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Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Keynote Address at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Asia Pacific 2018 Regional Management Meeting (RMM) at the Hilton Hotel, 9 October 2018

09 October 2018

Mr Achim Steiner


Ladies and Gentlemen

Thank you, and let me bid all of you a warm welcome to this tiny city-state called Singapore. We are very honoured that you have chosen to conduct your Regional Management Meeting for this year in Singapore. And as Achim has shared with you just now, in fact Singapore’s relationship with the UNDP goes right back to our early years. If you look in the handout you will realise that when Singapore first got self-government in 1959, one of the first things that Mr Lee Kuan Yew did was to ask the UNDP – at that time it was called the UN Expanded Programme of Technical Assistance (UN-EPTA) – to send an expert to help us formulate a plan for development that would create jobs and opportunities for a fledgling nation-state. The person who was appointed by the UN was Dr Albert Winsemius from the Netherlands and he came here in 1960, and in fact, thereafter, maintained a personal relationship – I suspect it was so personal that it became unofficial – but nevertheless extended engagement with Singapore, which went all the way until 1984. And in those 24 years, he did far more than just give us a plan. I doubt anyone in this room had the privilege of meeting him or reading his papers, but he was a unique man. He was prepared to break from conventional wisdom, look beyond the prevailing industrial and management frameworks, and sought to look for novel perspectives and new ideas in which this tiny city-state with no natural resources and a very dense population could find a niche in the global value chain. So he went beyond ideology, he was practical and pragmatic, he was focused on the local, but also aware that because of Singapore’s circumstances, we had to be relevant, we had to be useful to the world.  



So much of what you see in Singapore today, in particular the economic model the port, the airport, the development of logistics, us being part of the global value chain, and even our current position as a financial and forex centre can date back to ideas which were germinated in intense conversations and arguments between Dr Albert Winsemius and the pioneer leaders of Singapore.  So in that sense, the UNDP should look at Singapore as a success model and a result of a wonderfully successful programme that you have been able to implement. Look around Singapore, and you will realise that there is still significance in the work that you all perform.  


To give you some food for thought, I thought I would take a step back and try to situate our current position as Singapore, as well as the state of the world that we find ourselves in. I want to leave two points on the table before you: the first is the essential need for good governance, and the second; the need for multilateralism. If you look at the UN and the UNDP, actually it is a child of two major trends. The first mega-trend began about 250 years ago with the Industrial Revolution, which we all know occurred in England and across Europe, and is the reason we’re using English today. The Industrial Revolution gave outsized economic power, productive capacity, and ultimately military capacity, which also enabled Europe to extend its political influence and ultimately colonise much of the world. So that’s the first trend: the Industrial Revolution and colonisation.   



The second point, rather than trend, is the Second World War, which in a sense was unfinished business from the First World War. One impact of the Second World War, particularly in the colonies of the mid-twentieth century, was that it broke the myth of invincibility and unquestioned superiority of the colonial masters. And in a sense, the seeds for decolonisation were planted in the ebb and flow of the Second World War. The United Nations is a child of the World War, because after all it was created in order to avoid subsequent world wars. But because the seeds for decolonisation were also planted, it is no surprise that actually if you look at the period from mid-forties to about the sixties and seventies, whole swathes of continents in Asia and South America became independent. And the question then which you should be considering given these two trends, is what has led to the very asymmetrical outcomes in these newly independent countries over the last 50 to 60 years. And the point which I wanted to leave with you was the first two points: the need for good governance and the need for multilateralism. 



So now, on to the first point: the need for good governance. I say this, because politics is local. All politics is local, and even foreign policy begins at home. If you are a democracy, and in Singapore we run a parliamentary democracy, which means I have to stand for elections in order to get into Parliament and in order to be eligible to be a Minister. I am voted by voters within my neighbourhood. I’m not voted by a global electorate. And actually, regardless of the form of government in all the 200 countries in the world, all politicians ultimately are accountable at a local level. So it is very important never to lose sight of this fact that politics is local, and that politicians have to operate and have to be accountable at a local level. And this is why the key determinant of a country’s trajectory is actually the quality of governance. It’s not so much the intricacies of the constitution or of the electoral system or of the houses of parliament, or whether they are monarchies, or constitutional monarchies and all the variants that governments are expressed in. It is the simple question of whether or not there’s good governance and what are the prerequisites of good governance. People all over the world actually want the same things. I think, at least in my travels as a Foreign Minister, and I often joke that Foreign Ministers travel as much as cabin crew in an airline; but I would leave these three or four items on the table for you. People all over the world want a fair and just society.  People all over the world want a safe and secure society; protection from random, wanton or deliberate violence. The third item that people all over the world want, is they want a vibrant economy that generates jobs, with hopefully a good wage.  I think these are the top three things – a fair and just society, a safe and secure society, and a vibrant economy.  



Singapore has been very fortunate. Because we had absolutely no natural resources, everything that you see in Singapore is an exercise of imagination borne out of necessity and then executed by hard work and discipline. About 16 years ago, I was on a boat with former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. We were sailing into Marina Bay. It wasn’t what you see today. In fact, it was a fraction of what you will see today if you walk around Marina Bay. As we came in, it was around sunset, you could see the cityscape, I asked him, “Mr Lee, after 40 years of development, how do you feel? What are your thoughts when you survey this splendid city?” I thought he would give me some poetic, visionary words. He just stared at me very prosaically and said, “A hardworking and disciplined people built all this. A hardworking and disciplined people built all this.” But, hold that thought for a minute. If you expect hardworking and disciplined people to build all this, hardworking and disciplined people need to be led by honest and competent leaders who have the moral authority to organise society, to make the necessary sacrifices, to expend sweat and sacrifice resources in order to invest and build the city and to build and create a better future, a legacy for their children and grandchildren. You see, it comes back to governance. You need leaders who are honest, you need leaders who are competent, and you need leaders whose hearts resonate with the people, and people feel their leaders are on their side.  Singapore is actually very blessed to have leaders at that critical moment in time that could get all Singaporeans together, united, to embark on this nation-building effort. 



The other point I wanted to make is that, however, even if you have got good governance and even if you are able to unite the people and you are able to construct a fair and just society and you are able to secure your borders and have police and necessary military to defend yourself, and even if you have a thriving economy, there is still a need for multilateralism. The reason why Singapore is such a champion for multilateralism is precisely because we are so small.  Therefore, by definition we have to believe in international law, we have to believe in the United Nations, we have to believe that there are peaceful ways of resolving disputes and that the best way to resolve these disputes is through multilateral processes and multilateral institutions. The reason for this is quite simple. If we didn’t have this, the alternative is “might is right”, and the big and the powerful will do as they will and the weak suffer what we must. I say that so that you understand that for us these are not empty words when we say we support the UN. 



Furthermore, as I gave you the example of Albert Winsemius, we are a beneficiary of a multilateral institution sharing developmental models, not in an excessively prescriptive, top-down way, but in a helpful, constructive, localised, relevant and pertinent way with us. So our belief is that since we benefitted, the UN and the UNDP paid it forward for us, we will continue to do our bit to pay it forward too. That is why we launched our flagship technical assistance programme; we call it the Singapore Cooperation Programme which we launched in 1992, to help other developing countries get onto this development ladder.  Thus far, we have, working with the UNDP, trained about 21,500 officials from over 170 countries. We have embarked on joint training programmes focused on areas like economic development, civil aviation, port management, environmental management and other aspects of governance. Because we’ve had this long-standing partnership with the UNDP, this relationship is encapsulated in the establishment of the UNDP Global Centre in Singapore. It was established in 2012, the UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence has now transitioned into its third phase as the Global Centre for Technology, Innovation and Sustainable Development. We believe this timely repositioning is most apt.  Why is it most apt? Because we’re now into another revolutionary period. The advent of digital technologies is transforming and disrupting the world. The way we live, work, play, communicate, organise and mobilise our societies is being disrupted. If you remember my earlier point about the advent of the industrial revolution and what that did to the politics, economics and development of the world, if you believe that the digital revolution is another inflexion point, then we better get ahead of the curve. 



So, again, I’m here to commit our support, and we will continue to work with the UNDP. In fact, the fact that there is a new digital revolution is another opportunity that we must not miss, and we must not miss it if we are to fulfil our larger vision of sustainable development for citizens all over the world. Because after all, we all want the same things. 



Thank you all very much. 


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