Singapore Foreign Minister Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan on how the Indian Ocean remains an important conduit for trade, culture, religion, language and geostrategic influence as well as effects of climate change and the post pandemic period on the world’s economy

SINGAPORE’S Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan delivered remarks at the 5th Indian Ocean Conference (IOC) virtually at the host venue in Abu Dhabi. The theme this year was “Indian Ocean: Ecology, Economy and Epidemic”. Following is the transcript of his speech at the event. For the video presentation click here. <>

My good friend, Mr Ram Madhav, thank you for moderating this session, and I also want to acknowledge His Excellency the former Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, Ranil Wickremesinghe. I wish we could meet in person. It has been some time, but at least we still get to interact virtually. Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, I want to thank the Government of the UAE (United Arab Emirates), of course, the India Foundation, and the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies for organising what is now the fifth Indian Ocean Conference. I recall that Singapore hosted the inaugural conference in 2016, and it is an honour to participate again as one of the Co-Vice Chairs.

Excellencies, the Indian Ocean has been an essential conduit for trade, culture, religion, language and geostrategic influence over the past five to six centuries. Thus, the theme for today, “Ecology, Economy, and Epidemic” is very salient. COVID-19 has accelerated, in fact, many pre-existing trends, and these include nativism, nationalism, (and) anti-globalisation. The virus, in a very real way, transcends borders, race, language, religion. Even today, as we deal with the emergence of the new Omicron variant, (which) perfectly illustrates this point, no one is safe until everyone is safe. We have to contribute to the collective fight against COVID-19, wherever and however we can.

Singapore developed the TraceTogether app for contact-tracing. In the early stages of the pandemic, I recall, we had received many requests to replicate similar systems. We decided we would make its source code open, and we called it OpenTrace. We made it freely available. We enabled others to adapt it to their own needs. We also published the BlueTrace protocol to promote interoperability across jurisdictions.

Singapore has also been an early advocate for vaccine multilateralism, a term coined by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. We co-chair the Friends of the COVAX Facility alongside Switzerland to support its work. Singapore also contributed US$5 million to the Advanced Market Commitment mechanism, as well as our entire vaccine allotment under COVAX to our partners.

Meanwhile, climate change is an existential threat with developing countries being especially vulnerable. The Indian Ocean is warming up at a rate that is estimated to be three times higher than the Pacific, and these rising sea levels will contribute to extreme weather events, including more frequent floods in low lying areas, and severe coastal erosion. The multitude of flora and fauna that depend on our ocean will also be affected. By this century’s end, Singapore expects to experience more frequent and intense rainfalls, (and) a rise of sea-levels up to one metre, which will really place us at the upper bound of the global estimates.

The recent 26th Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC (COP-26) underscored the importance of a multilateral rules-based response. I was very heartened to hear countries raise their climate ambitions. It is also encouraging that the developed countries have committed to enhancing finance to help developing countries strengthen their resilience, and to achieve their climate pledges. Singapore will continue to support these multilateral frameworks, and we will be a constructive, fair and honest broker.

Despite Singapore’s constraints as an alternative energy disadvantaged country, Singapore will continue to escalate our own domestic climate efforts. We have announced the Singapore Green Plan 2030, which is a “Whole-of-Nation” roadmap to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and our own net zero aspiration. We aim to quadruple solar energy production by 2025, to decarbonise our energy grids through electricity imports, and to phase out internal combustion engine vehicles by 2040, while actively investing in low carbon solutions.

Beyond our domestic efforts, Singapore is committed to helping fellow developing countries implement our climate pledges, through our Climate Action Package, which was launched in 2018 under the Singapore Cooperation Programme. We offer courses in areas such as climate science, climate mitigation, adaptation strategies, flood management, green finance, and disaster risk reduction.

Let me now turn to the economy. As we focus on a post-pandemic economic recovery, we need to remain clear-eyed about the downside risks. The trajectory of COVID-19 is still uncertain, and the effects of waning immunity, or the ongoing evolving mutations such as the recent Omicron variant, remain to be seen. Meanwhile, global supply chain disruptions, coupled with a pick-up in demand and rising energy prices could spur inflation. The economic stimuli and the government support have provided much-needed short term relief, but will also have long term implications on governments’ sovereign debt.

It is thus important for us to enhance cooperation to promote supply chain resilience. We used to organise supply chains on the basis of “just in time”, but I think we need to replace this with a concept called “just in case”. Free trade remains crucial for sustained recovery. We continue to strongly support free trade agreements such as the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership), as well as the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership). These are inclusive, open agreements, and the door remains open for others to join the RCEP. Singapore also welcomes economies that are able and willing to meet the high standards of the CPTPP.

COVID-19 has turbocharged the digital transformation in all our countries, but we need to enhance multilateral cooperation, in order to leverage these digital technologies to support and to achieve sustainable development, and to close the digital divide. We are also looking into digital and green economy regional agreements.

For Singapore, we have embarked on the ASEAN Smart Cities Network (ASCN). We welcome our dialogue partners present today to collaborate with us on this endeavour.

The nexus between the economy and ecology is now very, very clear. For countries in the Indian Ocean region, travel, tourism, maritime transport, fisheries and seafood production are key drivers of economic growth and recovery. A sustainable blue economy will support the UN’s (United Nations) SDG 14 (Sustainable Development Goal 14) on the conservation and sustainable use of oceans, seas and marine resources, and the global goals on poverty, jobs, resilient communities, and climate change.

We need innovative financial instruments, including blue bonds, debt-for-nature, CSR investment and blended financing. We should also foster collaboration between communities, businesses and finance towards high standards of transparency. Ultimately, sustainability and accountability go hand in hand – they are based on the same value systems.

Ladies and gentlemen, a key factor in regional peace and prosperity is our ability to cooperate under a rules-based international order. Many people have been disenchanted by the multilateral institutions and the processes that have in fact upheld the post-World War II global order. But we must resist the temptation to become populist or inward-looking, in order to gain short-term political dividends, because if we do so we will burden future generations and set us all on a trajectory that is inimical to our own enlightened long-term interests. We make the argument that an open, inclusive, rules-based multilateral world order is not merely a preference or an ideology – it is a necessity. Especially for small trading city states, like Singapore, where our trade is three times our GDP, it is an existential imperative to keep the Indian Ocean open and peaceful. Even in competition, a rules-based international order will set boundaries and will allow for amicable dispute resolution.

It is in this context, we welcome the US and China’s statements to work together to deepen cooperation and to prevent conflict. We hope the major powers will find amodus vivendi that will enable cooperation in areas of common interest, like climate change and free trade.

In addition, frameworks, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), are absolutely key to a stable and inclusive region. The 40th anniversary of the adoption of UNCLOS next year will be an opportunity for all parties to reaffirm our commitment to UNCLOS as the primary legal instrument for oceans governance.

Ladies and gentlemen, this pandemic will not be the last global crisis. While COVID-19 has taken a terrible toll, it also presents an opportunity for us to re-learn the importance of banding together and finding collective solutions. As fellow countries vulnerable to the impact of climate change, and reliant on trade for our economic well-being, we are all here at this conference because we have a shared vision of an Indian Ocean built on peace, security, stability and prosperity.

I look forward to a constructive dialogue with the goal of finding solutions that combine the diversity of our strengths, and look forward to your questions.

Thank you all very much.