OSAKA - It is worrying that world leaders were not able to make significant forward progress at this year's Group of 20 (G-20) summit, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and positions have hardened since last year's summit in Argentina.
He warned that even as Singapore works with like-minded countries to uphold the multilateral trading system, Singaporeans must be "psychologically prepared" for the uncertainty to come.
At the end of the Osaka summit on Saturday (June 29), G-20 leaders stopped short of denouncing protectionism, instead issuing a communique highlighting the need for a "free, fair, non-discriminatory" trade environment.
The communique was a "form of words which everybody was comfortable with, and is a description of where we are today", Mr Lee told Singapore reporters at the end of the two-day summit. "It is positive that they were able to agree on a form of words. I think that it is still worrying that we are not able to make significant forward progress."
Four or five years ago, differences between the various countries were typically found between the developed and the developing world, PM Lee said.
"You can understand the developing countries - Brazil, India, South Africa, for example - having one set of views and a different perspective, compared to the developed countries. Now, the divisions are even within the developed countries. America, to a large extent, has gone its own way; but the other countries, as well, are not at one on many issues."
In Europe, for instance, the issue of the environment has become "a political flag which they are rallied under". But most other countries are hoping to find a description which will acknowledge a problem, without requiring drastic action, PM Lee said.
"These are very difficult problems to solve," he said, adding that he did not expect them to be solved at the G-20 meeting. "But we hope that through the G-20 meetings, at least, we get a sense of each other's positions. Over time, we are able to put together a broader consensus."
In Osaka, although several countries had reservations on the multilateral trading system, many leaders also spoke up in favour of strengthening the World Trade Organisation (WTO), he said. "I think that is helpful. There is not enough to push us over the finish line, but at least it is pushing in the right direction."
PM Lee on Friday was one of those who called for the WTO to be brought up to date, urging members to work constructively and to urgently undertake reform. He also highlighted the importance of resolving the impasse over the WTO's appellate body, which hears appeals in trade disputes, where the US has blocked the appointment of judges.
For Singapore, the key to upholding the multilateral trading system is to promote free trade among like-minded countries, Mr Lee said.
He referred to the recently-signed European Union-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, as well as the work being done on the 16-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA) between Chile, New Zealand and Singapore.
PM Lee noted that the Japanese launched the Osaka Track framework at the summit, which takes a similar approach to the DEPA in that it aims to formulate rules on digital governance.
"There will be multiple tracks, but we contribute our two cents' worth and we hope that we can push things in a constructive way," he said.
In the face of great uncertainty across the world, Singaporeans must be prepared for "many twists and turns, ups and downs", PM Lee added.
"You have great relief when disaster is averted. After some time, further twists and turns will emerge and we must be psychologically prepared for that, and guard ourselves to go through this period of uncertainty."
Asked for his thoughts on the meeting between United States President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Saturday, PM Lee said that he was happy that they had restarted discussions.
But he cautioned that restarting discussions is "just the first step", adding that he was not in a position to say what went on at the meeting.
"I do not have any information on what was spoken at the meeting - whether there is a deep exchange of mutual concerns and therefore a fundamental meeting of minds; or whether this is just both sides wanting to just test a little bit further and see whether we can work something out, without engaging on the fundamental issues."
In a Facebook post on Saturday, Deputy PM and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, who is part of the Singapore delegation in Osaka, said that multilateral platforms like the G-20 “are important to bring partners together and ensure a rules-based international order, to help settle disagreements between countries in accordance with international norms”.