Ladies and Gentlemen
1 I am honoured to be invited by my good friend, His Highness Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the UAE, to address this Forum. This is a reflection of the excellent bilateral relations and deep mutual respect between our two countries. I recall my previous visit in March 2017 to co-chair the Singapore-UAE Joint Committee, and am grateful for the gracious hospitality extended to me by His Highness.
Singapore and the UAE as natural partners
2 Despite differences in geography, fundamental similarities shape the worldviews of Singapore and the UAE. Both of us are small countries surrounded by larger countries in tough neighbourhoods. We are both relatively young, having achieved independence at around the same time: Singapore in 1965, and the UAE in 1971. Both our countries were also blessed with visionary founding fathers: Singapore had Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and the UAE had His Highness Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. They were able to look beyond conventional wisdom, emphasising political stability and economic development, and today, when one looks around, one can see the fruits of their wisdom. They believed in supporting pro-business policies and partnerships with multinational companies, despite the conventional wisdom that prevailed at that time.
3 Under their visionary leadership, Singapore and the UAE became global hubs of connectivity and trade, underpinned by good governance and domestic stability. Both our countries also pursued pragmatic foreign and defence policies, developing a strong defence force as deterrence, but at the same time adopting a cooperative and constructive approach in dealing with other countries. Mr Lee and His Highness Sheikh Zayed also promoted religious tolerance and an open society, and supported open and free trade. Today, Singapore’s trade is 3.5 times our Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and in the case of the UAE, trade is twice your GDP. I understand that 2018 has been designated as the Year of Zayed to celebrate Sheikh Zayed’s contributions and leadership. Indeed, Sheikh Zayed’s legacy is most clearly seen in the transformation that the UAE has undergone over the last 46 years.
4 These similarities make Singapore and the UAE natural partners, and it is therefore unsurprising that our friendship has blossomed since diplomatic ties were first established in 1985. The UAE was in fact the first country that our founding Foreign Minister, Mr S. Rajaratnam, visited in the Gulf. Similarly, it was also my first destination in the Middle East as Foreign Minister, when I made an official visit last March. In this context, I wish to cover three dimensions in my remarks today. First, to survey the changes in the global geopolitical landscape as seen from Singapore’s vantage point in Asia. Second, to briefly highlight the key global challenges that both our countries face, and the similarities in the approach we have taken to confront these challenges. Third, to explore how Singapore and the UAE can further build on our friendship.
Age of Uncertainty
5 The first point I would like to make is that we are currently living in an age of uncertainty. The world as we have known it for the past 70 years is rapidly changing. Since the end of World War II, the US has played an invaluable and constructive role in underwriting an open, inclusive, and rules-based global order. This has generally ushered in a sustained period of peace and prosperity, and given enormous opportunities to trading nations like Singapore and the UAE to succeed in the past few decades. Going forward, how the global geopolitical order evolves in the next phase is dependent on how the US sees its role and stature in the world, as well as how it perceives its interactions with rising powers. In this context, the most important relationship affecting the global order today is that between the US and China.
6 In the US, there are now deep divisions over the benefits of globalisation and free trade, and the unequal distribution of growth dividends over the past decades. This has led to some in the US questioning why the US should continue to underwrite the global order as we know it. In 1960, the US’ share of global GDP was around 40 percent. It made obvious sense that it was in the US’ own interest to underwrite the global economic model. However, this share of global GDP has now decreased to about 25 percent, and is expected to continue to fall. In a sense, it is therefore unsurprising that voters and politicians in the US are asking why they should continue to bear the costs of underwriting this global world order. There are questions over the benefits of globalisation not just in the US, but reflected though other electoral outcomes such as Brexit. There is pressure to erect barriers against free trade, which both Singapore and the UAE rely on. The rules governing the liberal economic order can no longer be taken for granted. We are in a period of transition as these rules evolve, and this may take a lengthy and difficult period of adjustment.
Changing Geopolitical Order
7 The angst felt among some quarters in the US takes place against the backdrop of a rising China that has heralded a shift in the geostrategic balance toward a multi-polar world. The centre of gravity is shifting eastwards to Asia. China is successful, and a major driving force in the world. President Xi Jinping has signalled unequivocally that this is the start of a new era for China. This can be seen in the two centenary goals that president Xi set for China: First, building a “moderately prosperous society” by 2021; and second, becoming a “modern socialist country” by 2049, with an interim goal to basically realise socialist modernisation by 2035. This was further elevated to becoming a “modern socialist power” at the 19th Communist Party of China National Congress in October 2017. The Chinese have said that with Mao Zedong, China stood up (zhàn qǐ lái); with Deng Xiaoping, China became wealthy (fù qǐ lái), and with President Xi, China aims to be strong (qiáng qǐ lái).
8 At the same time, China’s rise has occurred within the existing rules-based order, and it is in China’s interest for it to continue, at least for the foreseeable future. A stable and prosperous China invested in an interdependent multilateral rules-based world will be a powerful force for good. The “Belt and Road” (B&R) Initiative is a strategic and dynamic move for China to amplify its external engagement. It seeks to actively link different regions of the world to generate mutual benefits from enhanced connectivity, better infrastructure, and increased trade and tourism This also complements regional institutions and initiatives. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is another of China’s initiatives to increase its economic links. It has also continued to invest heavily in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America to secure its energy and food security.
9 The relationship between the US and China is the defining relationship of our time. We hope the US will continue to play a key role in a multipolar world, given that its influence has been deeply and widely entrenched in the global system. While economic competition between the two is inevitable, conflict is not. The US and China have a high degree of interdependence, and both sides know this. There is an incentive to work together for constructive and mutually beneficial outcomes rather than collide with one another. Constructive engagement between the US and China will help to enhance strategic trust and reduce chances of miscalculation. This is crucial, because for global peace and prosperity, we need stable Sino-US relations.
10 The US will need to decide what role it wants to play in the global arena, and how it will relate to China. It will need to decide whether being actively engaged with its partners and allies globally is aligned with the current Administration’s goal of building a strong, prosperous America. I am confident that after both have measured their long-term imperatives, they will reach the same conclusion that constructive engagement and mutually beneficial cooperation is the right formula.
11 While the US and China work towards a modus vivendi, it is inevitable that there will be pressure on small states such as Singapore, as both compete across strategic, security, and economic domains in region of common interest, such as Asia and the Middle East. But as small states, we can continue to play a positive role in fostering a global atmosphere of harmony and cooperation, while maintaining our sovereignty.
12 Singapore enjoys close ties with both China and the US. Singapore is the second-largest Asian investor in the US, and largest foreign investor in China. We have always believed that a stable US-China relationship remains crucial for continued peace, stability, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific. Singapore maintains an independent foreign policy, and actively engages all partners in a principled an honest manner, without taking sides. No one in the region, including Singapore, wants to be forced to choose sides. Singapore advocates an inclusive global architecture based on international law, which is critical to preserving the sovereignty of small states. One key example is UNCLOS, which is critical to Singapore as an island state heavily dependent on trade. Therefore, we maintain an active engagement in international organisations such as the UN. For example, Singapore established the Global Governance Group, of which the UAE is a valued partner.
13 Trade is Singapore’s lifeblood. We actively participate in multiple overlapping multilateral and regional links to increase economic integration as long as they are inclusive. For example, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which started with ASEAN, and includes six of ASEAN’s dialogue partners, namely, China, India, Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Although the US has pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) for now, the remaining participating economies have held a steady course to reach agreement on the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Both the RCEP and CPTPP are intermediate, inclusive steps toward creating a Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP).
14 Turning to the Middle East, Singapore’s trade with the Middle East has increased 24 percent year-on-year, and now stands at S$52.8 billion. In fact, Singapore was the first non-Middle East country to sign an FTA with the GCC (in 2013).
15 Singapore was an early supporter of the B&R Initiative and AIIB. According to Chinese official statistics, Singapore accounts for 85 percent of total inbound investments to China from B&R countries, and close to one-third of Chinese outbound investments. We have established the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative (CCI) as a demonstrative project under the B&R Initiative. The Southern Transport Corridor is a project under the CCI that will connect the overland Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. When completed, it would be a shorter and more direct trade route between Western China and Southeast Asia, and onward to the Middle East and Europe.
16 Singapore and the UAE are both founding members of the AIIB. The AIIB could potentially be a mode which benefits all parties, given the need for infrastructure, investment, and integration in the region, and China’s need to open new markets. Participating countries could consider projects based on their individual merits and economic viability.
17 Singapore has taken on the ASEAN Chairmanship this year, and as I mentioned earlier, economic integration is a key objective of ASEAN. ASEAN aims to be the 4th largest integrated single market in the world by 2030; with a population of over 630 million at present. We intend to connect ASEAN through a network of smart cities, keep ASEAN open and inclusive. Just as importantly, we need to preserve our strategic security objectives. This includes maintaining ASEAN Centrality, which means that the fate of Southeast Asia will be decided by Southeast Asians, which is especially relevant in a multipolar era.
18 Now let me touch briefly on two very pertinent challenges that our countries face, and that we can continue working together on. The first is in the security realm. Even as we pursue the preservation of a rules-based order, our world is being reshaped by the emergence of non-state actors and trans boundary challenges which respect neither the boundaries of the nation-state, nor the norms governing interstate relations. The threat of terrorism is persistent, dispersed and increasingly complex. The misuse of religion by terrorists and terrorist groups for political means creates societal cleavages, and divides people. This is particularly sensitive for multi-cultural and multi-religious societies like Singapore and the UAE. ISIS had wanted to set up a wilayat in Marawi, Southern Philippines. Although ISIS is territorially defeated, its ideological roots remain pervasive. We have even seen a few instances of Singaporeans being radicalised over the internet, including a Singaporean who was featured some months ago in an ISIS recruitment video. Today, the unfettered access to misinformation online leads to the pervasion of insidious, and worryingly, sometimes highly compelling media aimed at radicalising the young and impressionable.
19 The fight against terrorism is therefore a battle for hearts and minds. For Singapore, the broader and more worrying concern is the impact that terrorism and extremism could have on our social cohesion. Both Singapore and the UAE have segments of our population who are more vulnerable to these forces. The solution to countering the spread of terrorism and extremism is both global and local, and one of the most important ways to tackle this common scourge is for countries like Singapore and the UAE to work more closely together, in areas such as the sharing of intelligence and best practices in de-radicalisation.
20 Even more significant and far reaching than the changing trade dynamics I had referred to earlier, is technological disruption. Advances in technology and engineering give rise to pertinent questions such as what the price of oil will be 50 years from now, or how the world’s logistics and energy supply chain flows would like in a few decades. These are questions that both Singapore, as an entrepôt, and the UAE, as an oil producer, have to contend with. The Fourth Industrial Revolution has disrupted traditional business models and income streams. New technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and 3D printing have transformed the way value is created and distributed. Both Singapore and the UAE therefore need to restructure our economies to “future-proof” ourselves and our people against digital disruption. To this end, we are heading in the same direction, and our strategies reaffirm each other’s approaches. Singapore, for example, has the Committee for Future Economy, while the UAE has outlined its future in “Vision 2071”.
21 I commend the far-sighted vision of the UAE for diversifying its economy away from oil much earlier than other oil-exporting countries. Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, said presciently in 2015 that when the UAE had exported its last barrel of oil, the country would celebrate. In Singapore, our focus is on retraining Singaporeans through SkillsFuture and lifelong learning, to ensure that no one is left behind. We recognise that education and human capital development are key to preparing our citizens for the future, and I am heartened to know that His Highness Sheikh Abdullah, who is also Chairman of the UAE Education and Human Resources Council, shares Singapore’s view. Just last week at the World Government Summit in Dubai, His Highness spoke about the need to “break old moulds” to develop a system of education that prepares Emirati youth for the next industrial revolution. As both our countries work toward the same goal, Singapore looks forward to sharing our experiences with, and learning from, the UAE in education and human capital development. Singapore and the UAE have both also embraced technology, and are global leaders in the areas of Smart Nation and e-government. The UAE, for example, has built the Masdar Initiative in Abu Dhabi.
Outlook for Singapore-UAE Relations
22 Let me now return to where I started on natural complementarities and common interests between our two countries. Both Singapore and the UAE are pragmatic and outward-looking. Our interests are aligned in many areas, and we adopt similar approaches to common challenges. We enjoy substantive cooperation on a wide spectrum of issues, and regularly exchange high-level visits. Nine Ministers from Singapore visited the UAE last year, and we were pleased to host Minister of Economy, His Excellency Sultan Al Mansoori, and Minister of State for Defence Affairs, His Excellency Mohammed Al Bawardi, in Singapore just two weeks ago.
23 We have also established institutionalised bilateral platforms to discuss political and economic issues at both the Emirate and Federal level. On the economic front, the UAE is Singapore’s largest trading partner in the Middle East, and the largest destination for Singapore investments in the region. In the security domain, we cooperate well in the area of counter-terrorism, including dialogue between our religious institutions and civil defence exchanges. When we look at technology, which I had spoken on earlier, Smart Nation and urban solutions are other areas in which we have worked well together.
24 It is clear to me that closer cooperation between our countries will serve both of us well in an age of uncertainty. We should look to leverage each other’s status as hubs in our respective regions to foster even thicker linkages between our regions. In this regard, we look forward to elevating relations with the UAE through the Singapore-UAE Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership (SUCEP), which covers cooperation in a number of sectors including political, economy, defence and security, sustainable development, and education. We hope that it can be concluded this year. In sum, I am confident about the prospects of our bilateral cooperation, and I look forward to working with my friend, His Highness Sheikh Abdullah, to take the relationship to greater heights.
25 Allow me to close my remarks by offering some thoughts that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had shared during his visit to the UAE ten years ago. Commenting on the international order, Mr Lee had said: “big fish eat small fish, and small fish eat shrimp”. The implication of this pithy comment was that small states actually performed no irreplaceable function in the international system. In other words, even if we did not exist, the world would actually carry on quite happily without us. Mr Lee concluded that small states had to be “better organised, alert and nimble to counter or evade threats, and seize opportunities”. As members of the UAE’s diplomatic corps, every single one of you plays a crucial role in ensuring that the UAE remains relevant in an increasingly chaotic and unpredictable world. Let me assure here today that you are not alone in confronting the challenges you face. As fellow small states, Singapore and the UAE can work together to find ways to tackle these challenges together. I look forward to a frank and engaging discussion with you to hear your perspectives on these issues, and how we can take our cooperation forward. Thank you very much once again.
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