks to seize opportunities in emerging areas like the digital economy and in sustainability. We work with like-minded partners, such as Chile, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom on pathfinding initiatives, that include Digital Economy Agreements and Green Economy Agreements.
10 Singapore also encourages forward-looking initiatives, such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which facilitate trade cooperation and promote a forward-looking economic agenda.
11 The groups are not mutually exclusive and have varying memberships that overlap with one another. We cannot be in every group, but having friends in the various interlocking networks of cooperation is beneficial for all of us. These interlocking relationships and partnerships help to create a more secure and resilient environment for small countries like Singapore, by spurring innovation, building partnerships, and moderating tensions when they arise.
12 Second, it is Singapore’s firm belief that the multilateral system remains our collective best hope. An open, rules-based international system helps to keep the world stable and peaceful, provides a level playing field for all countries, and gives us a stake in the prosperity and growth of other countries.
13 Unfortunately, the global multilateral trading system is under siege. Instead of supporting globalisation, harmonising rules and seeking win-win economic cooperation, countries are prioritising domestic and national security considerations. This is bad news for small and open economies like Singapore, and the economic cost to the world will be very high.
14 Our current systems are not perfect. But rather than abandoning them, we need to work together to fortify and update them, to ensure that they keep pace with new challenges and circumstances. This is why Singapore continues to be a strong advocate for international law and actively contributes to shaping global norms.
15 For example, we are helping to build a secure and peaceful cyberspace through chairing the Open-ended Working Group (OEWG) on Security of and in the Use of Information and Communications Technologies 2021-2025. Singapore also contributes to the global fight against money laundering and financing of terrorism through our Presidency of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF).
16 You may also know that Singapore has played a significant role in developing international oceans law. 41 years ago, our Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh presided over the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea, which resulted in the adoption of UNCLOS in 1982. Today, UNCLOS is widely regarded as the Constitution of the Oceans.
17 In March this year, another Singaporean, Ambassador Rena Lee, presided over five Intergovernmental Conferences that led to the successful conclusion of the UN Treaty on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biodiversity in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, otherwise known as the BBNJ Agreement. The successful conclusion of the BBNJ Agreement is a strong testament that multilateralism remains effective and relevant, and that countries can come together to address urgent issues of the global commons.
Building unity at home
18 Third, and most importantly, our resilience and our ability to weather external storms comes from home, no matter where we are from. A fragmented, divisive and troubled external environment will undoubtedly create stresses and strains in our domestic societies.
19 High inflation may cause difficulties for many lower- and middle-income households. There may be more uncertain economic growth ahead and greater disruptions to industries and jobs, businesses and workers. Heightened geopolitical tensions have exacerbated the risk of foreign interference in our public discourse, and the shaping of opinions on global and domestic policies.
20 The end result could well be more fractious and polarised societies, where it becomes increasingly difficult to bridge differences, arrive at consensus and build constructive solutions. This sort of paralysis would make it difficult for any society to deal effectively with challenges and forge ahead. It is therefore important to invest in building united and cohesive societies at home in the face of new challenges.
21 This is especially true for Singapore. Because of our diversity and multiracial makeup, there are latent fault-lines available for exploitation. As such, it is crucial to ensure that our populations understand our national interests and policy objectives. This is especially the case for foreign policy, which can truly succeed only when supported by a united and cohesive society.
22 As we head into more difficult times, it is this unity and cohesiveness in our societies that will be the bulwark against the challenges lying ahead, and allow us to act collectively and decisively so that we can survive and thrive in a turbulent world.
23 With so much changing around us, it is important to go back to the fundamentals, stay grounded in our respective national interests, be clear-eyed about the challenges ahead, and gear our strategies accordingly.
24 As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in Parliament last week, “Let us think boldly, aim high, and seek far”.
25 The COVID-19 pandemic showed us that despite the unprecedented challenges we faced on a global scale, we have also seen incredible acts of kindness and resilience that remind us of our shared humanity. Tomorrow’s challenges will be complex, and none of us can address them alone. By working together, we can create a more just, peaceful and sustainable future for all.
26 Thank you very much for allowing me this opportunity to share thoughts with (the APPSNO) participants, and I wish everyone a fruitful programme ahead. Thank you.
Last updated on 24/04/2023