Dr Vivian Balakrishnan delivering Singapore’s National Statement during the General Debate of the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly in New York (Photo: Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan reviews the key themes of the speeches in the last week of September during the 73rd UN General Assembly

THE 73rd United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) started on 18th September in New York, here are some of the highlights of the comments given by Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan to the press after the presentation of Singapore’s National Statement by the Minister on 29 September 2018.

Some of the “key themes” he said that came through during the week were centred on:

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan noted the word ‘multilateralism’ was used by almost all the speakers during UNGA. Multilateralism he said is at a crossroads and this presented some anxiety especially to smaller nations, “There is increasing anxiety over unilateralism. And over the anxiety that we are going back into a world where the strong impose their will and the only options for small states is to be proxy states. So that came across very strongly.” His speech tackled this issue and how “Singapore being who we are – small, open, trade three times our GDP – we have to stand for multilateralism.”

Free Trade
The other key theme was on free trade and again, Singapore’s Foreign Minister said “Given our circumstances, I invested considerable time, meeting within ASEAN and then having an ASEAN meeting with the Pacific Alliance, which includes Mexico, Peru, Chile and Colombia. I also had another meeting with Mercosur, which is Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. I am glad to report that in all these meetings, there is still strong consensus and political will to move forward on free trade agreements. So if we succeed, by the end of the year, we can make significant progress on the RCEP, which will be the world’s largest trading bloc. We can make significant progress with Mercosur and Pacific Alliance, which build us new trade links to South America, Latin America.”

Dr Vivian said this was an an affirmation that Singapore still believes in free trade and is proceeding along these lines, despite the apparent withdrawals of bigger countries, “I also took pains to reaffirm our belief in the WTO, and that we do need a neutral arbiter of trade disputes which will arise from time to time. Relying on unilateral trade sanctions with all the ripple effects that will have on global supply chains, that we feel will be a negative for global trade, negative especially for small countries like us.”

Issues related to cyber matters also featured prominently said Dr Vivian. He had participated in an interesting round table discussion with Dr. Henry Kissinger and CEOs of various companies, and shared some insights. For example, he said, “Artificial intelligence is transforming the way we operate, the way we analyse data, the way decisions will be made, the way productions chains will be created; transforming supply chains. In fact, the greater anxiety is the impact of artificial intelligence on human beings, our decision-making, our moral sensitivities, how rational and moral choices will be made. I made the argument that we are in the midst of a new technological revolution. And in the early phase, it is absolutely critical to try to understand what is going on. I explained to them why we are restructuring our education system, teaching everyone in school computational thinking, as an example. I explained our investments in SkillsFuture, so that adults can re-tool, re-skill, and be ready for the challenges of the future. Basically, to be ready for the new jobs, and to have the skills in place. This forward leaning attitude is ultimately more viable, in fact, it is probably the only sensible response, rather than a lilliputian attempt to hold back the tide of progress, or to build walls and barriers.

He also highlighted the threats posed by technology and shared with them the recent attack launched against island’s healthcare database. This was a clear and present example of a cyber-threat affecting critical infrastructure with potentially life and death implications. The conversations at the UN are still evolving. But I made the point that we do need a set of global universally accepted norms and rules, and we need the institutions, by which the disputes, the arguments can be resolved. So Singapore took the position that we supported the United Nations reconvening a global group of government experts, to elaborate these rules and norms. This has to be a bottom-up process, not something that a few powers with the technological advantage

can impose on the rest of us. This is another example of the global commons. Just as the United Nations had developed the Law of the Sea, and just as we agreed the Paris Agreement for climate change, these are two examples of the global commons. Cyberspace is another example of the global commons, and we need to have universally applied and agreed rules. That was on the cyberspace side of it.”

Other Matters
In seperate meetings with ASEAN, the United States, the UN Secretary General and President of the General Assembly, some other matters were brought up that included:

Rakhina State: According to Dr Vivian, “The key point that ASEAN made to Myanmar in this meeting, was that we stand ready to help and that one key next step, is that repatriation, the safe, voluntary, dignified return of refugees needs to occur, and needs to occur soon. And that ASEAN would work with Myanmar to facilitate this process. This is something which we will have to watch in the next few weeks, next few months, to what extent that can be achieved.”

Visit of US Vice-President Mike Pence to Singapore in November: The Foreign Minister said Singapore is keen to brief the Vice-President on the economic opportunities in a thriving Southeast Asia, “The need for infrastructure, the opportunities for American investments, not just at a government level, but indeed in the private sector level. And also, building on the fact, that actually the American private sector has invested in Southeast Asia over the last fifty years, in a very major way. There are more American investments in Southeast Asia cumulatively than the sum total of American investments in India, China and Japan combined. The point is that, United States has a head start, they should not fritter away that lead, and should continue to double-down on investments here, create jobs, create trade prospects. This is a region that remains open, and inclusive.”

Click here to read Dr Vivian Balakrishnan address at the 73rd UN General Assembly MULTILATERALISM AT A CROSSROADS