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Singapore tells UN General Assembly it will help small states with digitalisation and COVID-19 recovery

Singapore tells UN General Assembly it will help small states with digitalisation and COVID-19 recovery

Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan gestures after addressing the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Sep 25, 2021. (Pool Photo: Kena Betancur via AP)

SINGAPORE: Singapore will run programmes from 2022 to 2023 to help small states with digital transformation and COVID-19 recovery, Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York on Saturday (Sep 25).

The programmes, under an initiative called FOSS for Good, will cover themes such as digital transformation, digital economy and smart nations. Issues such as pandemic preparedness and education transformation could be included.

FOSS refers to the Forum of Small States, which Singapore established in 1992 as an informal platform for small states to discuss issues of mutual concern. FOSS currently has 108 members at the UN.

Dr Balakrishan is in the US to deliver Singapore's statement at the UNGA, before heading to Washington DC until Wednesday for a working visit, where he will meet senior officials from US President Joe Biden's administration and members of Congress.

Through FOSS for Good, officials from FOSS members can take part in executive or customised programmes to exchange experiences, best practices, and solutions to tackle common challenges.

Executive programmes, targeted at senior officials, will focus on leadership and governance, policymaking strategies and frameworks, and other interdisciplinary policy areas. Officials can also have interactive discussions with Singapore's political office holders and top public service leaders. Executive programmes will be held once in 2022 and 2023.

Customised programmes, targeted at mid-to-senior level officials, will focus on specific topics that address the unique development needs and challenges of FOSS member states. They will be held two to three times a year.

FOSS for Good is in line with Singapore's call for a global framework to overcome challenges or maximise opportunities related to digitalisation.

Such a framework can also close the digital divide among nations, where 3.8 billion people worldwide remain digitally disconnected and thus lack access to education, healthcare and other essential services amid the pandemic, Dr Balakrishnan said.

"The goal is both simple and singular: How can we enhance multilateral cooperation to leverage digital technologies for sustainable development," he said in his UNGA speech.

"There are many paths that we can take. The Secretary-General's proposal for a global digital compact, or perhaps a new UN convention on digital transformation for sustainable development, or a framework of norms and principles."

Dr Balakrishnan later told reporters that the "digital revolution" was one of the issues discussed at the UNGA, with a "fair amount of anxiety" over its impact on jobs, the economy and relations between countries.

"There has been quite a lot of focus on trying to overcome the digital divide, on how to raise and mobilise finance for digital infrastructure," he said.

"And then equally, the question of skills, retraining, education so that people have this necessary capability to take advantage of opportunities which are emerging from the Internet."

AUSTRALIA, UK AND US ALLIANCE

Other issues discussed at the UNGA included COVID-19 vaccines, the climate crisis and how the relationships between superpowers are evolving, Dr Balakrishnan told reporters.

In particular, Singapore is "not unduly anxious" about the new strategic alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom and the US (AUKUS) due to its longstanding relationship with the three countries, he said.

"The fact that we have a longstanding, constructive relationship, with large reservoirs of trust and alignment, is very helpful, because it means we are not unduly anxious about these new developments," he said.

On Sep 15, the US announced AUKUS, a new alliance with Australia and Britain to deepen diplomatic, security and defence cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. Under the agreement, Australia will get a nuclear submarine fleet and American cruise missiles. Observers have said AUKUS was introduced to counter a rising China.

China has since condemned the deal as an "extremely irresponsible" threat to stability in the region, while the agreement also angered France, which had been negotiating a multibillion-dollar sale of conventional submarines to Australia.

Southeast Asian countries have given mixed reactions. Indonesia and Malaysia have come out strongly against the plan, amid concerns that the South China Sea will play host to more frequent flashpoints between China and the western countries.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has spoken with Australian counterpart Scott Morrison on AUKUS, with Mr Lee saying he hoped that AUKUS would complement regional frameworks and contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region.

Dr Balakrishnan again stressed these points, saying that Singapore's stand on AUKUS is "clear".

"We'll have to see how this evolves and how other neighbours, and other powers respond to these arrangements," he said.

"And in the case of Singapore, be very, very careful. Make sure we don't end up in a position which is unviable or dangerous, or one which can have adverse consequences to us.

"But the fact that we are friends to everyone, we're able to speak honestly, constructively and they know that we're not against any party – that also gives us a slightly unique role, and to engage in constructive conversation with all parties."

US-CHINA RIVALRY

Nevertheless, Dr Balakrishnan said the "real strategic question" remains how the US and China will rebalance their relationship.

"Will the US and China, be able to both cooperate, compete and also avoid conflict? That remains the primary question," he said.

In their UNGA speeches, Mr Biden highlighted the importance of not allowing competition to tip over into conflict, while Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke about how one country's success does not mean the failure of another.

Dr Balakrishnan said these speeches show that the countries are setting up scenarios where they can both compete and cooperate, hopefully without conflict.

"Now having said that, I think we're still in the very early stages of this strategic rebalancing, readjustment, recalibration of the relationship," he said.

"And you cannot assume that things will always be smooth sailing and nothing can go wrong, or that you can't actually end up in a de facto another Cold War, or even sometimes a hotspot.

"So, this is something which I think everyone is aware of, concerned with, clearly on the part of Singapore and many other small nations in the world."

VACCINE ACCESS

Another "major issue" discussed at the UNGA was COVID-19 vaccine access, Dr Balakrishnan said, acknowledging that the shots were still "very unevenly distributed" around the world.

Still, the minister pointed to how Singapore has been privileged enough to help promote equitable access to the vaccines.

This includes striking a vaccine swap deal with Australia, foregoing its share of vaccines under the COVAX initiative for neighbouring countries that might need them more, as well as attracting vaccine producers to set up shop here.

"Sometime next year onwards, you will see the construction of facilities by BioNTech, Sanofi and Thermo Fisher, so that there will be indigenous vaccine production in Singapore," Dr Balakrishnan said.

"But again, because actually we are very small market, everyone knows that those facilities will really be designed to produce and make available vaccines to a much wider neighbourhood. So this is the way Singapore will be a constructive, helpful and reliable partner."

Source: CNA/hz

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