Need for collective action to solve global problems and rebuild optimism: Tharman

Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam called for more multilateral cooperation to solve the global problems. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - The risks to development have never been greater in the past 40 years, but the conviction in developing shared opportunities through international collaboration has never been weaker, said Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

Mr Tharman, who was the keynote speaker at the annual Caixin Summit at Marina Bay Sands on Friday, added that the world is in for a prolonged period of difficulty, fragmentation and vulnerability now, and there is a need to not just avoid the worst, but also to rebuild optimism. 

He called for more multilateral cooperation to solve economic, environmental and geopolitical problems.

With the ongoing war in Ukraine, collective action and solutions are needed to protect countries from the worst effects of inflation and recession, and to build a new phase of growth that is inclusive and sustainable, he said. 

Climate change, global water crisis, extreme weather events and the likelihood of repeated pandemics are also global problems that require global collaboration. In fact, the repeated shocks caused by all these challenges could cause a rollback of development and achievements in the past decades, Mr Tharman added.

“In order to address these challenges, we need a new understanding and a new equilibrium in international affairs and geopolitics,” he said. “We need a new understanding between the US and China, in particular, because that’s the most important of the relationships between countries in the world.”

What is needed is a geopolitical pact, where there is a new understanding between the major powers, and with smaller countries such as Singapore doing their part to keep the world open and connected.

“Our biggest challenge is to prevent a multipolar world from becoming a polarised world,” added Mr Tharman. A more polarised world with bifurcation and separate alliances of countries is a dangerous world, he said, and it will be a world with less economic prosperity for all nations.

In response to a question by the moderator, Ms Li Xin, managing editor of media website Caixin Global, on the key attributes of leaders to tackle the perfect storm, Mr Tharman said that it is a perfect “long” storm, as the world will be saddled with these problems for many years to come.

“We have entered an era of insecurity – geopolitical insecurity, economic insecurities, and most fundamentally, environmental insecurity,” he said.

“And we have to address it, not by waiting for each crisis to come and responding to crises as they come, but by seeking to prevent crises from developing, and by preparing for them in advance.”

He cited the example of the Covid-19 pandemic, which was predicted and had been warned by scientists for some time. 

With the next pandemic coming any time, leaders have to think about how they can prevent it and prepare for it. Waiting for crises to come will not just be costly economically and financially, but also in terms of human lives and social cohesion, Mr Tharman said.

Leaders also need to understand that today’s global woes need collective action, and the pooling and multiplying of resources, he said.  

Turning to Singapore, Ms Li asked Mr Tharman about the problems the fourth-generation (4G) leadership of Singapore faces.

“The 4G leadership is very engaged in thinking about the future, the challenges and the opportunities”, he replied, adding that there will always be new challenges coming up as the world changes.

The 4G leaders will have to anticipate problems to avoid the worst, and to contribute to solutions globally, he said.

One of the challenges the world, especially small countries such as Singapore, faces is building resilience in the face of global shocks and a more fractious and difficult international environment.

Resilience is also built on trust, and there is a fairly deep reservoir of trust between the population and the Singapore Government, as well as between the people themselves, as seen during the pandemic, Mr Tharman said.

“You have to keep rebuilding and renewing trust in a society,” he added. “And that is a challenge which every new generation of political leaders has to be focused on.”

Singapore also has to focus on its intrinsic strengths to navigate a changing world, he said. Besides trust, these include building talent at every level of society through education and lifelong learning, and remaining open to global talent, as well as investment in the innovation economy where new ideas and inventions can be tested.

With South-east Asia growing faster than most places, Mr Tharman said, Singapore should also think about how it can develop opportunities even in an era of challenges.

The 2022 Caixin Summit by Chinese media group Caixin is themed “New Development, Shared Opportunities”.

The main event in Beijing is from Wednesday to Saturday, and Singapore’s satellite event was held on Friday at Marina Bay Sands, with about 50 entrepreneurs, investors and opinion leaders in attendance. The event was live-streamed to the Beijing venue and online.

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