Min Vivian Balakrishnan: We are probably headed for a world that’s far more difficult, far more disrupted

By June 15, 2020Current

TL;DR – The easy, low-hanging fruit of economic growth that came from globalisation and free trade are not going to be there anymore. You will see a less prosperous world, you will see a less interdependent world.

Did you catch Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan’s interview with The Hill on June 9?

Hehe, I’ve kept a lookout for Min Vivian’s interviews after watching him in action in the CNBC interview back in March. So impressive that one was that his own Facebook post of the video hit one million views.

Anyway, this 21-minute with the American news outlet, The Hill, is worth your time too. If you can, do watch it.

Or if you prefer to read, here’s the full transcript.


If you really cannot spare the 21 minutes from your WFH yoga workout or dinner cookout, I’ve extracted three very important points from what Minister Vivian had shared.

  1. Singapore is on the careful road towards recovery. We’ve been taking this disease seriously and doing all we can to protect our old and vulnerable. Singapore implemented the eight-week circuit breaker and Min Vivian made the point that we’re prepared to pay the price because we want to protect the most vulnerable people in our society.
  2. There are currently no vaccines and no anti-virals. If a significant proportion of the population show no symptoms but yet have the ability to transit the disease, then the only way we’re going to identify them and the only way we’re going to stop that from continuing to spread, is contact tracing.
  3. Min Vivian singled out three trends – turbulent relationship between China and US, pushback against globalisation and free trade, and possible bifurcation of supply chains – and predicted a less prosperous and less interdependent world. The future will be far more difficult and far more disrupted. Particularly for Singapore, a teeny tiny a city-state whose trade is 3.5 times our GDP.

Here are the three cuts of these very important points, along with the corresponding transcript.

Watch/Read and you can thank me later.


Min Vivian on Singapore’s careful road towards recovery.

“Because we went through SARS 17 years ago, we invested heavily in healthcare facilities, in testing facilities, in having a system with sufficient buffers, with sufficient resilience, to deal with it. So that made a critical difference.

That this is a values decision, and that if you want to protect your old and vulnerable, you need to take this disease seriously.

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And, in terms of impact, without a vaccine and without proven anti-virals, you are left with what we call “non-pharmaceutical interventions” of which, there are only three: social distancing, hand hygiene and masking – in that order.

And what we have shown in the last eight weeks when we went through what we call a “circuit breaker”, is that social distancing is very, very effective.

It really takes the edge off the pandemic rise, but it is also very, very, costly. It has a huge impact on the economy, on society, and after a while, people get restless. They get a form of cabin fever.

But the point I’m making here is this – the reason why we are prepared to pay this price is because we want to protect the most vulnerable people in our society. So, it’s a values judgement, it’s a choice that we make.

But having said that, there is a corollary to that, which is that if you have effective social distancing and the vast majority of your population in fact remains immunologically naïve – which means that we don’t have immunity to it – it means that we remain vulnerable to secondary rises in the pandemic.

And, what that means then, is that in this phase when we are opening up, we’ve done three things in particular: number one, ramp up medical capacity for any future increases; number two, increase testing capacity considerably by several orders of magnitude; number three, you need the ability to contact trace, and contact trace very, very, quickly and at scale.

Because this is the only way you can re-open your economy in the presence of the vast majority of your population not having immunity, and yet do it safely.”


Min Vivian on the importance of contact tracing and how it’s a professional art.

“I need to admit this point and to emphasise this point – contact tracing is a professional art. It remains a human endeavour; it requires human judgement, and no technology is going to replace the human in the loop.

… a key ingredient of contact tracing is to jog people’s memory and say “where were you over the last 14 days?” And the truth is, for all of us, if I asked you that, you would have great difficulty reconstructing your movements, your calendar, and even the people that you met. And that’s even people that you know.

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What about the people whom you don’t know, whom you happened to have spent significant amount of time with? So that’s where technology comes in – it enables the human being making those decisions to quickly fill up that schedule of activities, identify risk events, identify potential contacts, and then the key point is to be able to issue quarantine or isolation orders and to institute treatment quickly.

It makes a difference on two counts. One, is we know that instituting early access to care makes a difference to outcomes, so that’s clearly a benefit for the patient himself. Second, it prevents secondary or tertiary spread of the disease, so it’s worth doing that.

And the other point is this, which is worth emphasising in the case of COVID-19 – which is that unlike SARS and maybe even unlike MERS, in this particular disease, a significant number of people do not show symptoms or have very mild symptoms. Now, if you think about it, if there is a significant proportion of your population with no symptoms but yet having the ability to transmit the disease, the only way you’re going to identify them and the only way you’re going to stop that from continuing to spread, is contact tracing.

So again, it comes back to the importance of contact tracing and to be able to trace at scale, and to trace quickly, but to leave the final judgement to human beings in the loop, so you do need a lot more.”


Min Vivian touched on the impact of COVID-19 on the world.

(To me, if you don’t read or watch anything else in this interview, you should at least pay some attention to this.)

“… this epidemic has not changed history, but it has accelerated the shifts and the trends which were already evident before that.

The next question then is what are the implications of all this? Of a difficult and perhaps turbulent relationship between the two superpowers of the world, of a pushback against globalisation and free trade, and of the disruption and what you have indicated – possible bifurcation of supply chains.

If you look at just these three trends – and we’ll get to technology in a little bit – if you look at these three trends, it means we are probably headed for a world that is going to be far more difficult, far more disrupted.

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The easy, low-hanging fruit of economic growth that came from globalisation and free trade are not going to be there anymore. You will see a less prosperous world, you will see a less interdependent world.

We have to appreciate that, in fact, globalisation, free trade, and interdependence was the formula for peace and prosperity since the end of the Second World War. So, we are leaving that phase and we’re headed into an unknown where many things can go wrong.”

So what now? There’s still hope.

It’s easy to see how a less connected world means a poorer world and fewer opportunities for all. A less connected Singapore means fewer and poorer quality jobs for all of us.

But all is not lost. There’s still hope.

Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing, in a national broadcast yesterday evening, spoke about making a living in a COVID-19 world. He reminded us of Singapore’s intangible strengths and also how we can continue to build on our human capital.

Did you know that Singapore makes four out of the world’s top ten drugs? and that Singapore is the world’s seventh largest exporter of chemicals?

Not bad at all for a country with no natural resources and we don’t even have water for our own use.

Min Chan also said this yesterday,

“Our promise is this: We will create opportunities for all Singaporeans, no matter how old you are, to improve your lives at every stage of your careers. So long as you are able and willing, we will support you.”

“Every Singaporean, regardless of background, can have the chance to take on the new jobs being created.”

Remember this, there are still many opportunities for us, but we must be on our toes.

Survival favours not the strong, but the agile.


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Gabrielle Teo

Author Gabrielle Teo

I read lots, and I also spend an indecent amount of time trying to get my mostly unpopular opinions published. Oh, I argue a lot with fellow Singaporeans who complain incessantly about Singapore too.

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