Singapore, Germany see eye to eye on international law issues and multi-lateral cooperation: German President

President Halimah Yacob hosts a state banquet at the Istana for German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at Katana on Nov 2, 2017.
President Halimah Yacob hosts a state banquet at the Istana for German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at Katana on Nov 2, 2017. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

SINGAPORE - A magazine cover paints a grim picture of the future, showing robots in working attire passing by a human begging on a busy city sidewalk.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier highlighted it in a lecture he gave on Thursday (Nov 2) on ways Germany and Singapore can work together to steer the digital revolution to benefit society as a whole rather than to profit a few.

Dr Steinmeier, who is on a two-day state to Singapore, cited four areas of cooperation, with innovation being the key to success for both countries.

This hinges on technological leadership, research and a highly-skilled workforce, he added in the lecture at the Singapore Management University (SMU) School of Law. It is part of the Ho Rih Hwa Leadership Lecture Series.

Steps have already been taken for such collaboration between the two countries' universities, research institutes and businesses, he said.

He cited German conglomerate Siemens' digital hub, the Technical University of Munich's TUMCreate Institute and the Fraunhofer Singapore research institute at the Nanyang Technological University.

But people must not be left behind as technological change sweeps society, he said.

Illustrating his point with the grim magazine cover, he challenged his audience of 800, comprising students, government officials and diplomats, to think about the future they want for their own countries.

He added: "I want technology not to increase inequality, but to reduce it, not to exclude people but enable them to participate, not to create poverty and disease, but eradicate them."

The three other areas where both are aligned are free trade, the rule of law and the value of multi-lateral institutions and cooperation.

He noted that both believe in the benefits of an open and interconnected world, rather than a "small-island mentality", adding that it is important to defend the free and fair exchange of ideas, innovations, goods and services.

Another shared belief he cited is that peace depends on the strength of the law, not the law of the strong. "An open world can only survive on the basis of international law and rules that apply to everyone.''

He added: "So let us join forces in defending the rules, for example, in the interest of all concerned, we must work together for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea."

Finally, the importance of multilateral institutions and cooperation has already drawn both to work together on trade policy, climate change and cybersecurity.

But there is much untapped potential for cooperation between Asean and the European Union, he added.

He suggested Asean develop an exchange programme for students to boost people-to-people ties, similar to the Erasmus programme in Europe which has helped millions of European students in in the past 30 years to study abroad.

Dr Steinmeier was giving the ninth lecture in series, whose past speakers include founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon.

Dr Steinmeier also spoke about his country's domestic issues, like balancing the need for social stability with the rights and freedoms of different ethnic and religious groups.

He expressed the hope to find out more about how Singapore handles the issues of racial and religious diversity during his visit as Germany faces increasing ethnic diversity having taken in more than a million refugees in the past two years.

He also said the ideal of Western liberal democracy has been challenged by issues in the European Union and the United States.

At the same time, people look at China and see stability and economic growth, though the country is not moving towards greater political freedom, he said, adding that this poses an ideological challenge to the West.

But he added that he did not see any inherent contradiction between democratic input and output.

"On the contrary,I think there is a positive link between the two. I think the broader political and economic participation one has, the more successful a society becomes in the long term," he said.

He added that he believes a country and its citizens benefit more when the arts, sciences and civil society are allowed to flourish freely rather than being closely directed, and when one engages in debates with one's political opponents rather than excluding them.

"In my experience, you are more likely to find out what's wrong in your society when you allow dissenting voices and the scrutiny of a free press rather than silencing them, " he said.

When asked by a student on how to address the rise of nationalism, he said it is crucial to ensure societies are not eroded from within, to prevent parts of society from drifting apart.

"This may mean that we as politicians have to better explain what we are doing," he added.