The entire hall shot to their feet as he entered, cheering loudly and clapping up a storm. Camera phones were out everywhere, photographing and filming his slow walk up the aisle towards the stage. It wasn’t a K-pop idol who had come down to the Suntec Convention Centre on a Monday evening, although the reception he received was comparable (just sans neon-lit fan-signs luridly blinking Marry me).
No – I was there, in blazer and smart dress, to listen to a Korean person of a rather different pedigree: Secretary-General of the United Nations, His Excellency Ban Ki-moon, who was gracing Singapore to speak at the eighth instalment of SMU’s Ho Rih Hwa Leadership in Asia Public Lecture Series.
In his opening comments, chairman of SMU board of trustees, Mr Ho Kwon Ping, joked that he had never seen such a turnout in previous editions of the lecture series. And indeed, the Convention Centre was packed: more than 3,000 students, staff, and faculty from tertiary and higher educational institutions had come down to gain insight from His Excellency’s lecture.
Mr Ban applauded the display of youth enthusiasm, calling for the younger generation to take up the reins of public leadership. He noted that half of the current global society, is presently under 25 years of age – a generation he believes to be full of unlimited potential. He posited that the important thing would be for global youth to combine synergies with their governments in order to bring about a better world.
What struck me most was His Excellency’s repeated emphasis on the importance of international collaboration. Touching on the Paris Agreement – a groundbreaking climate change agreement signed last year – Mr Ban candidly stated that he hoped to see Singapore ratify the Agreement within the year and consequently setting an example for other nations to follow.
The Paris Agreement has trajectories aimed towards the United Nations’ goal of sustainable development and growth by 2030: a vision that would help ensure ‘lives of dignity’ for all on a healthy planet. On that front, he noted that the focus would be on the Asian continent in the coming years, as two-third of the world’s poor live in this region.
Aside from sustainable development, His Excellency also touched upon something else deeply affecting human dignity: the rise of violent extremism, and the increasing number of refugees being forced to flee their homes. Presently, 65 million have been forcibly displaced from their countries; half of this number being children and youth. In light of this, His Excellency commented that nations have to come together to improve the international response to refugee situations. It is, he said, only natural that countries should welcome refugees with warm, caring hands, instead of alienating them.
Towards the end of his lecture, His Excellency brought matters back closer to home, touching briefly on hot-topic issues such as the Korean Peninsula conflict and the South China Sea dispute. Through it all, his plea for greater understanding and collaboration was clear: nations must work together in order to achieve greater harmony, so that people the world over can lead better lives.
However, the lecture could be considered a little idealistic: Work together! Change the world! Help everyone! It all sounded overwhelmingly simple, and numerous students came forward during the question-and-answer session to grill His Excellency on the points he brought forth. The questions may not have been the most insightful, or the type of questions he could answer (asking him to do something about the haze triggered a hall full of chortling), but it was somewhat heartening to see that the young students weren’t just dozing off in the comfortable half-light of the Convention Centre.
From what I gathered, students did seem excited and focused on the prospect of moving towards a more humanitarian future – dealing with the ever-increasing number of refugees, battling poverty, creating a sustainable environment. It’s all very hopeful, but this author personally isn’t that optimistic about any of the promised changes happening, at least in the near future. For countries to work together takes an incredible amount of back-and-forth, especially where international agreements such as the Paris Agreement are concerned. A recent agreement on how countries should use rivers that cross international boundaries, for example, took nearly 20 years to come into effect. You can see why I’m not too hopeful about quick change.
On sustainability, too, it’s all well and good to say we want to help make a greener future, but the truth is that most countries are still doing as they please, because going green could potentially mean cutting economic efficiency, jobs, and losing advantages. We certainly have the capability to fix the environment, but it’s still unclear whether enough states have the motivation to put aside national interest and work together.
Ultimately, His Excellency’s view of the United Nations was very much like ohana – its core promise being that nobody gets left behind. Much like Lilo & Stitch, it seems like a very nice fiction that might never really happen in real life. But also like Lilo & Stitch, it’s a nice future to believe in as well.
You can check out a full recording of His Excellency's lecture, and the following Q&A session, below!