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New approaches needed for ‘far from perfect’ multilateral system, says PM Lee in UN address

New approaches needed for ‘far from perfect’ multilateral system, says PM Lee in UN address

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking at the 74th United Nations General Assembly on Sep 27, 2019.

NEW YORK: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday (Sep 27) called on UN member states to support a multilateral system and demonstrate leadership in the endeavour, amid waning support for an open and integrated global economy.

"To adapt multilateralism for today’s world calls for new approaches that are open, inclusive, and transparent," said Mr Lee, who was delivering Singapore’s national statement at the 74th United Nations General Assembly, his first since becoming Prime Minister in 2004.

READ: US, China must reconsider positions in trade war that won’t end with ‘one loser and one winner’: PM Lee

In his address, Mr Lee said that a rules-based multilateral system is still “far preferable” to any other way of securing peace and prosperity and to solve global problems, although it needs updating and is “far from” working perfectly.

There is a need for updated rules, for digital services and intellectual property for instance, in multilateral institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO), he said.

Mr Lee explained that given that any deal requires the full consensus among the WTO’s 164 member countries with diverse interests and philosophies, it has become increasingly difficult to reach meaningful trade agreements.

“But the solution should be to reform these institutions, rather than to bypass or dispense with them,” he said.


Mr Lee added that regional and plurilateral agreements like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) must be kept open and inclusive, so that the arrangements can overlap and add to one another.

They must also allow other countries to join when they are ready.

“We need to avoid creating rival economic blocs or a bifurcated global economy, forcing countries to choose sides and undermining the international order,” Mr Lee said.

Multilateral agreements bind all WTO members while plurilateral trade agreements are negotiated by several countries.

The CPTPP was signed in March 2018 by 11 countries formerly in the Trans-Pacific Partnership after the United States withdrew from the multilateral trade pact. The RCEP, still being negotiated, involves the 10 ASEAN countries and its six trading partners, including China.

READ: Singapore inks new TPP trade pact with 10 other countries: 5 things to know about the CPTPP

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat had also recently told business leaders at the Milken Institute Asia Summit that the RCEP is a way of catalysing the multilateral system, and should not be seen as “Fortress Asia” – adding that the pact should not be exclusive.


Mr Lee acknowledged that not everyone feels that globalisation and free trade has benefitted them, and that has given rise to nationalist, isolationist and protectionist sentiments which have led to a more polarised world.

However, he argued that a fragmented world with slower growth will lead to unfavourable outcomes of fewer jobs, and dimmer prospects.

“In such a world, a multilateral approach is not an option but a necessity, to deal with complex global problems including poverty eradication, pandemics and climate change,” Mr Lee said.

Mr Lee explained that it is tough for any country to develop and progress on its own, adding that growth requires trade, investments and technology – all of which, depend on working with others within an open and orderly international framework of rules.

For example, developed countries that opened up their markets benefitted from access to new ones, just as China’s economic reform led to a dramatic growth, which lifted over 850 million people out of poverty.

He raised climate change as another area for multilateral cooperation since it is an issue no single country can solve alone, but if not dealt with, will have disastrous consequences for all countries.

Earlier this week at the UN Climate Action Summit, Mr Lee had called for UN member states to redouble their efforts to mitigate climate change.

Source: CNA/ad(hm)


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