ST Global Forum: Countries must work together in public health, climate change in post-Covid-19 world, says DPM Heng

SINGAPORE – Cooperation between nations will be especially important as the world works on addressing Covid-19 and builds back from the pandemic’s disruptions, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat.

Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister, called on countries on Monday (Jan 11) to work together to make the best of the coronavirus situation for a more resilient and sustainable future.

He noted that while the outlook for this year remains highly uncertain, much will depend on countries’ collective will to implement effective national interventions and collaborate across borders.

There is hope, he noted, with vaccination programmes beginning, and scientific cooperation having taken great strides in a short period of time.

But the emergence of more infectious variants of the virus is a reminder that the fight against Covid-19 is far from over, he said.

“Each country will also need to adapt how it works externally with others – in an open and more inclusive way,” said Mr Heng during his speech at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum.

“At home, each country will need to undertake structural reforms, to build new competitive advantages to benefit from globalisation, and to ensure that social policies are sustainable.”

Mr Heng sketched out three broad areas where he said international partnership will be crucial: public health, climate change and digital governance.

For public health, the minister held up the multilateral Covax facility initiative which is meant to ensure equitable vaccine access worldwide.

Looking ahead, he pointed out there is a need for the world to strengthen its collective response to future pandemics, and warned that Disease X – a new unknown disease that is highly infectious, deadly and mutates easily – is inevitable.

He said: “We must lock-in and strengthen the unprecedented level of information exchange – in science, research, and best practices. Learning from the asymptomatic nature of Covid-19, we can more quickly develop and scale diagnostic testing.”

But public health cooperation goes beyond pandemic responses, and Mr Heng noted that global cooperation on healthcare innovation in areas like dealing with an ageing population will enhance the resilience and effectiveness of healthcare systems worldwide.

In the area of climate change, an international effort is needed given how it is a problem which affects all countries, especially small island states like Singapore, said Mr Heng.

He said he was glad that the United States will be recommitting to the Paris Agreement, an international framework for tackling climate change.

The US formally left the agreement last year under President Donald Trump, who deemed its regulations harmful to the country’s economy. US President-elect Joe Biden has to rejoin the agreement on the first day of his presidency later this month.

Mr Heng pointed out that in working together through science and technology to address climate change, countries can not only achieve sustainability goals, but economic growth as well.

“There is great potential to improve resource efficiency for energy, water, and food production, develop nature-based solutions for climate change, and employ biophilic design to build greener, more sustainable, and liveable cities,” he said.

With regards to digital governance, Mr Heng acknowledged that the digital revolution was well underway before Covid-19, but this sped up during the pandemic as life shifted online, with people working and learning from home.

But global norms and rules in cyberspace have not been fully worked out, he warned. As technology becomes pervasive in daily life, cybersecurity will be even more critical and international collaboration is crucial to maintaining a safer and secure cyberspace.

The world will also need stronger tech governance so that technology progresses in a fair and ethical manner, he added.

Mr Heng gave the example of how Singapore is a founding member of the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence (AI), an international initiative started last year to support the responsible use of AI and how it can be used to empower workers.

There will also be a need for common standards to enable trusted data flows across borders as digital trade grows, said Mr Heng. Singapore has pursued digital economy agreements with partners to develop new approaches for the cross-border digital economy, such as e-payment across jurisdictions.

Mr Heng noted that the world is now at a crossroads, and cautioned that if countries do not come together to tackle common challenges, it will become more fractious and unequal.

But he added that the pandemic has also given countries common cause to work together, and each one can take small concrete steps to lay the foundation for a better post-pandemic world.

“If we succeed, each country can grow new strengths and complement one another, achieving more together than we could on our own, and giving us a stake in one another’s success,” he said.

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