At the Commonwealth Foreign Affairs Ministers’ Meeting, Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan stressed that autarky is not viable, especially for small states. Countries should work together to ensure that international trade remains smooth, predictable, open and reliable, and chart an inclusive post-COVID-19 recovery.
Minister Balakrishnan highlighted four key lessons to strengthen countries’ ability to tackle global challenges. First, COVID-19 underscored the importance of ensuring reliable supply chains. Second, countries should build on the momentum of digitalisation while avoiding a widening digital gap. Third, resilience, trust and social capital will enable societies to weather future crises. Fourth, we need to make multilateralism more responsive, effective, inclusive, and networked. He encouraged greater collaboration among international and regional organisations, including the Commonwealth.
The transcript of Minister Balakrishnan’s intervention is appended.
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MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS
23 JUNE 2022
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MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS DR VIVIAN BALAKRISHNAN’S
INTERVENTION ON POST-COVID-19 RECOVERY
AT THE COMMONWEALTH FOREIGN AFFAIRS MINISTERS MEETING,
KIGALI, RWANDA 23 JUNE 2022
Thank you Brother Vincent (Biruta) for so ably chairing this meeting.
2 It is significant that we are here in Rwanda, because Rwanda represents hope. There is always light, even after disasters strike. My colleagues – democracy is a tool to generate good governance. The outcome of good governance should be peace, prosperity and progress for our citizens. But the question is whether we are making progress as a world. We are confronted – if you just think about the last two years – by plague, war, and famine, which should remind us of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It is too early to say what the final outcome will be. But it is not too early to draw some lessons from the last two years, so let me touch on a few of them.
3 First, COVID-19 underscored the importance of ensuring reliable supply chains for all of us. We saw how the shock of COVID-19 fuelled an initial wave of nativism and outright protectionism, with many countries acting unilaterally to protect their own short-term interests. This led to massive supply chain disruptions and consequences for most of us. For Singapore, a tiny city-state in the heart of Southeast Asia, we were determined to maintain an open flow of goods, people and services. We know that a stable and resilient supply chain is crucial for ensuring the continued flow of essential goods – food and medical supplies, which are all necessary to sustain life in a pandemic, or indeed, in a war. This is a lesson which remains relevant even now.
4 We are not completely out of the woods, and just when we thought things were getting better, we were confronted by the impact of the war in Ukraine, launched by Russia, which has had enormous impact on food, energy prices and supplies. Again, I want to make the point that we must resist the temptation to turn inwards. Autarky is not viable, especially for small states. Instead, we need to work together to ensure that international trade remains smooth, predictable, open and reliable.
5 My second lesson is that digitalisation is a force that is here to stay. COVID-19 accelerated the pace of digitalisation, and if you think about how we came to rely on technology – to meet, to engage, to educate, to organise ourselves – it was a lesson. But it is also a reminder that digital technology is not an unalloyed good. If it is harnessed well, it has been a key source for growth. But if we do not, it could also be a source for greater abrasion, dissension, tension and inequality. We do need to improve efficiencies, for instance, in digital trade, finance solutions and facilitating trade flows. We need to create new solutions, new financial products enabled by FinTech, including especially for micro-businesses. We need to build on the momentum of digitalisation as a key driver of our post COVID-19 growth. But do not forget the widening digital gap. We need to learn from our earlier experience to blunt these excesses early. We need to make sure that no one is left behind. There is much to be done to enhance digital inclusion, especially digital education. We need to improve the digital skills and literacy of all our people, not just the elite in our societies. This means pervasive, universal education and training in digital skills.
6 Second, all governments need to invest in infrastructure for universal and affordable internet connectivity. Third, to expand access to data and digital public goods. That is why digital inclusion is a top priority for Singapore. In February 2021, we launched a ‘Digital for Life’ national movement to build a digitally inclusive society that would galvanise all our community efforts to help all citizens access the opportunities for embracing digital learning.
7 The third lesson is the importance of resilience, trust, and social capital. Pandemics have their share of the ‘fog of war’ because there are many unknowns at the initial stage. Add to them the natural sense of panic, the restrictions that our people had to endure with lockdowns and the fact that we were really feeling our way forward with each turn and twist of the pandemic, and the onset of misinformation against both public health and vaccination coming through social media. There is now clear evidence, backed by data, that the societies with the best outcomes from COVID-19 were not necessarily those who were wealthier, but in fact, the best outcomes occurred in societies with stronger social capital, and in particular, trust. Trust between fellow citizens and trust in their socio-political institutions. This intangible factor – trust – fundamentally determines the resilience and cohesion of our societies against shocks, and will become even more crucial as we weather complex and unprecedented challenges ahead.
8 Lastly, I need to make a plug for multilateralism. It has to be a form of multilateralism that is updated, responsive, more effective, more inclusive, and more networked, and represents the interests of all of us at the Commonwealth. We must commit to strengthening the World Health Organization (WHO) – I am glad we gave Dr Tedros the chance to start this morning’s session – and to commit to investing in global health architecture. We do need a more effective global surveillance system for new viruses and pathogens. My friends, let me say as a doctor – there will be new pandemics in our lifetimes. We are beset by global challenges. Apart from pandemics, there is the threat of climate change, famine, food insecurity, threats in cyberspace – just to name a few. Given the multi-faceted nature of these crises, which will follow and reinforce each other, we do need to encourage urgently, greater collaboration amongst all international and regional organisations, including especially, the Commonwealth. By definition, because of our diverse membership, there is much more that the Commonwealth can and should do to contribute to inclusive solutions that take into account the interests, especially of small, developing nations. There is also ample scope for cooperation in capacity building. On this front, I just want to add that Singapore has been sharing our development experience through the Singapore Cooperation Programme since 1992. This flagship programme, which now marks its 30th anniversary, has received more than 137,000 foreign government officials over these three decades – including 30,000 officials in the Commonwealth states. We will update these programmes so they remain relevant for the priorities of our fellow developing countries. There will be a stronger focus on sustainable development and digital transformation. We welcome participation from all members of the Commonwealth and other fellow developing and developed countries.
9 Excellencies, the road to recovery from famine, war and pestilence will not be straightforward, but it will be better if we walk along together. Thank you very much.
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Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan delivering an intervention on post-COVID-19 recovery at the Commonwealth Foreign Affairs Ministers’ Meeting in Kigali on 23 June 2022
Photo Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore
Foreign Ministers’ Family Photo at the Commonwealth Foreign Affairs Ministers’ Meeting in Kigali on 23 June 2022
Photo Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore