Singapore PM Lee: Small nations must work together to amplify influence

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife Ho Ching with world leaders at the Forum of Small States, which was hosted by Singapore in New York. — TODAY pic
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife Ho Ching with world leaders at the Forum of Small States, which was hosted by Singapore in New York. — TODAY pic

NEW YORK, Sept 26 — On the world stage, small states must work together to advance their common interests and amplify their influence, or their ability to determine their own destinies will become “severely circumscribed”, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

“If Singapore disappears tomorrow, the world will probably continue on just fine,” said Lee at the Forum of Small States (FOSS) in New York, which was held on the sidelines of the 74th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

Yet, these nations that have populations of less than 10 million are also particularly vulnerable to global events compared with their larger counterparts. “Climate change and rising sea levels are a threat to our very existence,” said Lee.

Such is the reality faced by smaller countries, that even if they are sovereign or independent by name, their ability to determine their own destinies will be limited “if we do not manage our external relations carefully”, he added.

“This is because small states have no intrinsic relevance to the workings of the international system. Unlike larger and more powerful countries, small states do not set the agenda or decide the trends,” said Lee, noting that few small states in history are as “long-lived” as Switzerland and Venice.

Hosted by Singapore, the event was held at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Singapore to the United Nations in New York.

The FOSS, which was also founded in 1992 by Singapore in New York, is an informal grouping of smaller nations which aims to give them a bigger collective voice in the UN.

The group has grown over the years from an initial 16 nations to the 107 member states today, including Norway, New Zealand, Ireland, Austria and Finland. Leaders and dignitaries from around 40 countries, excluding Singapore, attended yesterday’s event.

“Our club has grown over the years because the fundamental realities and vulnerabilities of small states have not changed,” said Lee.

Elaborating on what these vulnerabilities are, he said the smaller economies of these nations are more exposed to fluctuations in the global economy. “Our margin of error is much narrower than big states, which can absorb multiple hits,” he said.

If war breaks out, they lack the strategic depth to defend themselves. Extreme weather events can also take these countries years to rebuild and recover from, he said, citing the recent hurricane Dorian which hit the Bahamas.

“This does not mean that small states are helpless or have no agency,” said Lee. Being small means that nations can respond more nimbly and adapt more easily to changing circumstances, and be motivated to deal more decisively with challenges and threats owing to their increased “sense of insecurity, and even paranoia”.

“With more constrained options, our collective minds are more readily focused. And we are less hampered by regional interests and differences, or multiple levels of government that bigger countries must grapple with.”

Hence, these nations have to work together to amplify their influence collectively in institutions such as the UN. Lee noted that several FOSS countries have made “significant contributions” to the UN, such as by serving in the UN Security Council (UNSC).

Five of the six main committees in this year’s UN General Assembly (UNGA) are also chaired by FOSS members, he added.

Singapore, too, had served as a non-permanent member of the UNSC from 2001 to 2002.

“Small states can and must make a contribution to the work of the UN, because it is in our interest to have a strong UN and multilateral system,” said Lee, who will be delivering Singapore’s national statement at the UNGA tomorrow.

President of the 74th UNGA Tijjani Muhammad Bande, who is also the Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the UN, said the forum was the “most important one” because its members make up more than half of the UN member states, and numbers are important in the UNGA.

“It is not bound by the normal divisions of north, south, east and west. It is a forum which cuts across all regions in the world. If you look across the world in geopolitics (today), you understand why we need small states to be a beacon of stability to all of us,” he said.

Out of all the various receptions held in New York so far, Tijjani has agreed to attend only two, including the FOSS.

Lee has also been meeting heads of state from nations of all sizes since he arrived in New York on September 21.

So far, he has met leaders from Liechtenstein, Bhutan, Uganda, the Netherlands, Belgium, Panama, Barbados and the United States. — TODAY

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