Free trade, multilateralism, cyberspace top concerns at UN General Assembly, Minister Vivian Balakrishnan tells Singapore media

Foreign Minister Vivan Balakrishnan speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in Manhattan, on Sept 29, 2018.
Foreign Minister Vivan Balakrishnan speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in Manhattan, on Sept 29, 2018.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK - Concern over the future of multilateralism was widespread at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) this past week, said Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan.

"Multilateralism is at a crossroads," Dr Balakrishnan told Singapore media on Saturday (Sept 29), minutes after delivering his speech at the UNGA, where he also made a strog case for multilateralism.

"There is increasing anxiety over unilateralism, anxiety that we are going back into a world where the big impose their will, and the only option for small states is to become proxy states," he said.

"And unsurprisingly, the vast number of other countries speaking up obviously made a stout defence of multilateralism."

By definition, Singapore's position as a small, open country - whose global trade is three times its gross domestic product - was that "we have to stand for multilateralism", said Dr Balakrishnan.

The other key theme at the UNGA was free trade.

Dr Balakrishnan had meetings with Asean members, as well as members of the Pacific Alliance, and Mercosur. The Pacific Alliance includes Mexico, Chile, Peru and Colombia. Mercosur is an economic and political bloc comprising Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

"At all these meetings, there is still strong consensus and political will to move forward on free trade agreements," said Dr Balakrishnan.

"So if we succeed by the end of the year, we can make significant progress on the RCEP - which will be the world's largest trading bloc."

The RCEP is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a proposed free trade deal involving the 10 Asean states plus the six dialogue partners - Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.

"If we make significant progress with Mercosur and the Pacific Alliance, which builds us new trade links to South America (and) Latin America, this is an affirmation that we still believe in free trade and we are proceeding, despite the apparent withdrawals of bigger countries who have perhaps more options," Dr Balakrishnan said.

He also reaffirmed faith in the World Trade Organisation. "We do need a neutral arbiter of trade disputes, which will arise from time to time," he said.

The ripple effects on global supply chains - a result of unilateral trade sanctions - would be negative for global trade, especially for small countries such as Singapore, said Dr Balakrishnan.

The third big theme at the UNGA this year was cyberspace, on both the impact of artificial intelligence and threats to cyber security.


Dr Balakrishnan participated in a roundtable on the sidelines of the UNGA, chaired by former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and the chief executives of various companies.

"Artificial intelligence is transforming the way we operate, the way we analyse data, the way decisions will be made, the way production chains will be created, transforming supply chains," Dr Balakrishnan told Singapore media.

He said that the greater anxiety stems from how artificial intelligence would impact human beings, including decision making, moral sensitivities, as well as how rational and moral choices will be made.

"I made the argument that we are in the midst of a new technological revolution, and in the early phase, it's absolutely critical to try to understand what's going on," he said.

The Minister also explained why Singapore is restructuring its education system, teaching everyone in school computational thinking, for instance.

Singapore is also investing in retooling and re-skilling, for the country to be ready for the challenges of the future, he said. "Basically, to be ready for new jobs."

"This forward-leaning attitude is ultimately more viable, in fact, the only sensible response rather than a Lilliputian attempt to hold back the tide of progress or to build walls and barriers," Dr Balakrishnan said.

But he emphasised that countries must be prepared domestically for free trade.

"You've got to prepare your people first. Because if you are not prepared domestically, then the argument against free trade becomes more compelling," he noted.

Conversations at the UN on cyber threats were still evolving, he said. "I made the point that we do need a set of universally accepted norms and rules, and we need institutions by which disputes… can be resolved," he said.

He stressed that this has to be a bottom-up process and not something that the few powerful people with the tech advantage can impose on the rest of the world.

The cyber space is a global common, just like the sea and the climate, said Dr Balakrishnan. "We need to have universally applied and agreed rules."