Coronavirus: Globalisation under scrutiny, but unrealistic to turn inwards, says PM Lee

A nurse in protective suit attends to a baby at an isolation ward of Wuhan Children's Hospital in Wuhan on March 16, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

The coronavirus outbreak will cause many countries to rethink the level of globalisation and interdependency they are comfortable with, but trying to reverse time and return to closed economies is unrealistic, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Diversification of supply chains is also not the same as bifurcation, added PM Lee, who called for the United States and China to find ways to work together constructively and stably.

The logical extreme of globalisation, where the world is completely borderless and there is complete dependence on one source for important things like electronics or even food "is going to come under searching scrutiny", PM Lee told The Australian newspaper in an interview.

"Even Singapore will have to ask ourselves, in a crisis, what will we be short of?" said PM Lee.

"Masks in this crisis, but in another crisis, it may be something else. Certainly, you have to ask whether your food supplies are secure," he said.

But while there has to be some diversification, "fire breaks" and checks on movements of people, the world cannot go back to when countries were disconnected from one another, said PM Lee.

He noted that the flu pandemic of 1917 swept through the world even though it was much less globalised then.

"So to shut yourself off and hope to become impregnable, I do not think it is a realistic approach," he said.

Asked about US-China trade tensions, PM Lee noted that the phase one trade deal signed in January forestalled further conflict, but did not address many of the difficult issues between the world's two biggest economies, nor the fundamental strategic tension in the relationship due to a rising China.

While both countries are now preoccupied by Covid-19, this issue will eventually return no matter who wins the upcoming US presidential election, said PM Lee.

"You will always have a tension in it, but at least some mutual understanding of each other's position, and what is a way forward which will acknowledge that tension, but enable the two countries to work constructively together in a wide range of areas, and stably," he said.

PM Lee said countries in the region hope that the US will take an open view of its role in the world, and endeavour to maintain today's rules-based global order even as it enters an era when it has to accommodate other major players.

"I hope that it (the US) will eventually settle somewhere that is in keeping with the generosity of spirit and breadth of vision which has for very long characterised the US approach to not just international affairs, but even to their self-conception of their role in the world," said PM Lee.

Lim Yan Liang

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2020, with the headline Coronavirus: Globalisation under scrutiny, but unrealistic to turn inwards, says PM Lee. Subscribe