Remarks by Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation – S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies Ministerial Forum

Remarks by Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation – S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies Ministerial Forum


First, let me thank Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer for her very clear presentation on Germany's intent and aspirations for the Indo-Pacific region. In our meeting shortly prior to this webinar, I expressed Singapore's appreciation for their paper on the Policy Guidelines for the Indo-Pacific Region that puts out Germany's position. Let me thank the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAF) for this wonderful idea [for a webinar]. This makes up a little for Minister Kramp-Karrenbauer's cancelled trip to Singapore. While we understand the reasons, I look very much forward to physically hosting her visit to Singapore and for us to continue our exchanges. Since this is an interactive session, let me make some brief remarks to allow more time for questions and answers.

Challenges to Multilateralism

I thought to start off, let me just say that the theme of this webinar on "Geostrategic Challenges and Opportunities" is a very well-chosen one and right on the mark. All of us recognise that there are many challenges facing this generation today, but the threat to multilateralism and co-operation is the quintessential challenge because it affects the fundamental underpinnings of stability of the current world order. Minister Kramp-Karrenbauer went further to say that she thought that there was a shifting in terms of a new world order. Geographically, the shift is going to be in Asia and this is where some of the new constructs and the new rules of the road, as it were, will be formulated.

But if we look back at the post-World War II (WWII) construct with multilateralism as its core tenet, I think that all of us agree that that the construct resulted in concrete progress, development and peace for that generation and we were in the generation that benefitted. In the last 70 years or so, we had relative peace and prosperity. Germany and Japan rose from the ashes to become global powerhouses that rebuilt their economies and capabilities, and becoming rightful and legitimate actors on the global stage. Asia, including China and ASEAN, also accelerated in their development. If we were to ask, why was there this global consensus for nearly half a century from the 1960s to 2010 that resulted in this virtuous state of affairs?

Because the post-WWII multilateralism and cooperation resulted in structural underpinnings that exist today, exemplified by the United Nations (UN), the World Trade Organisation, the World Health Organisation, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) among others. And I think that it arose from two cardinal beliefs: the first belief was the ‘never again' moment to avoid the ravages of the prior two World Wars that brought untold misery and destruction; and the second belief, that individual countries would benefit more, if we together established and protected the global commons of trade, finance and security, predicated, as Minister Kramp-Karrenbauer said, on the rule of law and mutual cooperation. In that construct, countries large or small would gain from this form of globalisation. Of course, these principles would not have been possible without champions and defenders of that form of multilateralism, and the US and Europe played those roles because Asia's rise was nascent at that time.

If we were to come to the present circumstances in 2020, what is the state of that carefully constructed framework of multilateralism and cooperation today? We are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic but COVID-19 was but a series of global events that have shaken and weakened the very pillars of this framework that we talked about in the last decade or so. The US' foreign policy in the last decade has shifted considerably to what it viewed as unfair outcomes that favoured some countries at the expense of others including itself, and therefore its America First policy. Security-wise, the US articulated its position comprehensively and clearly in the 2017 National Security Strategy paper where they identified China and Russia as strategic rivals attempting to "shape a world antithetical to US values and interests". Quite interesting that my counterpart has agreed that there was an attempt or the de-facto reshaping of the values and interests in a new world order. Whatever the shape and its actors, the effects of that foreign policy were sharper under Trump than the Obama administration but the belief is deep-seated and entrenched in American politics for decades to come, and likely to persist under a Biden administration.

The second big disruptive change was of course China's rise. China's rise presents a challenge to the existing framework too. How can a framework built on democratic and liberal ideals, values as my counterpart said, accommodate the rise of China which has a different operating political system? That in itself is another quintessential challenge. This conundrum is amplified because China has risen so fast in economic, technological, social and military domains to become a global power.

The third force, as I see it, is managing tensions related to jihadi terrorism and migration that resulted from the fall-out from countries like Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. These twin challenges have strained the existing social fabric of communities in Europe. In ASEAN, we have had a longer history as a melting pot of diverse cultures and religions. Perhaps this is another area where the sharing of practices and strategies of integration can take place between our two regions.

The sum effect of these deep currents that I talked about requires a re-thinking, if not a re-working of our multilateral and global institutions and systems. But we must not in the course of adapting to new circumstances throw out the baby with the bath water. Globalisation 1.0 was not perfect but it did serve our needs. A regression to parochial nativist and discriminatory policies by any country or countries will result again in blocs and mis-aligned interests which led to the previous two World Wars. That path if taken, will impoverish us all once again.

Instead, multilateral organisations must establish more robust global norms, more equitable and effective application of the international rule of law to address the inadequacies of the current framework. And we have to recognise that there are inadequacies.

In this regard, I am heartened that Germany supports such a system, having been a long proponent of the multilateral order. Germany is one of the founding members of the European Union (EU). It also plays an active role in many international institutions like the IMF, World Bank, the UN and NATO.

Singapore-German Bilateral Relations

Both Singapore and Germany understand the importance of the multilateral order, and advocate for an open and inclusive global architecture, one that is built on cooperation, dialogue, partnership and values.

Such an order has brought tremendous benefits to both our nations and the world. ASEAN, of which Singapore is a part, is the EU's third largest trading partner behind the US and China, with EU exports to ASEAN amounted to US$100 billion in 2019. Bilaterally, trade between Singapore and Germany reached US$15 billion last year and the EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement that entered into force last year will increase these flows.

In tandem, Singapore's defence relationship with Germany has also grown since the conclusion of our Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA) in 2005, and the enhanced DCA (eDCA) in 2018. I have attended the Munich Security Conference (MSC) every year since 2012. As Minister Kramp-Karrenbauer said, we met last year and the meeting was immensely satisfying and enjoyable. Because of our shared perspectives, I have also been very happy to meet your young leaders at your Munich Young Leaders Programme. In turn, German defence ministers have also attended the Shangri-La Dialogue and made a strong impact by their presence and views for Asia's security.

Militarily, our armies frequently interact in information exchange, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), and cyber. We are grateful for the Bundeswehr's continued support for our training in Germany since 2009. As Minister Kramp-Karrenbauer said, we are very thankful for your international liaison officer at our Information Fusion Centre and we are looking forward to receive the first of our four Invincible-class Type 218SG submarines in 2022.


What is Singapore's response and what is my Ministry's response to your paper on the Policy Guidelines for the Indo-Pacific Region? We believe that Germany with its size and global influence can and must play its part to stabilise the international order by what it stands for and practises. We are very happy that you put up a position paper and we look forward to facilitating the presence of German naval ships at our naval bases and we look forward to strengthening our military cooperation between our two ministries and armed forces. Thank you very much.

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