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EDITORIAL

A global rallying cry is needed for these uncertain times

THE United Kingdom's official letter on Wednesday to the European Union (EU) to start negotiations on its departure from the EU, or Brexit, is a crucial milestone of global progress since World War II.

It is the culmination of years of frustration and fear - hidden in the shadows all this while as economic development and multilateralism continued to put many economies and populations around the world onto the path to prosperity. But the frustration and fear managed to take the chance to stake their claim on the global stage when the UK decided to hold a referendum on Brexit last year. Likewise, in ballot boxes during presidential or general elections on both sides of the Atlantic.

These frustrations and fears are telling voters to turn inwards and cut themselves off from the world. Some say stop the flow of migrants. Some say build a wall. Some want taxes on imports. Brexit is a huge speed bump in global economic progress. It is a rebuke to the postwar Bretton Woods system that has set the tone for a stable international environment that allowed trade to flourish. It is also a rebuke to the work that international organisations, starting with the EU, do.

Some politicians are seizing on this mood. Instead of trying to see what went wrong while ensuring continued progress, they stoke frustrations to gain political mileage. Earlier this week, French President François Hollande expressed in a speech in Singapore that his final mission during this last tour outside of Europe as president is to stop populism, nationalism and extremism from prevailing. "Populists and extremists use fear . . . so that they can impose solutions that are contradictory to the interests of each country." This tactic is not new, and there is a term for it: divide and conquer. It is the modus operandi of populists, nationalists and extremists to achieve their political goals, said Mr Hollande.

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These are uncertain times. The world order is evolving, and the spark that put these changes in motion may continue for quite some time. Wednesday's Brexit trigger merely marks the start of a long negotiation process. A newly installed Donald Trump administration in America's White House continues to upend long-established norms in policymaking and diplomacy. These developments, together with many others, may embolden other anti-establishment forces and continue to contribute to the unravelling of the world order.

But to turn away is not the answer, and Singapore knows this well. Its Committee on the Future Economy report, issued just days after President Trump was inaugurated, reaffirmed the need for openness and excellence. On Wednesday, Singapore's Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation initiative Vivian Balakrishnan said that the most important political challenge is to prepare our people for the digital revolution, instead of turning to the "simplistic, populist and plain wrong prescriptions being offered".

"Our directions must be all the more clear amid these uncertainties," Mr Hollande had said. "We cannot live in a world of uncertainties." If such words sound like battle cries, that is a positive, for they make themselves heard. The world cannot be divided, for collaboration and cooperation are the only ways to achieve win-win outcomes. Even though he may have his own domestic concerns, in his speech made halfway around the world, the outgoing French president's defiant commitment to continued openness and multilateralism deserves to be echoed by other national leaders.

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