Cohesion, trust key for S'pore to succeed amid more uncertain geopolitics: Vivian Balakrishnan

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SINGAPORE - The world is entering a very dangerous phase full of uncertainties, and accidents and miscalculations by global powers could easily lead nations down a path of conflict, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said.

Expressing his concern in the light of recent geopolitical developments, he said that the period of growth and opportunity Singapore has enjoyed since independence has come to an end, and that the country needs to now double down on its competitive advantages - cohesion and trust - in order to remain successful.

Speaking to The Straits Times in an interview on Friday (Aug 26) following the National Day Rally, Dr Balakrishnan sketched out several reasons why the world is now in a very dangerous phase.

There is a war that is currently going on at a scale that has not happened for many decades, said the minister, referring to Russia's invasion of Ukraine six months ago.

The global economy is at a point where there is higher inflation and higher interest rates, and international supply chains based on efficiency have been disrupted, which could affect how nations get their food and other basic necessities.

And as the world emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, the possibility of another virus with a higher mortality rate is a clear and present threat, said Dr Balakrishnan.

At the same time, societies everywhere are facing greater division as a result of the erosion of trust and cohesion in their country's systems.

"War, inflation, famine, pandemic, and the loss of trust and cohesion within societies. All these factors lead us to an unfortunate new phase of geopolitics with profound implications," he said.

At the National Day Rally on Aug 21, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had called on Singaporeans to be mentally ready for disruptions to the region's stability, given how Singapore's external environment is becoming increasingly troubled amid worsening ties between the United States and China, and the Russia-Ukraine war.

Asked by ST assistant video editor Lynlee Foo about the relationship between the US and China and escalating tensions, Dr Balakrishnan reiterated how the situation is now one of "profound danger", given the great risk of mishap and miscalculation.

Drawing from his experience meeting his counterparts from both sides recently, he said both do not want war, but there is a very real risk of things escalating.

Dr Balakrishnan met both US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at an Asean ministerial meeting earlier this month in Cambodia, when tensions between the two superpowers were heightened over US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan.

"I do not believe any one of them is setting up to wage war on each other. But I do worry that there is a very real risk of each party unilaterally deciding what its national interests are, and what its response or counter-response to the other party will be, (which) may inadvertently set itself up for an escalatory spiral," he said.

The situation now is reminiscent of how World War I broke out in 1914, and Dr Balakrishnan said that while the major powers involved did not set out for conflict, a series of incidents and mishaps caused them to enter a "locked-in spiral" of responses that led to war breaking out.

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan expressed his concern in light of recent geopolitical developments. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Dr Balakrishnan also touched on how the breaking down of the US-China relationship means the potential end of a peaceful and prosperous period.

At the end of World War II, peace and prosperity came about due to globalisation, economic integration and free trade, which allowed countries, including Singapore, to rapidly progress, he noted.

But this also made the world hypercompetitive, and societies more divided.

As nations developed technologically and in their means of production, some people started to get left behind, which led to an erosion of cohesion within some of the more advanced countries.

"And if your social safety nets, if your education and your reskilling, re-tooling system does not give hope to all segments of society, you see the division and polarisation and division which we currently witness in many advanced countries," he said.

Singapore has enjoyed growth and opportunity over the past six decades but that time has come to an end, and people here need to prepare for this and "get real", added Dr Balakrishnan, referencing a phrase from PM Lee's speech at the National Day Rally on Sunday.

Singapore's most competitive advantage is its ability to make rational decisions and execute them, said Dr Balakrishnan.

This was the key difference that Singapore had in its response to Covid-19, which the country has managed to keep under control, he added. He called on Singaporeans to hold on to this as they navigate the uncertain geopolitical environment ahead.

"It was not a matter of money. It was a matter of social capital, trust, cohesion, unity of purpose. So that note actually gives me confidence and gives me hope that Singaporeans have it," he said.

"We have the wherewithal to do what needs to be done to cope with this perfect long storm, this new profoundly more dangerous world".

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