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Opening Address by Minister for Education Mr Chan Chun Sing, at the 15th Asia-Pacific Programme for Senior National Security Officers (APPSNO)

Published Date: 15 April 2024 09:40 AM

News Speeches

1. A very good morning to all of you, and a special welcome to all of our overseas guests who are joining us for the Asia-Pacific Programme for Senior National Security Officers, or APPSNO. I hope that this will be a useful programme for you – not just intellectually, but more importantly, to make friends and establish the networks that will be important for our shared security.

2. We have witnessed rapid and sometimes tumultuous changes in the past few years. The world will continue to change – perhaps at an even faster rate in the coming years.

3. We should expect an increasingly contested geopolitical environment and an increasingly fragmented world with a more protectionist trade environment. We should also expect more fractious domestic political scenes, more fragile financial positions in more countries, and new technologies to throw up new surprises that will disrupt our work, life and play.

4. Overall, we can expect a more fragile world order. But if well-anticipated and well-managed, it can also be a period of great opportunities for us. First, we have to overcome the challenges.

5. I will start with three points today. First, a more fragmented world is a more dangerous world for all of us. Second, the quest for individual security does not always lead to collective security. Third, resilience is more likely to come from interdependence, rather than independence or autarky.

6. First, a more fragmented world is a more dangerous world for all of us. Simply put, it will lead to slower economic growth. That is because economic systems cannot be optimised at the global level, but only at the local level. Technology bifurcation will create a more complex and challenging environment for integration and economic growth.

7. Therefore, technological progress will likely slow, contributing to slower economic growth and further contributing to the inequalities and anxieties in the domestic population.

8. All these will compound existing domestic insecurities and inequalities, and intensify the tendencies and inclinations towards protectionism, which will then further lead to further fragmentation of the global economy. This can easily set us down us on a downward spiral, perhaps not unlike the decade in the 1920s and towards the 1930s, where we had the Great Depression, followed by World War II.

9. Populist and extremist parties are likely to become even more prevalent. Without domestic cohesion and confidence, we cannot achieve international cooperation with coherence and consistency.

10. Second, the pursuit of individual security does not always lead to collective security. In times of heightened uncertainties and a deficit in confidence – both domestic and mutual, the desire to pursue individual security can often paradoxically compound collective insecurity.

11. When the weeds of insecurity take root in a world increasingly marked by fragmentation, countries are driven by a desire to safeguard their own security and stability. Their instinct is to prioritise self-preservation.

12. This is the classic Prisoners' Dilemma in international security and resilience. We see this being played out between major and medium powers across the world. When the pursuit of individual security accentuates the insecurity of the other parties, it sets off a vicious cycle of beggar-thy-neighbour policies – from trade to conventional security and even technological security.

13. The Russian-Ukraine conflict in relation to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is one example. The current situation in the Middle-East is yet another example. Closer to home, the potential flash points in the South China Sea and East China Sea are not too dissimilar. The only way out of this Prisoners' Dilemma is mutual trust and collective action.

14. That brings me to my third point: resilience is more likely to come from interdependence, rather than independence or autarky. Even prior to the onset of COVID-19, there was already an increasing pursuit of resilience on the economic, technological and security fronts. The pandemic has merely intensified this endeavour.

15. In their drive to strengthen their resilience, countries have leaned towards 'friend-shoring', 'near-shoring' or 'on-shoring' of supply chains. However, not only has macro-efficiency declined, it is also uncertain whether true resilience has been achieved.

16. Instead, these attempts could well have diverted and concentrated the risks elsewhere. Simply put, putting more or all eggs in one basket, even if it is "our" or "my" basket, does not result in greater resilience, especially if it is done in an economically unsustainable way. We are all poorer for it.

17. Instead, resilience is better achieved through mutual dependence or interdependence, where both sides have shared interests in working with one another, and in each other's success, rather than to play out one another, or threaten to hold the other party ransom.

18. So what can and should we do? Allow me to offer three suggestions. First, be honest with ourselves and our people where the problem lies. Second, be bold to stay connected and resist populist moves that will further fragment the global economy, and diminish our collective security. Third, have conviction that all of us have agency and responsibility to shape the outcomes we desire.

19. First, it is always easy to claim that "the enemy is out there". It rallies people. It almost seems like a good way to absolve ourselves of leadership responsibilities for our own circumstances.

20. Yes, the technological disruptions and slower economic growth from fragmentation can exacerbate domestic anxieties and economic inequalities. But it is not beyond us to take responsibility to share the fruits of success within our society, and invest in education and training. This will allow us to build real capabilities and capacities to help our people keep pace with the changes.

21. It can and must be up to us to sustain our system and allocate our finite resources towards endeavours that genuinely support our people, providing them with confidence and hope as they confront the many challenges ahead.

22. However, if we keep telling our people that we can "pull up the drawbridge" and "keep out the bad guys", we create a false sense of hope and direct their energies to the wrong places. When, instead, we could be building new and practical capabilities to tackle the evolving challenges.

23. Second, stay connected to truly understand the fears, concerns and aspirations of the other parties, even in the toughest of times, because only so will we find new opportunities to cooperate and work together.

24. Tempting as it is, we must never give in to the tendencies towards increased protectionism and isolationism. These will diminish common space for collaboration across the global stage. Instead, we must continually find new ways and opportunities to cooperate on mutually beneficial projects, no matter how small. Little things add up.

25. Even in the toughest of times, let us find mutually beneficial projects to work together, no matter how small. We must plant the seeds of mutual confidence in one another to work together for mutual gains. These projects will allow us to better build trust and find common ground when challenges arise, in turn further enabling cooperation in more extensive and beneficial projects.

26. Last but not least, all of us – countries, companies and individuals, whether big or small – have agency and responsibility to shape the outcomes we want.

27. The push against fragmentation is not the sole responsibility of governments. Many, and especially the global companies, also have the agency and responsibility to speak up and speak out, and to stand for an inclusive, open and inter-connected world order. We all can benefit from this.

28. All of us should avoid choosing sides, which means never to take positions based on short-term, self-centred interests that will ultimately harm our long-term collective interests. But instead, we must stand on the side of principles that will best support integration and collective resilience.

29. If we can do these things, we will be able to overcome the challenges and seize the opportunities ahead of us.

30. Let us work together for a new paradigm to tackle our challenges in a more integrated, open and inter-connected way. We have done so before, and we can do that again.

31. May APPSNO help us to build such networks for a better tomorrow. On that note, I wish you a fruitful conference in the week ahead, and I hope that the friendships and networks that you build through this conference will enable us to build a more integrated world against the forces of fragmentation, protectionism, and isolationism. Thank you.