Plans needed to ensure more coordinated efforts in crisis

Defence Minister points to key lesson learnt from pandemic as nations become interdependent

Colonel Lim Huay Wen (left), head of naval training at the Republic of Singapore Navy, and Rear Admiral Christopher Smith, Deputy Chief of the Royal Australian Navy, at a panel discussion at the 7th International Maritime Security Conference, held ye
Colonel Lim Huay Wen (left), head of naval training at the Republic of Singapore Navy, and Rear Admiral Christopher Smith, Deputy Chief of the Royal Australian Navy, at a panel discussion at the 7th International Maritime Security Conference, held yesterday in a hybrid format with the majority of participants from 28 countries attending virtually. The discussion was moderated by Ambassador Ong Keng Yong (top left on screen), executive deputy chairman of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, who attended virtually.PHOTO: MINISTRY OF DEFENCE

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 yesterday.

Giving the keynote address at the 7th International Maritime Security Conference, he said 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, Dr Ng 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 stranded at sea as ports would not let them in, Dr Ng 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".

Dr Ng added: "After watching the devastation and loss of lives due to Covid-19, now four million and rising, the cost of unpreparedness and discoordination 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 applies to other natural disasters and threats related to climate change, he added.

Dr Ng said 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, was organised by the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) and the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

It was first held in 2009 and brings together navy chiefs, policymakers, academics and maritime stakeholders - from countries such as China, Japan, France and Malaysia - to discuss ways to enhance and foster mutual security in the maritime domain.

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

One participant was Admiral Michael Gilday, United States Chief of Naval Operations, who gave a speech emphasising the importance of cooperation in allowing for prosperity from the sea. He is on an introductory visit to Singapore that ends today.

Speaking to reporters at a virtual press conference, Adm Gilday said 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, Adm Gilday 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."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 29, 2021, with the headline 'Plans needed to ensure more coordinated efforts in crisis'. Subscribe