SINGAPORE - Covid-19 has laid bare the fact that the world today is increasingly connected, and that no country can address long-term problems on its own, said Senior Minister of State for Defence Zaqy Mohamad on Monday (Jan 18).
Despite the increasing pushback against multilateralism, there is a need for countries to avoid focusing on just their domestic challenges, and to instead work together so that they can effectively tackle common threats, added Mr Zaqy.
Using the current pandemic to illustrate his point, he said: "The global community will not fully recover from this pandemic without coordinated responses to curb its spread, keep critical supply chains open and rebuild economies.
"Protectionist and unilateral actions are, ultimately, short-term solutions that would not be able to address long-term problems."
He was giving the keynote address at a forum organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
The 9th IISS Fullerton Forum: The Shangri-La Dialogue Sherpa Meeting is being held over two days from Monday at the Fullerton Hotel.
In his speech, Mr Zaqy acknowledged that it is not surprising that many countries have turned inwards and focused on their domestic needs in the face of an unprecedented health crisis like Covid-19, noting that some had closed their borders and built up "protectionist barriers".
He also pointed out that even before the pandemic, there was already increasing pushback against multilateralism.
"In many societies, a growing number of people saw the multilateral system as the key driver behind the erosion of national sovereignty, economic dislocation and widening income gap. Others viewed the system and its accompanying institutions and rules as rigid, archaic and restrictive," he added.
However, the Covid-19 outbreak has demonstrated the importance of cooperation between countries.
Mr Zaqy sketched out three ways in which multilateralism has helped stave off the worst possible effects of the coronavirus.
The first is in the area of technology and science. Mr Zaqy noted that countries have leveraged technology to interact and share best practices, ranging from operational experiences to technical and medical aspects of dealing with the virus.
The second is in testing. The sharing of genetic data of Covid-19 has allowed for the fast development of diagnostic tests, said Mr Zaqy, adding that this was crucial in the early stage of the pandemic when countries were ramping up their domestic testing capabilities to detect positive cases.
And third is in the development and distribution of vaccines.
Mr Zaqy held up the multilateral Covax facility initiative, which is meant to ensure equitable vaccine access worldwide and aims to obtain and fairly distribute two billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines by the end of this year.
Amid the pandemic, issues that threaten the security of countries, such as the danger of cyber attacks and terrorism, still present a challenge for countries, said Mr Zaqy.
To address these security threats, he suggested countries find ways to exchange best practices in areas of common interests and make arrangements to interact, train and cooperate together to foster trust and operational effectiveness.
He noted that even with the challenges of Covid-19, navies from 10 countries were able to safely conduct the last iteration of the Rim of Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise. Hosted by the United States, the biennial exercise, held in Hawaii in August last year, is the world's largest international maritime exercise.
Mr Zaqy urged countries to support efforts to strengthen the international order and enhance practical cooperation, which he said is especially important to address emerging areas like artificial intelligence.
By working together beyond national borders, governments and defence establishments can benefit their people and protect them against security threats, said Mr Zaqy.
He added: "We should continue to guard against tendencies to focus on domestic challenges to the detriment of more coordinated global responses, which remain vital to effectively tackle common security threats."
The annual IISS Fullerton Forum, which is attended by delegates from around the world, is a platform for sharing views ahead of the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, which will be held later this year.
The forum this year is being held in a hybrid format, with delegates attending here as well as virtually.