Fireside Chat with SM Teo Chee Hean at the Soufan Centre's 2021 Global Security Forum

SM Teo Chee Hean | 13 October 2021

Fireside Chat With Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister For National Security Teo Chee Hean at the Soufan Centre’s 2021 Global Security Forum on 13 October 2021.


Mr Bobby Ghosh (Moderator): Hello and welcome to this Fireside Chat at the Global Security Forum 2021. My name is Bobby Ghosh, I am a Columnist and Editor at Bloomberg. I am delighted to be moderating this discussion with Singapore Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security. Welcome, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean. Today’s topic is Cooperation for Development and Security. In this session, we will examine the approach taken by Singapore in addressing a very complex set of challenges over the past year, in particular the COVID-19 pandemic, the potential for increase in violent extremism, and the importance of multilateralism and development, for securing the future of the Southeast Asia region and the wider world. We are going to start with SM Teo making some opening remarks and then we will follow with some questions and a discussion. SM, your remarks please.

SM Teo Chee Hean: Thank you very much, Bobby. Good to be with all of you, I suppose I should say “Good day!”. We may be in different time zones, but at least we are on the same planet and this is the only one that we have. We are facing many immediate crises right now. On the top of the minds of many people, is the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan, the return of the Taliban and what that means for regional security, and of course also whether terrorism on an international scale will rear its head again. This is on the minds of many people, and one of the security concerns that we have.

We are also facing a pandemic. After twenty-one months it is still raging; even with vaccines, it still has some way to run. It is claiming lives, has an impact on many facets of society, and the scarring effect will be with us for quite some time to come. We are also dealing with droughts, fires, floods all over the world - huge forest fires in certain places, terrible floods, very heavy rains. Recently we had some of the heaviest rains ever recorded in north-western Italy – several inches, tens of centimetres of rain within an hour, quite incredible. These are things which confront us, and we have to deal with these crises on an immediate basis. On top of this, there is also global competition – the tussle between China and US, which has an impact on many spheres. We have already seen the impact on trade, trade-flows, and flows of technology goods. This has impacted all countries who have an interest in this area.

But what is more important is what happens next. We seem to be lurching from crisis to crisis. While in one sense, all these different crises have different causes, different roots and are quite distinct; in some sense they are all interlinked. They point to a dearth, a lack of global cooperation and multilateralism. There is a great need for us to deal with these issues in a more comprehensive way.

First of all, we need to identify what are the goals and the guideposts that we need to have in order to proceed towards this future that we want. I will suggest two or three of them. First, multilateralism. This has anchored growth and development in the world, since the Second World War, and has brought prosperity to many countries – developing countries, developed countries, big developed countries like India and China. This is something which we should continue to work towards. The alternative of course is a divided world, which we have seen in certain epochs as well, and I am not sure that is a better world and outcome for all of us.

Second, building more resilience. We have been living in a ‘just in time’ world, for the last ten, fifteen or twenty years, and that has become a mantra. But actually, ‘just in time’ may not be good enough. We may be ‘just in time’, ‘just enough’, but it may not be good enough. We have to build greater resilience, both nationally and internationally, in order to deal with crises on a more comprehensive level. Some of it pre-emptive and preventive, but some of it also responsive. Dealing with these crises and natural disasters is the most basic form of providing human security - life, health, prevention from hunger, famine. These are the most basic forms of human security which we should provide better for, as individual countries, and as a world. Good examples are things like COVAX and Gavi, which have attempted to make sure that vaccines are available to every country in the world.

The third thing which we should focus on greatly is sustainable development. Whether we like it or not, we are on the same planet. This problem is not going to be resolved by each country taking a nationalistic view, trying to protect itself, because no country can protect itself. If you take Singapore for example, we contribute 0.1 per cent of global emissions. But the other 99.9 per cent affects us. We are a small, low-lying island, and 16 per cent of our coastlines where most of our economic infrastructure is will be inundated if sea levels rise beyond a certain level. These are the guideposts for the future, even as we deal with the current crises.

Moderator: Thank you very much, SM. I like the way that you framed that into three categories – upholding multilateralism, building resilience, and sustainable development. Let us take those one by one. We seem to be going through a period where deeper existential questions are being asked about whether multilateralism can survive. Some of the pillars of multilateralism give the appearance of weakening alliances. This is not only something that has happened during the presidency of Donald Trump; it precedes him, and has followed him. When you look around the world, do you see multilateralism coming under threat? Do you feel that we need to re-establish the rules of multilateralism, or are we over-thinking and overstating this threat?

SM Teo: The rules and institutions that we have today are obviously not perfect. But what do we do? Do we ignore them and discard them? What are we left with? We are left with nationalism and self-interest. If that is what drives the world, we will be in for a very difficult time. If the institutions and rules are not quite fit for purpose in the current circumstances, and to deal with a future that we envision, then let us do something about these institutions and rules to strengthen them. Bring more people on board, develop more consensus and work on them. If we make it more difficult for these institutions to function, then we will abandon multilateralism, and we will have a big problem. It is quite understandable that countries will act in their own self-interest. We must expect that, but there is narrow self-interest and enlightened self-interest. Narrow self-interest will only get us so far, and there is enlightened self-interest, where we see win-win outcomes rather than win-lose zero-sum outcomes through narrow self-interest. Enlightened self-interest is more likely to get us win-win outcomes, peace, stability and co-prosperity in the world.

Moderator: We have come to this period when I am old enough to remember when we thought that history was over, the world was all going in more or less the same direction. All the big questions about how we conduct our relationships with each other as countries, and how we conduct our relations within countries – all these big questions have already been asked. But now, every day I open the newspaper and I see that those questions are being relitigated. There are questions about whether there is a Western liberal way, a democratic way of Government; whether there is a new Chinese formula; and whether these two ideas are inevitably in conflict, and over a long period cannot work together. You are in a part of the world where both of these formula of Government are being practised all around. Is it inevitable that these two should clash? Are there ways to your mind, that we can work together even if we do not agree on how politics are conducted, and how governance should be conducted?

SM Teo: First, we should recognise that countries do have vast differences between each other - in terms of the endowments they have on resources, the ratio of population to land and resources. If you look at China, continental United States, and Australia, the three of them are roughly the same size in terms of land area. They have some differences in geography. America is protected by two oceans and has generally friendly neighbours. But if you look at China, it is different. If you look at Australia, it is different. Australia has 25 million people, America has 330 million people, and China has 1.4 billion people, and this is essentially on the same land area. They have different histories and cultural traits, and to expect all of them to be the same is not realistic. A good basis for countries to engage each other is to see enlightened self-interest, and also to focus on good governance. This means the outcomes that we are looking for. Are the governments doing well by their people in terms of health, education, welfare, social justice, and opportunities? I think these are the parameters that we should look for. If we take an ideological approach to the world, we will have more difficulties, because the same ideologies may not be applicable. We may not be able to make other countries look like us; it may not be desirable at all. We should allow countries to find their own path forward but focus on good governance. Judge countries by how they deliver the goods to their people, and work together.

Moderator: Do you believe as some people do, in the notion that a new rising global power will, whether we like it or not, or whether it intends to or not, automatically challenge the existing powers, and that friction is inevitable?

SM Teo: I think what will happen is that there has to be a rebalancing. It is not the same as before. But the question is, how do we bring countries together? One of the things which several countries in our part of the world, both sides of the Pacific, have been trying to do is to bring the two sides of the Pacific together. Of course, we have major countries on each side: we have America on the eastern side of the Pacific; we have China, Japan - major economic powers - on this side of the Pacific; we have India as well in the Indian Ocean. How do we bridge these two sides, and not have a breach in between, which runs down the International Date Line? We have APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. We have the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which tries to bring together like-minded countries from both sides of the Pacific together. The important thing about this institution building is that they are open and inclusive. You can see that the TPP was actually started by four small countries – Singapore, Brunei, Chile, and New Zealand. The idea grew, and then we had the TPP, which brought in major economies. The US for its own reasons, which I fully understand, decided not to join at the last moment, but it does provide a very high quality trading arrangement, which can bring countries together in a cooperative way to build co-prosperity, rather than to compete with each other in a bare-knuckle way. Practical solutions are more important than ideological ones.

Moderator: In recent weeks, we have seen again in your part of the world, this new idea of an Anglosphere alliance between Australia, the UK and the United States over nuclear submarines, and that has alarmed and upset China. This seems to run against the trend, or against what we would like to see as being the trend toward multilateralism. The Chinese feel like they are being encircled and singled out. Whereas, the other side of that debate, is that we need to protect our interests in that part of the world and China represents the greatest threat to those interests. This is not multilateralism at its best, to put it mildly. But you in Singapore find yourself caught right in the middle of all that, literally, as well as metaphorically. How alarmed are you by these trends, and can multilateralism bring us out of this moment of crisis?

SM Teo: The fact is that the US, the UK and Australia are already best buddies. They have had long security relations with each other. They support each other in security operations all around the world. They are three of the Five Eyes (FVEY) and cooperate very deeply. All three have long histories of being involved in Asia. This is nothing new. What is important is that whatever new organisations come up, they should contribute towards strengthening the regional architecture and operate in a way which is as inclusive as possible. The region will be worse off if we divide into blocs. And this is the history of Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia has been divided with war, with calamities of all kinds, but we have enjoyed a period of peace, because Southeast Asia has been united around certain principles. It behoves all these countries to strengthen Southeast Asia and ASEAN, and to continue to contribute to strengthening countries in Southeast Asia.

ASEAN has dialogue partners. We also have the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) – it is quite a mouthful, which engages extra regional countries from ASEAN, in confidence-building and capacity-building. The US and Australia are participants in that ADMM-Plus. I understand that the UK is interested and has already participated in some of the activities of ADMM-Plus at the capacity-building level. The UK also, in its own right, is seeking greater engagement with the ASEAN countries, as the US and the UK are dialogue partners and close partners of ASEAN. These are important engagements that should continue. We should strengthen the regional organisations in order to maintain peace and stability in the region.

Moderator: In your opening remarks, you made a reference to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a glass half-empty, and a glass half-full view. The glass half-empty pitch is that the pandemic exposed some great flaws in the multilateral system because the world did not respond in a timely and unified fashion. This affected our ability to deal collectively with the pandemic and we are still in a situation where there is a horrible imbalance between rich and not so rich countries in terms of vaccination and dealing with the pandemic. How do you view this? Do you think that we have failed, and that multilateral efforts have not been up to scratch? Was this inevitable, and what lessons are to be drawn from this that we can use, Heaven forbid, for the next time we are confronted with a planet-level threat like that?

SM Teo: The world could certainly have done better in dealing with a pandemic. For a period of time, many countries were consumed by what I would characterise as narrow self-interest, instead of enlightened self-interest. Let me explain. During the Global Financial Crisis, many countries around the world cooperated very closely and helped us get through it quite quickly. We had the G20 – the leaders met and coordinated their financial policies in each of their countries. Countries which were able to, maintained a high rate of growth in order to cushion the global effects of the downturn in countries that were affected by the Global Financial Crisis. There was tremendous coordination, and the world benefited from it. Individual countries which cooperated in their own enlightened self-interest also benefitted from it.

For COVID-19, there were many lost opportunities. In fact, US and Chinese scientists were cooperating and doing research in Wuhan, to prepare for the next crisis. They were looking at bats and other kinds of coronaviruses – that is positive. But once the pandemic broke out and the virus came on the scene, there was fear and even panic. Cooperation broke down, and we went back into nationalism. We went back into a lack of cooperation. If you contrast the response to the Global Financial Crisis with the pandemic, in one there was considerable cooperation between the major powers, and in the other one, a considerable lack of cooperation between the major powers.

Moderator: It is a very short gap between these two, barely a decade and a half. What do you think changed – is it personalities, individual leaders in different countries, or have there been some underlying trends in the way that all of us as human beings think about our self-interest that has changed dramatically?

SM Teo: Countries have had to respond to the pressures that come from the demands of their own people. There has been a trend towards nativism, nationalism of narrow self-interest, even before the pandemic. When the pandemic broke out, instead of coming together and cooperating, this sense was exacerbated. People started to point fingers at each other, trying to protect themselves regardless of how it affected others. The concept that ‘none of us is safe until all of us are safe’ was forgotten. But that is in fact true. We need to work together. Leadership counts because leaders influence the way their countries think and behave. We need good leadership at the national level, good leadership that can transcend the national level, to look at enlightened self-interest on a global basis.

Moderator: Another thing that stood out to me in your opening remarks, was the point you were making about resilience and the contrast between the point that we have lived ‘just in time’ being the right way to approach everything, not just manufacturing but across the board – all kinds of solutions are best applied when they are ‘just in time’. And then we are confronted with a crisis like the pandemic, which exposed, I suspect, the absence of resilience and deep reserves, not just of vaccines, which had to be invented, but we did not even have the deep reserves of cooperative spirit that were required to tackle this crisis. What are the lessons from the pandemic on this notion of building resilience, perhaps too early, but are you seeing signs that we are building that resilience in the same manner that our bodies are building antibodies to deal with this crisis? Are we doing that as a planet, and as a collection of countries?

SM Teo: There are good signs of that, but we need to do more. This is of course a truism. If you take Singapore as an example, in some ways, as a small country we are always concerned about resilience for the future. For Singapore, in our response, we drew on three types of reserves if you like. One is financial reserves, and we have been putting aside financial reserves for a rainy day. We have had to draw on them again this time. We have not needed to go into debt, we were able to draw on our financial reserves in order to fund the expenses that went into fighting the pandemic, as well as cushioning the effect on our people. The last time we drew on that was during the Global Financial Crisis when there was a steep downturn. We looked at the forecast for the next year, and it was just a bottomless pit and we did not know how deep it would go. We drew on our reserves to cushion us. So, financial reserves is one thing which we need to put aside.

Second, we also have organisational capacity and reserves – the ability to respond either on a national or global basis in order to organise ourselves, and to bring resources to bear and respond. But the third which you pointed out too – reserves of community spirit and bonding, not just within the country, but also between countries and in the world community. How do we work together to address this crisis? In a crisis, you can end up with divides becoming accentuated within a country and between countries, but we need to bridge those. And in peacetime, normal times, we need to strengthen them so that we can draw on these reserves when we need to. Take the WHO, for example. There has been a lot of criticism about the WHO, but the WHO is what the members make it out to be, and what the members resource WHO to be. It can only be as good or as active, or as resourced and resourceful, as the members want it and allow it to be.

Moderator: This brings us fluidly into the third pillar of your opening remarks, which is sustainability. Singapore is one of the wealthier countries – there are not a lot of countries that have resources which they can dip into in times of crisis. But crises, as you said, seem to be coming at us fast and furious, and from all sides, and sides that we cannot see. How do we, as a planet or as a committee of nations, develop this sustainability? Is there is an argument to set us up to create new multilateral structures designed specifically to operate in crisis situations that get us to the point where ‘none of us is safe until all of us are safe’? Do we need new structures, new forms of multilateralism, that are guided by that principle?

SM Teo: Sustainable development which encompasses the whole concept of how we deal with climate change is basically going to be the challenge of our times. We see the effects today. We may not be able to reverse all the effects that we have seen, but we should try to mitigate them, and make sure that we can adapt and learn how to live with them. We have the Paris Agreement. It is an imperfect agreement, but it is what we have. I have been looking at Singapore's position with regard to the Paris Agreement. Our ministers and officials have also been playing a facilitative role trying to get these agreements and the various chapters under the Paris Agreement to be finalised. For example, carbon markets, which is a complex issue. Our Minister for Sustainability and the Environment will be co-chairing the group trying to come to agreement on these things. We need to work together on this. We have a Paris Agreement, but we should try to improve ambition, see how we can move forward, see how we can share technologies and knowledge in order to allow countries to take the necessary steps to protect themselves, to reduce their carbon emissions and contribute to the greater global effort to do so. It is going to be complex, but we can do so. Regionally, we are trying to do this within ASEAN. We need to do it on a more global level. I think that we are moving in the correct direction.

Moderator: We have one relatively new crisis with the pandemic, and the overhanging sort of existential crisis of climate change. Between these two things, we can lose sight of the other sort of crises that affect large parts of the world, if not all of it. You reflected that again in your opening remarks when you talked about Afghanistan, the threat of extremism, the threat of countries and places where extremism can take root, because there are not local structures to prevent it, or indeed, there might be local structures that encourage the development of that extremist ideology. How concerned are you by the return of the Taliban to power in Kabul? Do you take the view that this is a new and different Taliban, that they have learned their lessons and that the world can collectively deal with them in a way that was not possible twenty years ago when they first came to power?

SM Teo: I would say the jury is out on that. When I work with people, I listen to what they say but I watch more carefully what they do. This will be tested over time and over actions that they take in specific circumstances. We do hope that stability will return to Afghanistan, and that there will not be spaces where extremism, terrorism and violence will grow and be exported to other parts of the world. In Southeast Asia, we were affected by what was happening in Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda. For example, the Bali bombing was by a group that was directly linked to Al Qaeda, and we had groups in Singapore who were planning attacks in Singapore. We take this very seriously, and not lightly. We do hope that we will have a new phase, a new beginning in Afghanistan. There is an opportunity now. We hope that the people, and whoever is governing the country, will take advantage of that.

Moderator: This forum is taking place in the Middle East, and in the past year and a half there has been a flurry of efforts in using multilateral channels to solve regional issues. There has also been an outbreak of diplomacy, which is rare, and I suspect quite welcome. For example, the outreach between Israel and several countries in the Arab world. The cynical view is that these are countries that are being forced into these accommodations because the great powers are, at least particularly the United States is, losing patience with this part of the world. But perhaps that is not such a bad thing. Would you say diplomacy is a good thing regardless of what the reasons are behind it?

SM Teo: I would say that it is a good thing that countries are talking to each other – all the initiatives that you mentioned, and the relations with Israel. In fact, the improved relations within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, all of whom are our good friends. We are one of the few countries in the world who have a free trade agreement with the GCC, which was signed several years ago. We are quite happy to see that the differences between the GCC countries also seem to have been ameliorated and they are working together again. These are all very positive signs. But I now make a point, that small countries do have agency. We do not need to depend only on big countries to resolve issues. Let me give you an example. I talked about the Trans-Pacific Partnership earlier. The kernel of it was four relatively small countries, and it grew and became the TPP. For the G20, small and medium-sized countries also wanted a voice on the stage and not have their fates and futures determined just by the big boys. So, thirty countries got together to form the Global Governance Group (3G), and we now have a voice at the G20. We have agency, we express our views, we are not just takers of what the big countries decide. This is important. It has come to a point where the world is much more diverse, and big countries too have to accept and understand that, and be prepared to take these views in.

Moderator: I cannot think of a better way to end this discussion. SM, thank you very much for joining us from Singapore. We hope to see more of you in the forum in the future.

SM Teo: Thank you very much, Bobby. We look forward to a better world, building the future together for security.