Ng Eng Hen: International wheeling and dealing should be underpinned by moral code

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen called for a global order underpinned by a unifying vision that brings people and countries together.
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen called for a global order underpinned by a unifying vision that brings people and countries together.ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

SINGAPORE - The United States, China, and the world need to be careful to avoid re-jigging the new global system on a purely transactional basis, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said on Tuesday (Sept 18), hours after President Donald Trump slapped fresh tariffs on US$200 billion (S$274 billion) of Chinese goods.

"That narrow path leads to acrimony and myopia and ultimately grief," Dr Ng told the US business community in Singapore at a lunch event held by the American Chamber of Commerce.

Instead, he called for a global order underpinned by a unifying vision that brings people and countries together and which perpetuates the same virtuous conditions of growing trade, decreasing poverty and raising standards of living.

"It is quite clear that the US and China will play key roles in the coming decades to shape globalisation for the world. How both sides navigate the bilateral relationship, and how the rest of the world responds to it, will significantly affect the global order to come," he said.

Dr Ng also made the case that "wheeling and dealing", whether in commerce or international relations, should be underpinned by some sort of moral code.

America's moral authority and unifying vision for a post-World War II world enabled the region and the world to accept its leadership, and also explained its extraordinary influence in Asia after WWII, said Dr Ng at the Singapore Marriott Tang Hotel.

He outlined how the US unifying vision benefited the world, the region and the individual.

Globally, it expanded trade and finance and lifted people out of poverty, through the promise of an inclusive and fair trading system, anchored on the rule of law.

Regionally, it eased the struggle of colonised nations to achieve independence and self-determination, propelling Asia's powerhouse economies to achieve economic growth and social development.

Said Dr Ng: "Even China benefited from the US unifying vision of a free, fair and open global trading system... (and) the very fact that China now wants to protect the very system, speaks volumes of how essential that system is to everyone's growth.''

At the individual level, it encouraged the fulfilment of a person's potential, with rising education standards and open immigration policies spawning many of today's dominant ideas in technology and commerce, including WhatsApp founder Jan Koum and Google's co-founder Sergey Brin.

Now, however, the geopolitical order is changing.

Said Dr Ng: "We have to accept that new rules will be written as power configurations alter.

"Nonetheless, to ensure continued stability and progress for all countries, we will have to work to ensure that these new rules for Globalisation 2.0, whether in trade, finance or security, will be open, transparent and accountable."

During the question-and-answer session that followed his speech, Dr Ng was asked how Singapore can position itself amid this shift in geopolitical dynamics.

He said: "We're not here to teach, we're not here to pretend we're larger than we are. Whether we evolve a better system depends on the US and China primarily, the (world's) two largest economies.

"You've heard of the saying that the weak suffer what they must. It's always been the big powers that decide the rules. We hope they do it in enlightened self-interest," he said.