Business community needs voice in state-to-state interactions to help build inclusive global order: Ng Eng Hen

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen  speaking at a business luncheon organised by the Singapore-German Chamber of Industry and Commerce on Sept 4, 2019.
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen speaking at a business luncheon organised by the Singapore-German Chamber of Industry and Commerce on Sept 4, 2019.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

SINGAPORE - The business community needs to have a voice in state-to-state interactions, which need to be holistic, including in trade, economics, and culture, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen on Wednesday (Sept 4).

That way will help build an open and inclusive multilateral global order governed by international norms and the rule of law that will benefit all countries big or small, he added.

Dr Ng was speaking at a monthly business luncheon organised by the Singapore-German Chamber of Industry and Commerce (SGC) and attended by more than 120 business leaders from Singapore and Germany.

"Our engagements with and inter-dependence on each other cannot be solely based on the military but need to be holistic and include areas such as trade, culture and economics," he said at the Shangri-La Hotel.

"We will need cooperation and collaboration, not rivalry, to deal with global challenges such as climate change, cyber threats, nuclear threats, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, the protection of migrants and vulnerable communities and many more."

Since 2015 when he last spoke at this luncheon, geopolitics has taken a turn for the worse, said Dr Ng, with a fundamental shift in ground rules, foreign policy and strategic intent of major powers having occurred.

First, the United States will no longer accommodate China's rise, after having, along with other Western powers, facilitated its accession into the World Trade Organisation in 2001 after economic reforms shifted it away from autarky in 1978.

"However, there was one major problem with this narrative. China's rise has been too successful - both in scale and speed - but not on the terms and expectations envisaged. The accusation is that China has not been playing by the rules," he said.

Second, the US itself has changed since 2015, with the America First policy underscoring all aspects of the White House's dealings, and the US under President Donald Trump is no longer the "erstwhile champion of globalisation", said Dr Ng.

"The roots of the US-China strategic competition go beyond just trade deficits or currency fluctuations. They stem from fundamental differences in operating systems which pit the two largest economies and militaries against each other - this is a long game. The potential to consume all countries is there in our inter-connected world," he added.

He said that Singapore will continue to pursue multilateralism as it has brought growth and prosperity to the region, and contributed to peace and security over the decades.

"While multilateralism may not be perfect, the alternatives are much worse, as history teaches us."

"A bifurcated world based on the US or China, as it was during the Cold War between the US and the USSR, is a severe impediment to today's global economy and security and is in no one country's interest or benefit."

During a question-and-answer session later, Mr Alexander Melchers, the general manager of C.Melchers Group of Companies and a businessman who has worked in Singapore for 22 years, asked if Singapore could really defend itself in the long term and if the money spent doing so was worth it.

Dr Ng said that these questions were what the first defence minister, Dr Goh Keng Swee, and Singaporeans of the pioneer generation had asked themselves, adding that these were not questions only for Singapore but for all countries.

He noted that these questions were easier to answer today than 50 years ago. "I think 50-over years of building up the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), we have significant capabilities. And the ministry and the SAF, we are confident that we can defend Singapore."

"We practise defence deterrence because we believe that the best way to achieve peace is to make friends. And somehow the stronger you are, the more friends you have," he added, to applause.

He was asked by Germany's Ambassador to Singapore, Dr Ulrich Sante, what message he had for Germany's small and medium-sized enterprises that might be interested to come to Singapore.

Dr Ng said that Asia deserves a closer look, with an emerging middle class that appreciates quality products such as German cars.

He urged Germany to be among the voices that contribute to an international order where the rule of law, multilateralism and win-win situations prevail, as Singapore being a small country is in "no position" to influence global affairs.

"We can speak truth to power, we can try to use reason, argument, persuasion, but ultimately the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must."

"I would say that Germany must be part of the voices, that speak not only of the global order, but the order in this part of the world, how the norms that we have to observe, the practices, the way we deal with issues and common challenges," he added.