SINGAPORE - Small states depend on the multilateral system for their security and survival, and must play an active part to strengthen it, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
"This international order is imperfect, but it is by far our best bet. If we regress to a world where 'might is right', small states would find it impossible to survive and even big countries will not be better off," he added.
"We must therefore participate actively to strengthen the multilateral system. Maintain as level a playing field as possible, to protect the interests of small states."
PM Lee was speaking in a video message to leaders and ministers attending a reception of the Forum of Small States on Thursday in New York, held in conjunction with the United Nations General Assembly meeting of the world's leaders.
The informal grouping, started by Singapore in 1992 to discuss issues of mutual concern and give small states a bigger voice in the UN, began with 16 members and now brings together 108 countries, well over half the UN's membership.
The reception was hosted by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who is attending the UN General Assembly session this week.
Dr Balakrishnan said the group was started out of necessity three decades ago, but today's problems - from war to energy and food insecurity - underscore the need, especially now, for countries to make common cause.
"Because we were small, we had to support multilateralism because that is the only game in town for us," he said. "The alternative is 'might is right'. We actually had no choice."
In his message, PM Lee noted that the group commemorates its 30th anniversary this year amid heightened geopolitical tensions and economic uncertainty.
He highlighted how the environment has become more troubled: Russia's invasion of Ukraine violates the UN Charter and undermines the rules-based order. Tensions between the United States and China raise the risk of conflict between major powers.
Rising food and oil prices and supply chain disruptions worsen poverty and may even cause famines. Climate change, novel pathogens and cyber threats endanger the safety, security and well-being of billions of people around the world.
"These uncertainties and threats can pose grave dangers to the economies, societies, and very existence of small states like us. We are inherently vulnerable, with very little buffer against shocks," said PM Lee.
But small states are by no means without agency, he stressed.
"What we lack in size, we can make up for through agility, resourcefulness and cooperation. This is how we can be effective at the United Nations, supporting and upholding the multilateral rules-based system."
PM Lee said small states need to work together on many specific interests. These include sustainable development, climate change and cyber security, as well as emerging issues affecting the global commons, like the governance of oceans and outer space.
Collaboration on these issues can be done through existing and new instruments, and small states should participate in shaping the international agenda, he added.
"Right from the start, the concerns and interests of small states should be taken into account. Small states often lack the resources and capacity to engage effectively across the whole range of international issues," said PM Lee.
It is for this reason that the Forum of Small States is a valuable platform for informal exchange and mutual support, capacity-building and technical cooperation, he added.
"It shows the value that small states find in working together to advance our shared interests," he said.
PM Lee held up how many of the group's members are making significant contributions to the UN, and are represented in its important organs, such as the UN Security Council and Ecosoc, its Economic and Social Council.
He called on the group's members to support each other's candidatures for UN elections.
"It is vital that small states always have a voice in the key bodies making up the UN system," he said.
"Let us continue working together to further strengthen the multilateral rules-based system and advance our collective interests."
Dr Balakrishnan said the Republic will continue to do its part to partner other countries, such as through the Singapore Cooperation Programme that has provided capacity building programmes to more than 100,000 officials from around the world.