Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s National Statement at the General Debate of the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, 25 September 2021

26 September 2021

          Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan delivered Singapore’s national statement at the General Debate of the 76thSession of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on 25 September 2021.


          Minister Balakrishnan underscored that multilateral cooperation is essential to overcoming the challenges of our global commons. He outlined four key areas which require urgent action - public health, climate change, oceans, and digital transformation. On COVID-19, Minister Balakrishnan emphasised that expanding access to vaccines by scaling up production and distribution is an immediate priority. On climate change, Minister Balakrishnan underscored the need for a sustained and ambitious global response to the global threat, and looked forward to substantive outcomes at the upcoming26thConference of the Parties (COP-26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Glasgow in November 2021.


          On the oceans, Minister Balakrishnan noted that next year will mark the 40thanniversary of the adoption of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and it is an opportunity to reaffirm Parties’ commitment to UNCLOS as the primary legal instrument for oceans governance. On the digital revolution, Minister Balakrishnan spoke of the need to enhance multilateral cooperation to leverage digital technologies for sustainable development, and close the digital divide. He highlighted the need for a global framework to maximise the opportunities and address the challenges posed by digital transformation, and a global digital architecture that is open, inclusive, inter-operable, and multi-stakeholder. Singapore will support efforts by the UN to advance efforts in this respect.


          Minister Balakrishnan alsoannounced the launch of a technical assistance package called “FOSS for Good” to mark the 30thanniversary of the Forum of Small States (FOSS), which Singapore established in 1992. The programme will commence in 2022, and it will provide an avenue for Singapore to support the unique development priorities of FOSS Member States.


          The transcript of Minister Balakrishnan’s national statement is at Annex


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Multilateral Cooperation and Managing the Global Commons


Mr President, Excellencies, friends and colleagues.


1.        Let me start by congratulating His Excellency Abdulla Shahid on assuming the Presidency of the 76thsession of the General Assembly. I also thank His Excellency Volkan Bozkir, for his leadership of the 75thsession during an unprecedented and difficult year.


2.        The most important lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic is that multilateral cooperation is absolutely essential to overcome the challenges of our global commons. Only coordinated international action can lead us to a sustainable, inclusive, and resilient recovery.


3.        This is precisely why the role of the United Nations (UN) is so crucial, especially for small and developing countries. The UN must empower countries to deal with the challenges of managing our global commons in order to build a more resilient future. 


4.        I want to welcome and commend the leadership of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, not only for his achievements over the past term but in putting forth a bold and visionary Common Agenda to reposition and to adapt the United Nations for the future. In particular, I welcome his proposal for a Summit of the Future to forge a global consensus.


5.        Today, I wish to highlight four key areas that require our urgent attention: public health, climate change, the oceans, and the digital revolution.  


6.        First, the fight against COVID-19is far from over.


7.        Access to vaccines remains the biggest problem faced by many countries. Our immediate priority must be to redouble efforts to expand access to vaccines by scaling up production and distribution.


8.        Singapore is a strong supporter of vaccine multilateralism. We will continue to support the COVAX Facility, and Singapore will donate our vaccines under the COVAX initiative to other countries with greater needs.


9.        We have continued to help our friends and our neighbours where we can, through other contributions of medical supplies, oxygen, and equipment. As a trans-shipment hub, Singapore has always played our part to keep essential supplies moving to where they are needed most.


10.        In the longer term, we need to take forward the recommendations of the G20 High Level Independent Panel to address the major gaps in preparedness for future pandemics. We need to strengthen the multilateral support for the WHO (World Health Organization) and the UN, and to mobilise resources for our collective security – because no one is safe until everyone is safe.


11.        This brings me to my second point: we need a sustained and ambitious global response to address climate change.


12.        The effects of climate change are deeply felt at a local level, but the solution will depend on a collective response at a global level.


13.        For a small island city-state like Singapore, climate change remains a clear and present danger. Recent extreme weather events are stark reminders that we do not have time to lose. The IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) recent landmark report has concluded that global temperatures are likely to rise above 1.5 degrees Celsius within the next two decades, and we are likely to see more intense rainfall, flooding, droughts, the loss of sea ice, and rising sea levels.


14.        The fight against climate change will be a stark litmus test of our ability to manage the global commons through multilateral action. No country acting alone can move the needle. But if we work together, we can make a substantial impact. If we fail, the consequences will be calamitous for every country and for all humanity.


15.        Singapore has always been a strong advocate of the Paris Agreement from the very beginning. Last year, even while battling the pandemic, we submitted our enhanced 2030 Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement and our Long-Term Low-Emissions Development Strategy for 2050 and beyond.


16.       This year, we unveiled the Singapore Green Plan 2030, which outlines a whole-of-nation approach to sustainable development, and charts ambitious, concrete targets over the next 10 years. Amongst others, we will plant one million more trees on our tiny island, we will quadruple solar energy deployments, and we will reduce the waste sent to landfills.


17.        We are also committed to working with our partners in new areas such as green finance and clean energy solutions, and we look forward to substantive outcomes at the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow.


18.        The third global commons in urgent need of multilateral action are our oceans.


19.        The oceans sustain our global ecosystem; they are a repository of biodiversity and a buffer for climate change. They are also a critical artery for trade, and a source of jobs and livelihood for billions of people.


20.        As a tiny island state at the confluence of key global shipping routes, heavily dependent on maritime trade, Singapore therefore is an ardent advocate of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea – UNCLOS for short.


21.        UNCLOS is the foundation for a rules-based governance of the oceans in all aspects. It sets the rules for maritime entitlements and provides the overarching framework for the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes. It is fundamental for maintaining open trade routes and sea lines of communication.


22.        The 40thanniversary of the adoption of UNCLOS next year is an opportunity for us to reaffirm our commitment to UNCLOS as the primary legal instrument for oceans governance, and we need to do more to ensure its effective implementation. 


23.        Singapore also firmly believes in the importance of conserving and ensuring the sustainability of our marine environment. We look forward to the fourth session of the BBNJ (Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction) Intergovernmental Conference next year, and to the second UN Ocean Conference to be co-hosted by Kenya and Portugal next year.


24.        The fourth area for urgent multilateral action relates to the digital revolution and its impact on sustainable development.


25.        The digital revolution was well underway before COVID-19 erupted. But the pandemic has accelerated the pace and the scale of this ongoing revolution.


26.        Digital technologies have empowered millions of people. But the gulf of opportunities between the digital haves and the digital have-nots has actually widened. Today, 3.8 billion people remain digitally disconnected.   


27.        And this digital divide has prevented access to education, to healthcare, and to many other essential services for millions of people around the world. 


28.        Digital transformation is not just about new technologies or new hardware. Fundamentally, it must be about improving lives and empowering people, and especially the poorest and the most vulnerable. It is about strengthening the resilience of our societies and economies. In a nutshell, digital transformation should be about sustainable development.


29.        To put it differently, if we do not close the digital divide, we will not achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. This is why digitalisation poses a global challenge and it requires a concerted global response.  


30.        There are many questions related to this transformation.  How can we provide fair and secure access to digital data, so that the data is not monopolised by a few, and leaving the vast majority digitally disenfranchised? How can we encourage a freer flow of data across the world, to promote innovation and inclusive sustainable development? Can we find ways to address the pandemic of misinformation, which sometimes, arguably, has been worse than the pandemic itself?


31.        There are no easy ready answers. But we clearly do need to have a conversation about a global framework to maximise these opportunities and to deal with the challenges posed by the digital revolution.


32.        The goal is both simple and singular: how can we enhance multilateral cooperation to leverage digital technologies for sustainable development? 


33.        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. I leave these options on the table to be part of a conversation that we all need to have at the global level.


34.        As a tiny country, as a vital node in the international digital network, Singapore has always advocated a global architecture that is open, inclusive, inter-operable, and multi-stakeholder.


35.        Such a global digital architecture must be shaped by a few guiding principles:


36.        One, the voices of small states must be heard, and our concerns taken into account. 


37.        Two, digital transformation needs to be people-focussed, and it must improve people’s daily lives.


38.        Three, we need to involve all relevant stakeholders: the government, the private sector, civil society, because it is no longer possible in today’s digital world to neatly draw lines between government, industry, and citizens.


39.        Four, we need to “think digital”, which means thinking in an integrated, multi-disciplinary, multi-sectoral way. The complex problems of today and tomorrow require innovative solutions.


40.        And five, we need concrete action, through identifying a common set of “digital development goals” and a framework for multilateral cooperation.


41.        At the national level, Singapore is already building partnerships with many countries. We have concluded Digital Economy Agreements with several of our partners. We co-lead the WTO (World Trade Organization) Joint Statement Initiative on e-commerce with Japan and Australia, and this now includes more than 80 member economies and comprises 90% of global trade. These can be building blocks in a larger global architecture.


42.        At the broader level, we need determined action to close the digital divide, not only within nations but also between nations. There is already much work being done. But we need to give these efforts a stronger push, through education, training, and, improving the digital skills and literacy of our people across the board; investing in infrastructure, for universal and affordable internet connectivity; and expanding access to data and digital public goods, including open-source software and digital utilities.


43.        We can do a lot more to improve international data governance, to promote inter-operability, trust, and security when we transact in the digital environment.


44.        I have only touched on some of these issues that I believe we need to look at. There are other important issues outlined in the Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. The Common Agenda that he has set out lays out a way forward, on a global “digital technology track”.


45.        The next step is to take action on these proposals, and Singapore will support the efforts by the United Nations to advance our global conversation. So that together, we can make tangible progress on digital transformation for sustainable development.


Mr President, Excellencies,


46.        As we seek to build a more inclusive, sustainable future, we need to give each other a hand. This is especially so for small and developing countries.


47.        In 1992, Singapore established the Forum of Small States, FOSS. It is an informal platform for small states to discuss issues of mutual concern. We started off with a group of 16, and it has now grown to 108 members of the United Nations, and we will celebrate our 30th anniversary next year.


48.        To mark this milestone, Singapore will launch a new “FOSS for Good” programme. It will commence in 2022, it will focus on priority areas such as the digital transformation and COVID-19 recovery, customised to the unique challenges faced by small countries.


49.       Because we believe it is only by working in partnership, by helping each other, that we can reach a more resilient, a more inclusive, and a more sustainable tomorrow.


50.       It is always darkest before dawn. But dawn will arrive. There is hope and there is much work ahead for all of us. Thank you.


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Credit for photos: Ministry of Foreign Affairs


Caption for photos: Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan delivering Singapore’s National Statement at the 76th United Nations General Assembly in New York on 25 September 2021

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