Speech by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong at China Centre for International Economic Exchanges' Sixth Global Think Tank Summit on 23 September 2020

23 September 2020






Friends, Ladies & Gentlemen



1 These are indeed challenging times. Though we cannot meet face-to-face, the need for dialogue is greater now more than ever.



The Global Impact of COVID-19


2 The world has entered a new decade of great disequilibrium and flux. For the past 4 to 5 decades, structural forces were mostly centripetal. Now they are centrifugal. I shall highlight three such forces:  First, the US-China relationship, which has morphed into strategic rivalry; second, the trend towards deglobalisation and nativism; and third, the transformative and dislocating effects of the digital revolution.



3 Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has superimposed itself over these forces. We are seeing the making of a perfect storm. The world is in disarray. It is leaderless. Countries are looking after themselves and not one another. COVID-19 has stress-tested the leadership of the world, the character of societies, the resilience of countries and the continuity of global cooperation for mutual prosperity.



4 The toll on public health is devastating with more than 30 million confirmed cases. The number of deaths worldwide might soon cross the 1 million mark. And the pandemic is not yet done. Many countries are confronting a potential second wave.



5 The economic costs will be unprecedented. The World Bank estimates that the global economy will shrink by 5.2%, the deepest recession since the Second World War. Millions of jobs have been affected. The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way countries operate domestically and interact with one another. It has both deepened divisions within countries and sharpened tensions between countries.



How has Singapore Managed COVID-19?


6 How has Singapore managed COVID-19? I would like to share our experience here. For Singapore, COVID-19 has not been an easy fight. We acted swiftly and took a Whole-of-Government and whole-of-society approach. Singapore implemented a pre-emptive 2-month circuit breaker to stem community spread. The situation is now under control. Of course, there were areas where we could have done better, such as in managing the spread of the virus among our foreign worker population living in dormitories.



7 Singapore has 27 COVID deaths so far. Our fatality rate of 0.05% is one of the lowest in the world. We remain vigilant against subsequent waves of infection. We continue to expand testing capacity, invest in enhanced health surveillance measures, and leverage digital tools to strengthen our contact-tracing abilities.



8 Singapore’s approach in fighting COVID-19 is based on science, clear risk communication and trust. We set up a Multi-Ministry Task Force to work with the professionals. We brief the public regularly. In the age of social media and fake news, risk communication is critical. We did not over-assure our citizens or aim for zero fear. Instead, we recognised the people’s fears and pro-actively addressed them. It helped that Singaporeans have a relatively high level of trust in the government.



9 The government also acted decisively and comprehensively to manage the economic fallout from COVID‑19. Its top priority besides protecting lives is protecting people’s livelihoods.



10 Singapore is realistic. Even though scientists are working tirelessly on a vaccine, we cannot expect the world to return to COVID ante.



11 Going forward, what kind of world do we want post‑COVID? What kind of world gives us the best chance for progressing together? I shall make three simple points.



Superpower Competition without Conflict


12 First, we need a world with superpower cooperation, and if that seems like a fanciful dream, then superpower competition without conflict. I am referring to the increasingly perilous US-China strategic rivalry. It started out over trade, has expanded into technology, and now threatens to spill over into other sectors such as financial services.



13 More dangerously, there is the risk of conflict in the South China Sea or over Taiwan. An all-out conflict between the US and China is not inevitable but it is now factored into the risk calculations of many businesses and governments. It would be disastrous for the Asian Century, of course. Even an unbridled contest where countries are pressured to choose sides will be highly destabilising.



14 At the forum co-organised by CCIEE, Brookings, and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy last year, I spoke about the need for a “Voice of Moderation”. This represents the concerted voice of concerned countries, leaders, institutions, media, business and people who want to avert a catastrophic clash between the US and China. It advocates strategic rationality, peace and stability, growth and prosperity and an interdependent, open, inclusive, rules-based multilateral order.



15 The Moderate Voice must try and get the US and China to play a “positive sum game”, not a zero-sum game, and certainly not a negative-sum game. All countries in the world want a positive and productive relationship with both the US and China.



16 I hope that whatever the outcome of the US Presidential Elections in November, both countries can work towards a new modus vivendi that allows them both to compete where they must, without coming into conflict.



Connected through Globalisation


17 My second point is that an open and connected world is better than one which is divided into economic blocs. For all countries to develop and prosper together, we need a world where countries remain deeply interconnected through the free trade of goods and services.



18 We must not turn our backs on globalisation because all countries need to rely on others to survive. It is not just a matter of comparative advantage but also natural resources. There is no single country that is better off producing everything within its own borders with minimal trade with the outside world.



19 Singapore is all for advancing economic integration, like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.



20 Rather than turning inward, connectivity is one critical way to enhance a country’s resilience. Singapore works closely with like-minded partners to keep international trade lines and supply chains open amidst COVID‑19. Together with New Zealand, we initiated a Joint Ministerial Statement in March to reaffirm our commitment to ensuring supply chain connectivity. With 12 countries now on board, including China, Singapore is playing its part to keep essential supplies and food flowing amidst COVID-19.



21 Beyond economic linkages, governments must ensure that globalisation works for all citizens. The disproportionate benefits arising from globalisation cause many citizens in advanced economies to question whether it is still the answer to a better life. In response, governments need to restructure economies to seize new opportunities, upskill workers to pivot to new industries, and strengthen social safety nets for those affected by globalisation.



Renewed Rules-Based International Order


22 My third point is that we need a rules-based global order with a key role for international organisations. A rules-based multilateral system is crucial to all nations. The current system designed decades ago may be far from perfect, but it has created a stable environment that has facilitated peaceful development and prosperity for many. International organisations remain crucial in a post-COVID world, but they will need resources, renewal and reform to remain effective.



23 First, we can support the World Health Organisation (WHO) in mobilising global resources and medical knowledge to help countries deal with the pandemic. Singapore has actively supported the WHO’s efforts to coordinate an effective global response to COVID-19. We also founded, and co-chair with Switzerland, an informal “Friends of the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility” group of countries to champion “vaccine multilateralism” and the fair and equitable global access to COVID-19 vaccines.



24 Second, we must update the World Trade Organisation rulebook so that it covers new areas of economic activity. One such example is the Joint Statement Initiative on E‑commerce that Singapore co-convened with Australia and Japan, which aims to establish multilateral trade rules for the new digital economy.



25 Third, we must strengthen the United Nations, which is our best platform to tackle global challenges such as transnational crime, climate change, cybersecurity, and pandemics.



26 To create a renewed rules-based global order, we need all countries to set aside their differences and resolve to tackle common challenges together. 





27 To conclude, I hope that this forum will spur deep reflection and decisive action towards a better world for our citizens as well as for our children and grandchildren.



28 COVID-19 is indeed the crisis of a generation. As the saying goes, never waste a good crisis. COVID-19 should jolt us to work together for a better future – a world where superpowers compete and cooperate in a positive way; a world that remains connected through globalisation; and a world with a renewed rules-based international order. Thank you.



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