Heng Chee How: Multilateralism still roots in relevance in the midst of opposing tides

Heng Chee How: Multilateralism still roots in relevance in the midst of opposing tides

On Monday (20 Jan), Senior Minister of State for Defence Heng Chee How stressed that despite the enduring relevancy of multilateralism today, it can no longer be taken for granted what with the increasing trend against it in recent times.

Mr Heng remarked that the unequal outcomes of trade liberalisation have caused some to believe that free trade is unjust and some major economic powers also believe that unilateral or bilateral cooperations benefit them more than multilateral cooperations: “Some countries today perceive that their interests would be better met via unilateral or bilateral means.”

He also highlighted that, for the future, leaders could communicate the outcomes and benefits of multilateral meetings better to garner more support for it while also updating the structures and rules of multilateral institutions. This can ensure that the multilateral system serving countries well will bring them closer, leading to a more equitable distribution of growth benefits within and across nations.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies held the 8th IISS Fullerton Forum: The Shangri-La Dialogue Sherpa Meeting at The Fullerton Hotel, where Mr Heng delivered his keynote speech.

Around 100 delegates from more than 25 countries attended the forum, including high-ranking military officers and senior defence officials. The yearly forum, taking place from Sunday to Tuesday, is supposed to be a stage for exchanging views prior to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in June.

At the most rudimentary level, multilateralism is a principle in international relations where a common objective is pursued by three or more countries working together, he stated. In addition to this, nations can improve their collective welfare by striving towards stability and peace and no single nation can fully address complex transnational challenges that threaten survival and security. Mr Heng highlighted that these are the two key attributes of multilateralism.milti

Since 1945, many multilateral systems and institutions have mushroomed, such as the Non-Aligned Movement, United Nations and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

There has been an opposing tide against multilateralism even if it has been an important feature of the international system, and “these cumulative pushbacks against multilateralism weaken our collective resolve and ability to tackle global challenges together” and “it could feed a spiral of mutual distrust and zero-sum competition, as well as exacerbate tensions among countries,” added Mr Heng.

Not only that, major powers also “view these common rules and norms of multilateral institutions as inconvenient or archaic, perhaps even inimical to their interests.”

Mr Heng commented that economic prosperity is a result of multilateralism, with regional nations benefiting from the progressive liberalisation of trade: “While the global economic system is far from perfect, it would be prudent for countries to work together to strengthen the system, instead of abandoning it altogether.”

Countries in multilateral cooperation can also combat threats that do not respect country borders, like natural disasters, piracy and terrorism, he added.

Within the multilateral frameworks, big nations benefit when their interests are channelled between regional platforms whereas small nations possess greater agency by working together to influence and change the international system, Mr Heng further remarked.

Greater accessibility for the common people to understand can be boosted by explaining to them how leaders reach a consensus and decision. With better communication, multilateralism will be better backed by critical mass support, he concluded.

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