Ladies and Gentlemen
Thank you for this wonderful opportunity to speak to all of you. I am glad to see some familiar faces. For those of you who do not already know, teachers have a special place in my heart because both my parents were teachers. They were both teachers in Bukit Panjang Primary School. That was where they met more than 60 years ago and that is how I came about.
I am going to give you a frank and open exposition of how I see things developing in the world and our place in it. I thank you for being here because I know that January, where you have got Chinese New Year, is an extremely busy time for all of you. Results are being released, there are students appealing to get into schools, orientation programmes need to be arranged, lessons need to be planned. So that makes me all the more grateful for you taking the time.
I would like you to take away three points. The first point is that we are living in a very turbulent world. Second, that foreign policy begins at home. Third, that it is absolutely crucial for us to have national unity, for us to be able to act collectively and decisively so that our tiny, precious city-state called Singapore can survive and thrive in such a turbulent world.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution
Now, let us deal with this first point that we live in a turbulent world. We live in a turbulent world because of the ongoing technological revolution. This technological revolution, in turn, has led to fractious domestic politics. In turn, that fractious domestic politics has led to a fractured world order. There is a chain of causation. Technology, domestic politics, world order.
So let me sketch my thesis. Human nature - our inherent human nature as encoded by our genes - has not changed for thousands of years. The key driver for the evolution of human society, of human history, is really the progressive, accumulative discoveries in science, and the application of that technology. Accept this first as a working hypothesis. The next question you should pose to me is, what are these major scientific and technological discoveries? If you think back over 10,000 years, the key was the advent of agriculture, which converted us from being groups of hunters and gatherers into people which would settle land and form villages with extended families and settlements. But if you think about what happened in the next 10,000 years - if you look at economic growth in the agricultural age - for many millennia, it was in fact very, very slow.
The next quantum leap, in fact, was the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution some 260 years ago is the reason why we are speaking in English today. Let me explain. Every time you get a technological breakthrough, the people, the tribe, the country or the region that first masters these new technological forms will be able to take advantage of this transformed means of production, the new sources of wealth, which in turn disrupt political power and change social norms. Societies fragment, new coalitions form, new sources of inequality are created because those who master the technology first have a head start. The history and economic teachers in this audience will remind us that when you get this sudden jump, including this sudden increase in inequality and this disruption in society, it takes time. It takes time for societies to rebalance, for safety nets to be put in place, and for a new middle class to rise and inequality to decrease. This is how things have unfolded in the last 10,000 years.
If you think about it on a global scale, together with these technological waves, we also witness empires waxing and waning. As I said before, it has got to do with who has a technological head-start, then an economic advantage, then military superiority, then the ability to impose on others. We speak English today because the Industrial Revolution began in England.
Now, if you fast-forward to today, do you believe that we are now in the midst of another technological revolution? My submission to you is that there is a revolution going on in computing, communication, connectivity, robotics, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and big data. Feeding on this is a concurrent revolution in biotechnology. The revolution in genetics, especially the ability to edit our genes, means that humanity may for the first time be confronting a potential future where human nature itself will change. But let us leave that aside for now.
Let us just deal with the current ongoing digital revolution. We are witnessing a time when the way we live, work, play, make a living, and organise our societies are all being transformed. The difference between this current revolution and the previous Industrial Revolution is the speed, the velocity and the scope of the change. In the past, when changes were slower, you would measure things in terms of generations. Today, in one generation, you do not just move from third world to first world. In fact, for many people, our lives will be a portfolio of jobs and opportunities. We may end up doing very different things in different phases of our life. The point is we are now in an age of exponential change.
Consequently, we should not be surprised that we are witnessing a major shift in economic fortunes with this ongoing revolution. I believe we are still in the early phase of this current revolution. What we do know from history is that the initial phase of a revolution is always accompanied by increased inequality, by disruptions to old hierarchies, to old political balances of power, and to ultimately, global strategic changes as well. Because these changes are occurring so quickly, and you know that human nature and human beings, we have a limited capacity to adapt to change, particularly exponential change. Because of this, there is in fact a deep, existential anxiety in societies and countries all over the world; more so in the middle-class, people who have white-collar jobs, who used to assume that the future is secure. So it is this gnawing anxiety in the middle of society that has led to a fractious domestic situation all over the world.
Beyond the middle-class there is a new digital oligarchy. The people, the entrepreneurs, the companies that have mastered digital technologies and are ahead of everyone else - they are the clear winners. They are the new masters of the universe. Their market is the entire world. And we live in an economic system in which the digital realm facilitates a winner-take-all outcome. The billionaires of today and of the near future will almost certainly be in the digital arena. On the other hand, those who are less skilled, or whose skills or knowledge are no longer current, they risk losing jobs. They face competition from the entire world.
So you see the extreme point and counterpoint. The winner at the top has the whole world as a market. The person who is not up-to-date has the whole world as competition. So you understand why there is this deep anxiety in the middle of societies everywhere. These frustrations, anger, anxiety have been channelled towards easy scapegoats. What are these easy scapegoats? The easy scapegoats are globalisation, free trade, immigrants, the global elites - those meeting in Davos, right now, today. And in effect, you watch the rise of populism everywhere in the world. On the right, it will be xenophobic, it will be something “first”, it will be “build a wall”. On the extreme left, it will be radical redistribution and raising taxes. But in fact, both populists on the left and on the right are missing the point. They are missing the point that there is a revolution going on. And if history is a guide, we must master those new tools and get ahead of the curve. That is the only viable way to cope with such a revolution.
Fracturing of the Post-WWII Order
The current fractious domestic political scene is now leading to a fracture of the open and integrated world order, which in fact has been prevailing since the end of World War II.
This post-World War II world order was defined by free markets, free trade, and global economic integration. It was substantially envisioned and underwritten by the United States, who in fact was the chief winner of the last Industrial Revolution. After World War II, the United States’ economy comprised more than 40% of global GDP, which meant that for every dollar of GDP created on the global stage, 40 cents went to the United States. At that level, it was worth its while to underwrite the world order on its terms. But we know that number has now shrunk to about 24%. That is why there is this deep anxiety and questioning within the United States. Why should they sacrifice blood and treasure to maintain this global world order for which they have been underwriter and beneficiary?
This post-World War II world order also brought us institutions like the United Nations (UN), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organisation (WTO). These multilateral institutions undergird the international rule of law and encourage states to act in the interests of the common global good. And they have helped to facilitate global stability and predictability for the last seven decades. We are witnessing an erosion of this consensus. Multilateralism is under pressure.
And guess what? For Singapore, a tiny city-state where trade is more than three times our GDP, where we have to import everything we eat and drink, where we have to try to make a living providing services to the rest of the world - this erosion of multilateralism, of free trade, is a clear and present threat to us. You are witnessing a world in which countries everywhere are facing domestic political pressure from nationalist and populist groups, and consequently have shifted their positions on the global stage. Some of these countries now view multilateral agreements as a constraint on their own autonomy, and a drag on their own economic growth because of increased competition. Some countries have withdrawn from multilateral organisations or multilateral agreements, while they are also seeking to renegotiate bilateral or plurilateral agreements in order to extract better terms for themselves.
We are also seeing upheaval in key international institutions amidst the shifting attitudes. The WTO, for example, underpins the rules-based international trading system. But as of December 2019 - a few days ago - it now lacks a functioning dispute settlement mechanism because of fundamental disagreements over its mandate. So that is the first point: the erosion of the post-World War II order, the erosion of a formula for peace and prosperity that has held for seven decades.
Return of Great Power Competition
The second big thing that has happened as a result of this technological revolution is heightened great power competition. Obviously, you know that I am talking about the United States and China. I mentioned that the post-World War II world order was envisioned and underwritten by the United States. But in fact, the biggest beneficiary was China. China's entry into the WTO in 2001, which was encouraged and facilitated by the Clinton administration, was a key moment for global trade. At that point in time, American policymakers pronounced that China would be a responsible stakeholder, and they believed that China, or rather they hoped, I think wishfully, that China would economically and politically become more like the United States. Today, however, and I can tell you from personal interactions in Washington, meeting leaders from both sides of the aisle, that the view in the United States has changed. Today, their view is that China is not a partner but a strategic competitor – a rival that has taken unfair advantage of the United States for many decades. If you do not believe me, just go and listen to the speech just made earlier in Davos today.
Now, I want you however to switch your position from Washington to Beijing. And let us try to look at the world through Chinese eyes. In China, a thousand years ago, gunpowder, the compass, paper, and printing were invented – 四大发明. A thousand years ago, anyone who had these “Four Great Inventions” was on top of the world. If China had not made the mistake of turning inwards, but had continued to invent, and discover, and apply technology, I believe that today we will all be speaking Chinese and not English. But history is as it is. So China turned inwards, closed its mind, missed out on the Industrial Revolution, endured humiliation from Westerners who were armed with the technology of the Industrial Revolution.
But in the last four decades after Deng Xiaoping, who launched 改革开放, “Reform and Opening Up” gave China an opportunity to catch up on the Industrial Revolution. And its achievements since then, in these four decades, have been astounding. Never before in human history have 800 million people been raised from abject poverty into the middle-class ranks that they now populate. China has moved up the value chain. It is not just the manufacturer that is selling the cheapest low-tech goods. It is making high-tech goods. This is captured in the slogan “Made in China 2025”, which is an ambition for China to master the entire value chain of manufacturing.
Now put yourself in Chinese shoes. You know the Chinese have a very long view of history and of the future. They will say, ‘Well, a thousand years ago, we were number one’. And it is entirely legitimate for them to say, “Well, I am not going to wait for another thousand years. I want to reclaim my rightful place at number one again”. So we end up today, with a time of intense competition and rivalry between the United States and China. This has disrupted supply chains, it has undermined global business confidence, consumer confidence, and you know, you may have read recently they signed a “Phase One” agreement. But the fundamental issues concerning technology transfers, intellectual property protection, state-owned enterprises, equitable market access – all these, in fact, remain unresolved. So I expect that the competition, the jostling, is going to continue for quite some time more.
From the point of view of Singapore, we are in a specially vulnerable place. We do not want to be pressured, we do not want to be forced to take sides, because in fact, this will put us in a very uncomfortable, very difficult place. The United States is the biggest foreign investor in Singapore. In fact, I regularly remind President Trump that the United States has more in stock total investments invested in Singapore than it has in India, China and Japan combined. I say this to remind him that they have got skin in the game.
But at the same time, if I ask you who is our largest trading partner. The answer? China. In fact, if you want another surprising factor, who is the largest foreign investor in China – excluding Hong Kong and Taiwan? You end up with Singapore. So do you see that if the two big elephants, or if the eagle and the dragon do not get along, we can be in a lose-lose position. You understand now why my hair is grey, and why we have to be so careful in the way we maintain links with both these major players.
There is ongoing risk beyond the political and the strategic and security and military arenas, of bifurcation in technology. Now for those of you who are science teachers, I think it was Newton who said, ‘If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’. Science in the last two to three centuries has been built on a common stack - discoveries upon discoveries, shared applications, technology, shared even though you might pay through the copyright laws, you give some limited monopoly to the inventors. But basically, we all build off a common stack.
If the United States and China really bifurcate the technology stack, which means if you use Chinese technology, you cannot use American technology, and vice versa. In fact, you will slow down the progress of science and technology as we know it. So that is another big challenge. Okay, so two points so far right? The erosion of the world order, and heightened superpower rivalry.
Foreign Interference and Misinformation
The third area, which, I want to draw your attention to, is misinformation. We are living in the age of misinformation. Some people call it fake news. This age of misinformation is catalysed by social media, and by the ongoing digital revolution. Misinformation not only distorts reality but diminishes trust in a society, and ultimately goes against the very notion of objective truth.
You know the old adage that ‘you are entitled to your own opinion, you are not entitled to your own facts’. Well, another way of thinking about it, is that democracy - one man, one vote, the clash of ideas - democracy cannot function effectively in such a ‘post-fact’ world. Because it takes away that common shared frame of reference within which debates and arguments can be made, and agreeable solutions decided. And to make things worse, not only are you having to deal with a corrosive impact on democracy and domestic politics, we all know that foreign entities will exploit such an environment to influence our behaviours, our actions and our policies through such hostile misinformation campaigns.
If you do not believe me, let me just tell you that in fact, foreign interference is not a new invention. It is not a new phenomenon. Prior to our own independence and in the first couple of decades, in Singapore, we had to resist Communism and the ideology and the subversion of the Communist United Front. It is no secret that Communist sympathisers in Malaysia and Singapore received support - financial and other support - directly from China and the Soviet Union. I am not telling you a state secret. We know that in those years, student unions, trade unions, community organisations, political parties, including the People’s Action Party (PAP), were infiltrated, were influenced, and were manipulated. Now of course, all this was done while denying their allegiance to the Communist cause. And of course, the states who were sponsoring these efforts would deny it all.
Before you think that I am only anti-communist, let me give you another example. Some of you may remember the Hendrickson affair, or maybe the older teachers here. When an American diplomat involved himself in our domestic politics, cultivated a group of prominent lawyers to contest elections against the government of the day, we sent him packing, back to the United States. So my point is, this is not new, this is not confined to just one country or the other. In fact, more recently, just two years ago, we had to expel a professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, who was in contact with foreign intelligence. He tried to influence our foreign policy, using his position in school to engage our senior officials, and to influence Singaporeans.
Now, let me fast forward to today. With our new digital tools, with social media, with end-to-end encrypted messages, let me ask you; is there more opportunity for foreign interference or less? The answer is more. Is there more opportunity to hide your tracks and to deny your interventions? The answer is yes. So my point is that this is not new, this is not unique.
So we now live in a fourth Industrial Revolution, in a Digital Revolution, which in fact, has turbocharged opportunities for subversion. Let me give you an even more current example. There is this thing called “deepfake” videos. If you do not believe me, go Google “Deepfake President Donald Trump climate change”. You will find one video there, looks like him, speaks like him, and it apparently has President Trump exhorting Belgians to take urgent action on climate change. Now, those of you who know what President Trump’s actual real views are on climate change know that this is highly unlikely. Well, the creators of this “deepfake” created it simply to create awareness of the potential for “deepfakes”. They thought that they were not that good, the lip-syncing was not perfect and people would immediately be able to tell that this was a fake, because President Trump would not say something like that. But guess what, after they released it, they found many angry comments, stating that the US leader should not comment on Belgian policy.” People fell for the “deepfake”.
Now, can you imagine, as we continue to improve our ability to manipulate videos. Can you imagine the potential for misinformation, confusion, division and dissension? So this is a clear and present threat. It explicitly puts at risk the actions, it explicitly enhances opportunity for division, for distorting public opinion and in fact, ultimately even corroding the basis for democracy. In recent years, we have seen this phenomenon happen all over the world. Most prominently, the United States, but also in Ukraine, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, amongst others.
And I need to tell you that Singapore is not immune, we cannot be completely inoculated. Which is why we have to put legislative changes, to give us some tools. But actually, I am here to tell you that to guard against misinformation, you cannot just rely on legislation. And that is where teachers like you come into the equation. We need to make sure, especially our younger Singaporeans, who would be even more exposed than you would be, develop cultural sensitivity, historical awareness, critical thinking and rigorous analysis. We depend on you. It is education that will be the stronger, long-run bulwark against misinformation than anything the government can do or legislate. So that is one appeal to you today.
Identity, Conflict, and Extremism
Another area I want to highlight for your consideration, is this question of identity, values and extremism. In Singapore, teenagers attend school religiously, they sit for exams. But in other parts of the world, they feel they have no hope. There is injustice. The only way they seek meaning and power is to strap bombs onto their back.
I am referring to extremism and terrorism. And unfortunately, the risk of extremism and terrorism has not gone down in the last two decades. If anything, it has increased. It is a clear and present danger. Even ISIS, which in theory has lost its territory, you know as well as I do that its ideology is still alive and well. You know that there were Singaporeans who joined ISIS, self-radicalised. It is not because someone met them and talked, but on their own online searches, they were able to convince themselves that this was the way to creating a better future, to giving purpose to their lives. Even recently, a former logistics professional was found to have transferred money to support ISIS. And this is recently. “Returnee” fighters coming back from Syria and Iraq will also pose a threat to our region. This is not unlike the Afghan war veterans in the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) branch in Singapore, who were involved in plotting attacks here.
Beyond the individual names and organisations, understand that there is a current which is sweeping and appealing to significant groups of young people all over the world. In the past year, we saw multiple bombings in Colombo, Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. You also saw attacks in Christchurch, from the other side of the political spectrum. And closer to Singapore, a suicide bomber targeted the police headquarters in Medan. We also watched in horror as Indonesia’s then-Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Wiranto was stabbed in plain, open daylight as he stepped out of his car. I am glad that he has recovered well.
In many parts of the world, geopolitical tensions also threaten to bubble over into outright conflict. Just think about the news in the last year. Developments in the Gulf, the wider Middle East, Iran, Iraq. In June, commercial oil tankers from Japan and Norway were attacked in the Gulf of Oman, close to the Straits of Hormuz. The Straits, through which one-fifth of the world’s oil supply passes through, is a vital artery for global oil trade. Saudi Aramco facilities were attacked twice in September last year using drones and missiles. And that targeted attack temporarily halved the output of Saudi Arabia, which as you know, is the major producer and exporter of oil in the world. After the turn of the year, we saw the US airstrikes in Baghdad, which killed a prominent Iranian commander. This was followed by retaliatory attacks on US bases in Iraq.
These incidents may seem far away and remote from Singapore. But are they really so remote and so unlikely? They threaten regional stability and global energy security. 76% of the crude oil and natural gas condensates that pass through the Straits of Hormuz are actually bound for Asian markets. We in Singapore, import almost all our energy needs. Our electricity prices are set by global energy markets. These incidents threaten freedom of navigation, and global shipping lanes, and as I said earlier, trade is our lifeblood. So ensuring secure and open trade routes is of vital importance to us. But not just in the Straits, also closer home in the Straits of Malacca. In fact, one of the affected oil tankers, the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous that was attacked, was actually bound for Singapore.
Even when you do not have an outright war, say Iran and the United States, taking pot shots against each other, what happens? 176 innocent lives were lost due to the mistaken downing of the Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752. You can enter danger without even having to declare war. So, if you think about all these events and all the unravelling of world order, the great power competition, malicious disinformation, violent extremism, potential hotspots around the world; the question then must be, well, what do we in Singapore do about it? How should we respond?
Singapore’s Foreign Policy Principles
I want to end by sharing a few principles. These are actually not new, but long-held principles that have served us well since independence.
Number one, we must sustain a vibrant, and successful economy, and we must remain a united, harmonious society. This is what I meant when I said ‘foreign policy begins at home’. Because if Singapore is not successful, if Singapore is not united, we will be irrelevant, we will be ignored, we will be a deadweight. At multilateral meetings abroad, if you come from a big country, people will come to speak to you because you are big and powerful. But there are 200 members in the UN, and I can tell you that there are many small countries, small but bigger than us, to whom the world does not pay sufficient attention to. Yet, people come to us in the Singapore delegation. And I am always humble and I realise that the only reason they talk to us is because they know we come from Singapore. We have a reputation for success, for integrity, for reliability, for being constructive. It is not a reputation which just depends on today’s generation of diplomats, but has been built up over five decades. That is something very precious. We must continue to be vibrant and successful. Otherwise, you lose this advantage.
Still on the theme of “foreign policy begins at home”, we must maintain our commitment to a fair and just society, which means an enduring commitment to social mobility. You all meet young people every day. All over the world, young people need identity, they need a sense of values to guide them, they need a sense of ownership, that they belong to a country and have a home. And they need a sense of hope. What happens when young people do not have these ingredients? Identity, shared values, ownership and hope. Well, consider recent developments in Hong Kong, Chile, France. It shows all too vividly what happens when young people lose hope and optimism in their own future. Young people, as I said earlier, everywhere, need these four ingredients. And we need to make sure we continue to give our young Singaporeans, identity, shared values, ownership and hope. At the risk of being a bit critical, you think about what is happening in other countries. The problems did not begin today. In fact, it probably had a lot to do with how their societies were organised, and in particular what values and attitudes their teachers transmitted to them in their most formative years. So that is the first principle: a successful, vibrant, united society; and to keep our young people with us developing identity, values, hope and ownership.
The second principle is that we must never become a vassal state. We must never be bought, or intimidated, or bullied. Fortunately, we have both the capability and the resolve to defend ourselves. We maintain at great effort an SAF that everybody takes seriously. Defence and deterrence are just the flip side of the same coin of diplomacy. If people knew that we did not have the ability to defend what is ours, no amount of fancy speeches from me will make any difference.
I will share with you an anecdote. A very senior foreign leader, noticing that we spent and invested a lot on defence, once asked our Prime Minister, “Who are your enemies?” Which is a very loaded question to ask in diplomacy. Our PM’s reply was that it was because of the SAF, that Singapore had many friends. Think about it. You can use the same line if your students ask you. You do not have to name enemies, but you can just remind them that because we have an SAF, we have many friends.
The third principle is on the theme of friendship and building constructive relations. We do aim to be a friend with as many countries as possible, and hopefully not to make any enemies. But this need to establish constructive relations is all the more crucial when it comes to our immediate neighbourhood, where peace, stability and progress are absolutely essential.
Malaysia and Indonesia are our closest and permanent neighbours. We share deep historical links with Malaysia and Indonesia, and our countries economically, financially, socially, and even related by blood. We are intertwined, our futures, we do have a common destiny within ASEAN.
I need to tell you frankly that from time to time issues will arise. We have seen this in the past year or two, transboundary haze, maritime disputes, boundary disputes, airspace issues, and so on. My own view, speaking as a younger member of the Cabinet, is that we should try not to waste time fighting yesterday’s battles, yesterday’s political and emotional baggage. But we should actually look ahead to the future to see how we can cooperate for mutual benefit and for the benefit, especially of our younger citizens. We have a list of issues, discussions are ongoing, there is progress on some fronts. So for instance, we welcome Malaysia’s decision in October last year to proceed with the Johor Bahru-Singapore Rail Transit System. We believe this will facilitate cross border flows between Johor and us - it will benefit them, it will benefit us. And we are presently discussing their proposed changes to the project. We also continue to negotiate with Malaysia, in good faith, to settle our outstanding maritime boundary disputes, and I must add, other longstanding issues, which I am not at liberty to reveal today.
With Indonesia, President Jokowi was re-elected last year. I can tell you from close observation that President Jokowi and Prime Minister Lee have very good rapport with each other. And good rapport between leaders is essential and helpful because it avoids misunderstanding. I often remind my Indonesian counterparts that Singapore believes in Indonesia’s success, that a growing, stable, confident Indonesia is good for the region, good for Singapore. With its youthful population and rapid growth potential, Indonesia has got great potential for the future. It has a market size of almost 270 million people, which makes it the fourth largest in the G20, and the largest economy in Southeast Asia. It may surprise you, but in fact, Singapore has been the biggest investor in Indonesia since 2014, over the last six years. We have flagship collaborative projects in many areas including the Kendal Industrial Park in Central Java, the Nongsa Digital Park in Batam nearby. There is much more that we can do, many opportunities for us to embark on new projects and a win-win cooperation. We can and should branch out beyond Jakarta into the regions, and find more opportunities for our companies and our students.
We also need to further identity opportunities to strengthen ASEAN Centrality, unity, and expand cooperation between ASEAN and our Dialogue Partners. ASEAN as a whole, the ten of us, will become the fourth largest economy in the world by 2030. That is after the US, China, and the EU, not bad for our part of the world. The digital economy alone in ASEAN will grow three-fold to reach S$415 billion by 2025. More than half of ASEAN’s population is under the age of 30, which means most of us here are over the hill in that respect. But here is where I need to make a special appeal to you, because our schools and our teachers can enhance our students’ awareness of, identification with us here, and the opportunities that our own region offers them in the near future.
The fourth point is that we must continue to support multilateralism, free trade, and support our commitment to an open rules-based international order. You know earlier I said that it is domestic opposition that is causing countries to crack away from that. Frankly, we have the same problem in Singapore. There is opposition to free trade, to keeping Singapore open, and we need to acknowledge anxiety, we need to reassure Singaporeans that we will always prioritise Singaporean interests first. But also remember that the only way for us to do so is not to build walls, not to become xenophobic, not to divide people, not to create dissension and envy. But in the long run, prepare our own citizens to be competitive, valued, and confident members of an open, globalised world. We will therefore continue to support the WTO, continue to pursue free trade agreements, continue to look for collaborative investment opportunities within our region and beyond.
Another reason why we have to be strong advocates for multilateralism is due to two current problems; one urgent, one long term, which cannot be solved unilaterally by any country. Number one, climate change. This will be the challenge of our generation, or in fact more so, the generation of those you all teach. Climate change cannot be solved unilaterally by any single country. It can only be done if you are able to mount a global response.
Another example relates to the novel coronavirus starting off from Wuhan. This is another transboundary threat, which will require international cooperation, not the erection of walls, and dissension, and suspicion. Even if there is domestic opposition, we must be a responsible and active member of the international community.
The Role of Education
Let me end off by saying that I hope I have taken you through a historical journey over 10,000 years, focused more specifically on the last Industrial Revolution, and then now, the ongoing revolution. But there is one more historical example, which some of you, especially history and economics teachers will be familiar with. In the early 1800s, there was a period of great upheaval in the textile industry because of the invention of the mechanical cotton weaver. There was a group of people who were referred to as the Luddites, whom I personally feel were treated unfairly and have an unfair position in history. Many people, when you say Luddites, will think about people who went to destroy the machinery, so that they thought they would be able to keep their jobs.
It is not so simple. What they were really responding to was a deep anxiety about their jobs and the future. The episode illustrates why it is so important to understand the real driving force of change and why it is important to prepare safety nets. Most important of all - and relevant to all of you today - it illustrates why education and SkillsFuture is so critical. We do not ever want to be in a position where young people are afraid of technology, afraid of the future, afraid of competition. To know that we have the best education system in the world; that we are pragmatic and practical; that they will have skills that will fit the jobs of the future, and not squabble over obsolete jobs and obsolete fights. That the future will be even brighter for them. We will make sure that they are masters, or potential masters, of the universe. If you get education done right, you pre-empt fractious domestic politics. Because Singapore is small and we can move quickly and with agility, we can position ourselves optimally to ride this new technological revolutionary wave sweeping across the globe.
So I want to thank you for doing what you do every day. I hope you appreciate that what you are doing is of crucial importance and value to us in Singapore, the world, and most especially, the young Singaporeans everywhere. So thank you all very much for doing what you do every day. Thank you for your contributions.
. . . . .
Photo credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Photo credit: Ministry of Education