Cost of being unprepared for next pandemic will be too great: Ng Eng Hen

Early in the pandemic last year, trade in goods dropped faster than during the Great Depression or the global financial crisis.
Early in the pandemic last year, trade in goods dropped faster than during the Great Depression or the global financial crisis.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Plans must be in place for more coordinated efforts to deal with the next pandemic and other common challenges as the cost of getting caught unprepared again will be too great, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen on Wednesday (July 28).

Giving the keynote address at the 7th International Maritime Security Conference, he said that this was one key but obvious lesson that can be learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic so far, as countries have grown interdependent because of globalisation.

The disruption in logistics and supply lines brought home that interdependency vividly, he said. Early in the pandemic last year, trade in goods dropped faster than during the Great Depression or the global financial crisis.

For example, entire assembly lines had to be shut down in the South Korean auto industry because of a shortage of spare parts. Drug shortages were reported too, including life-supporting drugs needed to treat Covid-19 patients, he noted.

Maritime trade was impacted in many ways, with many commercial seafarers who were stranded at sea as ports would not let them in, he said.

The blockage of the Suez Canal in March this year - where 12 per cent of global trade passes through - compounded the problem, he said.

While there was no inherent malfeasance in those disruptions and they were not aimed at any particular country, "it exposed an existing vulnerability which can be exploited by those who would do us harm intentionally".

He added: "After watching the devastation and loss of lives due to Covid-19, now four million and rising, the cost of unpreparedness and dis-coordination will be too great.

"Whether it is from the next biologic pandemic or the dreaded Disease X which is more lethal, more infectious. And whether unintentionally or as a result of a bioweapon in the wrong hands."

The need for more coordinated efforts also apply for other natural disasters and threats related to climate change, he added.

He said that militaries can and must play a decisive role in this multilateral effort, such as in the areas of information sharing and having rules to prevent inadvertent conflict at sea and elsewhere.

They can also build confidence in peacetime and engage in practical ways to deepen trust and mutual understanding, including through the conference, he said.

The one-day conference, held in a hybrid format with the majority of participants from 28 countries attending virtually, is co-organised by the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) and the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

It was established in 2009, and brings together navy chiefs, policymakers, academics and maritime stakeholders to discuss ways to enhance and foster mutual security in the maritime domain, including those from China, Japan, France and Malaysia.

The Ministry of Defence said on Wednesday that all participants who attended the event physically had been fully vaccinated and abided by health and safety measures, in line with national guidelines.

One of the participants was US Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michael Gilday, who gave a speech emphasising the importance of cooperation in allowing for prosperity from the sea. He is on an introductory visit to Singapore from Monday to Thursday.

Participants of the 7th International Maritime Security Conference engaging in a discussion with panelists physically and virtually. PHOTO: MINDEF

Speaking to reporters in a virtual press conference, Admiral Gilday said that he looked forward to increasing the tempo of exercises with the RSN, adding that exercises with Singapore in the past few months have been "pretty robust".

"The US-Singapore partnership… is really the bedrock of America's military presence in South-east Asia, and an anchor for security in the broader Indo-Pacific," he said.

Asked if the US Navy plans to increase its deployment of littoral combat ships (LCS) to Singapore, he said there were no current plans to increase the numbers.

He said: "We have what we think right now is a solid operating model that meets our operational commitments.

"In the future, I would like to see more LCS operating in the Western Pacific, but we have not yet settled on what the basing model might be."