SINGAPORE: Singapore can no longer assume that open markets and globalisation are part of the “natural order” of things after COVID-19 sped up pre-existing geo-political trends, said Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean on Thursday (Jun 11).
“COVID-19 has … accelerated pre-existing geo-political trends. The US-China rivalry has intensified. Global supply chains have been up-ended. In quite a few countries, social divisions have grown starker, fracturing social and political stability.
"This has in turn fuelled a wave of nativism and protectionism,” he said in the third of six televised speeches by ministers on the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Countries are acting unilaterally to protect their own short-term interests. As a result, international organisations like the WHO (World Health Organization) are handicapped as they seek a coordinated global response.”
Such developments threaten the “international system and global order”, which previously provided opportunities for all nations to grow peacefully, Mr Teo added.
“Generations of Singaporeans have grown up believing that globalisation and open markets are part of the natural order of things. We can no longer assume that this is so,” said Mr Teo.
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Mr Teo’s speech was part of a series of national broadcasts in which Cabinet ministers lay out the nation’s plans for the future. The first of these speeches was delivered by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Jun 7.
“BLEAK OUTCOME NOT INEVITABLE”
Mr Teo stressed that a “bleak outcome” is not a foregone conclusion.
“What each country does, together with like-minded partners, can make a difference,” he said. “The COVID-19 crisis will affect all of us. It should motivate all countries to come together to build a more cooperative world, rather than become a reason to divide us.
“Pursuing narrow self-interest can leave all of us worse off, while enlightened self-interest means working together for a better outcome for everyone.”
After the pandemic subsides, there will be a “long road to economic recovery”, Mr Teo added. There will be a need for new international protocols in order to continue cross-border exchanges as well as a need to update, reform and strengthen the global trading system to reflect “new realities”, he said.
“We hope that the major powers will exercise leadership to help the world overcome COVID-19. This will set the tone and lay the foundation, beyond COVID-19, for a renewed open, united and inclusive world,” he said.
“Then humanity can address important shared challenges that require collective global action, such as violent extremism, nuclear proliferation, cyber security, future pandemics and climate change. No single country – big or small – can solve these problems on its own.”
What is unchanged is the fact that Singapore will always be a small, multi-racial country surrounded by bigger neighbours and remain exposed to “external forces” beyond its control, added Mr Teo.
Singapore will continue to push for close ties and good cooperation with ASEAN partners, said Mr Teo. It has worked closely with Malaysia on the cross-border flow of people and goods. Singapore has also donated masks, test kits and ventilators to Malaysia, Indonesia and other ASEAN countries as a “gesture of solidarity”, he noted.
“At the same time, we must deal constructively with the bilateral issues that inevitably arise between close neighbours. We will try our best to resolve these issues and achieve a win-win outcome while protecting Singapore’s interests,” said Mr Teo.
“And until we can resolve them, we must manage and contain the bilateral problems, so that we can work on wider areas of cooperation for mutual benefit."
Beyond the region, Singapore will continue to make itself “useful to the world” even amid the pandemic, said Mr Teo.
This means working with partner countries to keep supply chains open as well as contributing to global action to tackle climate change, he explained.
“To play such a constructive role on the world stage and to protect our national interests, we require an able and agile foreign service. Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, together with other government agencies, work hard to help Singapore chart our path in the world and create more opportunities and space for Singaporeans,” he said.
“This has now become even more important with the global changes brought about by COVID-19.”
A “STRINGENT” TEST OF “ABILITY AND RESOLVE”
“Singapore can hold its own in the world, only if we are strong, successful and united at home. Only then can our diplomats speak with a credible voice,” said Mr Teo. “We can face the world outside with confidence only if we are strong inside.”
The COVID-19 crisis has been a “stringent” test of Singapore’s “ability and resolve” to tackle challenges at home, he said.
“The crisis has stretched our resources and capacity. But we have been able to orientate, adapt and act rapidly as the virus came upon us in waves. Each wave required us to develop and deploy novel measures to slow down the spread, and contain it,” he added.
And as the country recovers from the pandemic, there is a need to build a more resilient Singapore, he pointed out.
For one, COVID-19 has underscored the need to build reserves and resilience to respond to unexpected crises, said Mr Teo.
“We need not just financial reserves. We also need able and experienced people, organisational capacity and operational agility,” he said. “When COVID-19 struck, we could draw on the knowledge, expertise and capacity in our healthcare system built up after our SARS experience. And we could tap the SAF to rapidly build up our contact tracing capacity, as we did during SARS.”
However, no two crises are the same, and tackling COVID-19 has been a “major challenge”, noted Mr Teo.
“We had heightened surveillance and tightened precautions in our migrant worker dormitories early on. Unfortunately, these turned out to be insufficient because the virus was far more infectious than SARS,” he said.
In addition to planning for, building and scaling up community care facilities, resources were also drawn from the public service, government-linked companies, and the private sector to set up and run all these facilities. Healthcare volunteers stepped forward to help man them, pointed out Mr Teo.
In addition, the Singapore Armed Forces and Home Team established the joint task forces within days, to support Ministry of Manpower and Ministry of Health personnel already on the frontlines, said Mr Teo.
“The clear lesson for me is that in ‘peace-time’, we need to plan on facing the unknown, and build deep reserves of people and capabilities, so that when we face a crisis, we can act decisively, and respond flexibly and rapidly,” said Mr Teo.
There is also a need for economic resilience, added Mr Teo.
“In the immediate term, this means dealing with the direct impact of COVID-19 on our livelihoods and supply chains. Thus far, we have managed to maintain our food and essential supplies through stockpiling, diversification and self-production,” he said. “These would not have been possible without the industrial capacity and economic resilience that we have built up over the years.”
Thirdly, Mr Teo highlighted how every crisis “strains” Singapore’s social fabric.
“I am heartened to see many acts of kindness, care and compassion from Singaporeans and our friends living here. They acknowledged and helped take care of our migrant workers, and they helped look after those who are more vulnerable among us, regardless of race or religion,” he said.
“We all share a common humanity. What we do in a crisis reflects who we are, and the values which motivate us as a people and as a nation.”
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Mr Teo also noted that Singapore has repeatedly faced and overcome crises, with the COVID-19 pandemic being the “largest and most complex” one he has encountered in more than 40 years of public service.
“We have responded to COVID-19 as one nation – mobilising our financial reserves, our public services, our crisis response capacity and our social capital. Singaporeans have stepped forward to do our part, helping others in need, and keeping ourselves and others safe during the circuit breaker,” he explained.
“We have avoided the fissures that have divided some other countries, fissures that have hindered their ability to respond properly, and cost them lives and livelihoods.”
Added Mr Teo: “What we have built as a nation – our solidarity, our resolve and our resilience – gives me confidence that we will overcome the current crisis and any future challenges, to build a stronger and better Singapore together.”