S'pore, German defence ministers attend virtual dialogue

Multilateralism and international cooperation has served the world well since World War II, but global organisations and systems need to be updated for today's world, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen.

The Covid-19 pandemic is but the latest event to have "shakened and weakened the very pillars" of the current global system, said Dr Ng.

But countries should rethink and rework the system without throwing the baby out with the bath water, he added at a virtual dialogue yesterday.

"Globalisation 1.0 was not perfect, but it did serve our needs," said Dr Ng, in an hour-long virtual dialogue organised by German think-tank Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

"A regression to parochial nativist and discriminatory policies by any country...will result again in bloc and misaligned interests which led to the previous two world wars."

Of the many challenges facing this generation, Dr Ng said the threat to multilateralism and cooperation is the quintessential one as it affects the fundamental stability of the current world order.

This order, rooted in multilateralism, had allowed for progress, development and peace for many, including Germany, Japan, China and Asean.

Yet even before the pandemic, a series of global events had disrupted this system. United States foreign policy, for instance, shifted considerably over the past decade, as it saw the system as unfair given outcomes that favoured some countries at the expense of others, including itself, said Dr Ng.

China's rise also presents a challenge to the existing framework, which is built on democratic and liberal ideas, as has managing tensions related to jihadi terrorism and migration, which has strained the existing social fabric of communities in Europe.

The way forward is for multilateral organisations to build more robust global norms, and ensure more equitable and effective use of international law to address inadequacies that have surfaced, he said.

"What is at stake, without sounding an exaggeration, is indeed a revised world order," he said.

The session, titled The Indo-Pacific: Geostrategic Challenges and Opportunities for Germany and Singapore, was also attended by German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer agreed, noting that common challenges to humanity such as climate change can be tackled only with a global approach, with all nations on board. Terrorism also "attacks all of us", from people in Paris, to Nice, Vienna and Kabul, she added.

"At the same time, we see that there is a certain trend (of) more regionalisation or a need to find more regional answers - this will not work," she said. That is why countries with shared values and interests need to stand and act together, she said.

Dr Ng expressed optimism that a clash between the US and China is not inevitable. "China has as much to lose as it has to gain from a breaking down of multilateral systems, as does the US.

"The question is...how do we forge common cause and find common ground, and I think as leaders, that to us is the responsibility we have to undertake."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2020, with the headline S'pore, German defence ministers attend virtual dialogue. Subscribe