Keynote Address by Senior Minister of State for Defence Heng Chee How at the Shangri-La Dialogue Sherpa Meeting

Keynote Address by Senior Minister of State for Defence Heng Chee How at the Shangri-La Dialogue Sherpa Meeting

The Continued Relevance of Multilateralism


Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, a very good morning to all of you. Welcome to the Shangri-La Dialogue Sherpa Meeting 2020. I would also like to take this opportunity to wish everybody a Happy New Year.

It is with distinct pleasure that I am here to address you on the 8th iteration of the Sherpa Meeting, which I hope as Tim has mentioned, will help set a substantive agenda for the Shangri-La Dialogue later on in the year.

Similar to previous Sherpa Meetings, the plenary session topics for this year are wide and varied but all very important. There are planned discussions on missile defence, maritime security, new technologies and regional security architecture. These conversations amongst senior defence officials will be crucial, if we are to carefully and safely navigate an increasingly complex and volatile environment.

So before we venture into the specific issues and topics of discussion of the Sherpa Meeting, I would like to say something this morning, using this platform and opportunity, about our rules-based international system, with a focus on multilateralism. Whilst these two concepts may not be too fashionable in today's context, and even as countries debate over the distributive effects of such a system, multilateralism has supported the smooth functioning of our international society. I hope to offer some views as well as some context today to aid in our further discussions during the rest of the conference.

A Rules-Based International Order

Over the last six decades, the rules-based international order as we know it today, has provided the conditions for societies to interact, to exchange knowledge, to flourish and develop at a pace unseen before in human history.

 These conditions did not spring up by accident nor did they just occur in the course of nature. The United States and its allies who prevailed in World War II were the primary architects of the current international system, which in many ways have proved successful beyond expectations. What is this international system, that at times we may perhaps have taken for granted, and why do we call this an "order"? So allow me to share some perspectives.

Broadly, the international system we inherited today can be described as a collective commitment by countries to pursue their interests and activities within the set of norms that they accept and within the set of legal rules they will comply with. These include international law, multilateral institutions, and global protocols. Within this web of arrangements governing inter-state interactions and conflicts, as well as defining acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, we can identify a putative pattern of predictable behaviour that we call "an international order". In the absence of such an order, it will be very difficult to find some modus vivendi that is stable and peaceful for all participating nations. Peace and stability are two crucial conditions for sustaining of prosperity and development for any country, for any region and globally.

Historical Legacy of Multilateralism

One aspect of this rules-based international order, however, has come under stress of late. And this aspect, ladies and gentlemen, I feel, is multilateralism.

At the most basic level, multilateralism is a principle in international relations where three or more countries come together to pursue a common goal. Most multilateral discussions today take place through international and regional bodies and forums. Members of this audience are obviously no stranger to such meetings.

However, it may be worthwhile to remind ourselves of two key attributes, which underpin multilateralism and its continued relevance today. First, no single country can tackle and address complex transnational challenges that threaten our collective security and survival. Second, through cooperation, countries can advance their welfare and prosper together by working towards peace and stability.

We can see these principles at play when we look at how multilateralism has evolved over time. Modern multilateralism actually has quite a long history. For example, a good number of scholars point to the 1648 Peace of Westphalia as the moment where a putative form of multilateralism first took place and took root. It was also in that that the nascent ideas of sovereignty and territoriality were born.

Bring us forward two hundred years, to the Concert or Congress System of Europe that emerged in the 19th Century after the demise of the French Empire. The Concert System upheld the balance of power across Europe, through a structure that allowed European powers to convene together to negotiate and determine the affairs of Europe. That system was a precursor, in a way, to modern multilateralism.

After World War I, the League of Nations was founded. This marked, for the first time in history, the largest gathering of sovereign nations coming together to come up with a permanent, inclusive institution to maintain international peace and security. One could say that the League of Nations was the world's first truly multilateral body, but it, too, had its shortcomings. As the world emerged from the ashes of World War II, countries were determined to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war" and work together to forge an era of peace. Thus, since 1945, the world has seen an unprecedented surge of multilateral institutions and systems. The United Nations is the most prominent example but it is not the only one – there are many others. Examples will include the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).

Post-World War II, we also see how multilateral economic institutions such as the Bretton Woods institutions have risen to become a major pillar of the international order, as compared to the pre-World War II era where political security fora dominated.

Growing Pushback against Multilateralism Today

Looking back on the past four centuries, multilateralism has certainly been a key feature and development within the international system as it evolved. As the world changed, world leaders, recognising the importance of multilateralism, continued to work through its institutions and systems to tackle global challenges. However, while multilateralism remains relevant, we can no longer take it for granted. Today, we see an increasing tendency to pushback against this idea and practice of multilateralism.

On the security front, there is a renewed sense among countries, notably major powers, that multilateral arrangements constrain, rather than enhance, their influence. Some countries today perceive that their interests would be better met via unilateral or bilateral means. They view these common rules and norms of multilateral institutions as inconvenient or archaic, perhaps sometimes even inimical to their interests.

Simultaneously, the unequal economic outcomes of trade liberalisation, often a product of multilateral economic cooperation, have led many to perceive global free trade as being unjust and this has in turn fuelled protests against globalisation and its accompanying appendages, including multilateralism. One prominent recent example would be the widespread riots in Chile last October, which forced the Chilean government to withdraw itself as the host of the APEC Summit and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meetings.

These cumulative pushbacks against multilateralism weaken our collective resolve and our ability to tackle global challenges together. Worse, it could feed a spiral of mutual distrust and zero-sum competition, as well as exacerbate tensions among countries. Left unaddressed, it would undermine the international rules-based order which, as I described, has brought much nett benefit to the world for us all.

Multilateralism's Continued Relevance

Despite the shortcomings of multilateral frameworks, it is still important for countries to seek ways to maintain them, primarily because they have benefitted countries, both big and small. There are merits to upholding multilateralism, such as forging common solutions to tackle global challenges and to advance our collective well-being.

Over the years, many regional countries have prospered because of the progressive liberalisation of trade. New export markets have opened, and restrictions on the movement of people have eased up. In fact, the GDP per capita in ASEAN has grown 30 times in the last 50 years. Singapore, as a small country that is heavily dependent on international trade, has likewise benefitted from this. As such, while the global economic system is far from perfect, we believe that it would be prudent for countries to work together to strengthen the system, instead of abandoning it altogether. So we believe that we should be careful not to toss out the baby with the bathwater.

At the same time, multilateralism is key for banding countries together to counter threats confronting the world today. Many of these threats, such as piracy, terrorism and natural disasters, hold no regard for national boundaries. Joint initiatives in this region, such as the Sulu Sea Trilateral Patrol and the Malacca Straits Patrol, demonstrate that countries must collaborate to tackle common security threats. While many of these collaborative efforts do not go far enough, they are still a step in the right direction. Today, we are in a better position than when we first started.

Multilateralism continues to work for small countries too. Small countries have greater agency when we work together to change and influence the international system through multilateral frameworks. For example, the Group of 77 allows developing nations to have a stronger voice at the United Nations. Similarly, big countries also stand to benefit from multilateralism. Institutions such as the ADMM-Plus, APEC and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership help to channel interests across regional platforms, and to garner support for their agenda and initiatives.

Way Ahead

I have so far tried to provide some perspectives on the current international system, and how multilateralism, given its rich historical legacy and modern successes, continues to be relevant and useful to us. Since World War II ended, trade has grown, poverty has come down, and standards of living have risen broadly. This year, China is widely expected to meet its first Centennial goal of lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. I also welcome the first phase of the US-China trade deal, which I hope will put US-China relations on a positive trajectory. While government leaders and policymakers consider how we can adapt and take multilateralism forward, into the new decade and beyond, I also hope to offer at the forum, some views and suggestions for consideration.

First, let us work to strengthen multilateral institutions. We should endeavour to update, refresh, and renew the rules and structures of multilateral institutions. This is to ensure that the same systems that have served us well continue to bring countries together to tackle the challenges of the day. We should also ensure that the benefits of growth are spread more evenly and equitably, across and within countries. Through this, we will enhance our collective well-being which underpins support for multilateralism and in turn, the international rules-based order.

Second, we should strive to better communicate the benefits and outcomes of our multilateral discussions and meetings. Multilateral processes are often perceived by those who are not part of or integral to that process, looking in from the outside, to be abstract and opaque; and we can understand why because the subject matter and the processes, they are complex, the challenges are global and coordinating efforts across sovereign nations are far from easy. Nonetheless, we can make multilateralism more accessible, more understandable to the everyday citizen everywhere by explaining and showing how leaders arrive at decisions and reach consensus. Through this, we hope that we will be better able to secure the critical mass support for multilateralism.


At the 74th Session of the UN General Assembly last year, Singapore's Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong said, "A rules-based multilateral system is still by far preferable to any other way to secure peace and prosperity, and to solve global problems". The world has undeniably benefitted from multilateralism over the past few centuries. Against its various pushbacks, it is time for us to modernise multilateralism to adapt to present conditions and present challenges. As we embark on discussions for this 8th Sherpa Meeting, I hope that all of us can keep in mind how we may continue to enhance multilateralism and see it for what it is; a useful tool for solving global challenges.

On this note, I once again thank everyone for coming. Happy New Year, and I wish you a very successful and productive conference. Thank you very much.

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