Singapore urges need for international organisations to 'reform' in digital age

Singapore's Foreign Affairs Minister calls for the United Nations and World Trade Organisation to be reformed, so international rules are in line with cybersecurity and other key digital developments.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Singapore has called on global organisations such as the United Nations (UN) and World Trade Organisation (WTO) to reform, so international rules are in line with cybersecurity and other key digital developments. The Asian nation also underscores the need for unified cooperation against COVID-19, which it notes has accelerated "self-defeating" sentiments worldwide including protectionism and xenophobia. 

Continued international cooperation was key to overcoming the impact of the pandemic as well as to rebuilding, and nations needed to build greater trust and learn from each other, said Singapore's Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan, in the country's national statement at the UN General Assembly's General Debate of the 75th session held Saturday. 

Delivered via video message, Balakrishnan said in his speech: "The world is facing a period of prolonged turmoil. The multilateral system is confronted by nationalism, xenophobia, the rejection of free trade and global economic integration, and the bifurcation of technology and supply chains. 

"But, these threats are not new. COVID-19 has, in fact, accelerated and intensified these pre-existing trends. Protectionism and unilateral action will ultimately be self-defeating," the minister said.

He noted that modern supply chains were complex, where it was difficult to locally produce all key items since materials and expertise from elsewhere always would be needed at various steps of the process. This was reflected in the disruptions many countries experienced in the flow of essential goods during lockdowns.

Bifurcation also reduced the global pool of knowledge as well as opportunities for the sharing of benefits from research and innovation. Because countries had been open to sharing scientific knowledge, Balakrishnan noted, test kits could be produced quickly during the early phase of the current pandemic. The same global cooperation now was essential in the development of a vaccine to ensure equitable and universal access, he said. 

He added that global trust would be eroded if contractual obligations for the export of critical goods and movement of people were breached. 

He further underscored the need for rules-based multilateral system to be reformed, so it was "fit for purpose" and able to adapt to the changing realities of today. 

Apart from the need to work together towards a COVID-19 vaccine and to rebuild communities, Balakrishnan urged for continued efforts to address challenges posed by the digital revolution, cybersecurity threats, climate change, and transboundary pollution.

"We must harness new digital technology for the benefit of all our societies whilst mitigating the possible negative impact," he said. "COVID-19 has accelerated the deployment of artificial intelligence, robotics, digital payments, e-government services, and remote work."

Globally, governments, businesses, and individuals needed to be able to transact and transfer data securely across borders. This stressed the need for the world to develop a "trusted, open, and inclusive cyberspace" underpinned by international law and norms of responsible state behaviour, the minister said. In this aspect, he noted, Singapore supported the UN Secretary-General's Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. 

He further urge the need for international institutions to remain inclusive and transparent.

The UN's role, for instance, was critical, but the 75-year organisation itself needed to "adapt and reform" so it could respond effectively to current and future challenges, and remain relevant for the next 75 years.

The same was true for the WTO, he added. Noting that the international trade organisation's rules were designed for an agricultural and manufacturing-based world economy, he said WTO today was in urgent need of reform. 

Balakrishnan said: "The world needs appropriate rules for services, especially digital services and intellectual property, in preparation for this digital age that is unfolding in front of us."

He stressed that open, rules-based multilateral trading system was a foundation for sustainable global recovery and had enabled countries to trade in goods and services in mutually beneficial ways. Post-pandemic, nations must look to further strengthen this system so it could work better for the future. 

"International governance, now more than ever before, needs to be more representative, more inclusive, and more open. We need to take into account a wide spectrum of views and do more to acknowledge the rich diversity of our global community," the Singapore minister said. 


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