Commonwealth can do more to contribute solutions that consider interests of small nations: Vivian Balakrishnan

Dr Balakrishnan on Thursday urged Commonwealth members to adopt a form of multilateralism that is more effective, inclusive and networked, especially as the world is “beset” by challenges like pandemics, climate change, famines, food insecurity and cyber threats. 

“Given the multi-faceted nature of these crises, which will follow and reinforce each other, we do need to encourage urgently, greater collaboration amongst all international and regional organisations, including especially, the Commonwealth,” he said.

“By definition, because of our diverse membership, there is much more that the Commonwealth can and should do to contribute to inclusive solutions that take into account the interests, especially of small, developing nations.”

The minister also encouraged member states to work together to ensure that international trade remains smooth, predictable, as well as open and reliable.

Supply chain shocks caused by the pandemic and exacerbated by the war in Ukraine have caused some countries to stop food exports. For instance, India and Indonesia have stopped exporting wheat and palm oil products respectively.

“We saw how the shock of COVID-19 fuelled an initial wave of nativism and outright protectionism, with many countries acting unilaterally to protect their own short-term interests. This led to massive supply chain disruptions and consequences for most of us,” Dr Balakrishnan said.

“For Singapore, a tiny city-state in the heart of Southeast Asia, we were determined to maintain an open flow of goods, people and services.

“We know that a stable and resilient supply chain is crucial for ensuring the continued flow of essential goods – food and medical supplies, which are all necessary to sustain life in a pandemic, or indeed, in a war. This is a lesson which remains relevant even now.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has left an “enormous impact” on food, energy prices and supplies, the minister acknowledged, although he warned against resorting to an economic system of self-sufficiency and limited trade.

“Again, I want to make the point that we must resist the temptation to turn inwards. Autarky is not viable, especially for small states. Instead, we need to work together to ensure that international trade remains smooth, predictable, open and reliable,” he added.

Dr Balakrishnan said there is also “ample scope” for Commonwealth states to work together and build capacity in areas like healthcare, education and public administration.

One area to watch is digitalisation, which has been accelerated by COVID-19 and could cause “greater abrasion” and inequality without universal education and training in digital skills, he said.

Dr Balakrishnan pointed to the Singapore Cooperation Programme, launched in 1992, as one initiative that will have a stronger focus on sustainable development and digital transformation.

The programme has received more than 137,000 foreign government officials over three decades, including 30,000 officials in the Commonwealth states.

“We will update these programmes so they remain relevant for the priorities of our fellow developing countries. We welcome participation from all members of the Commonwealth and other fellow developing and developed countries,” Dr Balakrishnan said.