During Prime Minister Modi’s visit, India and Singapore will elevate ties to a strategic partnership. What are the benefits of this to both countries? Does Singapore see India as a balancing force vis-a-vis China in this region?
Terminology is important in diplomacy. This means, at an international, or even on a regional basis, Singapore and India will consult each other on strategic matters—whether it is terrorism, or Indian Ocean (issues). Singapore is hardly a player in the Indian Ocean, and it would like to be, as it is a trading country.
As for benefits for India, let me illustrate with an example. The Andhra Pradesh chief minister, N. Chandrababu Naidu, had sent a team here to link up with the National University of Singapore. When I asked Naidu on why he wanted the tie-up, he said, it was a question of branding for his state.
He said, “We are branded with the people we associate with". India does not need the Singapore branding, but it helps a state like Andhra.
Singapore does not see India as a balancing force to China. Singapore does not look at China being a threat. Singapore has a special relationship with China, and that does not stop it from having a special relationship with the Americans or India. Singapore was one of the advocates on having India first as a dialogue partner, and then as a full partner of Asean (Association of South-East Asian Nations).
Despite sharing a common colonial history and also close cultural linkages, why is it that India and Singapore have not had a close relationship until recently. What about the lost decades from the 1960s to the 1990s? Was it because during the Cold War as India drew closer to the Soviet Union, it saw Singapore as being in the US camp?
Even during the Cold War, Singapore was not part of any of the military pacts, and it kept an independent stance. The fact that India was closer to the Soviet Union did not bother Singapore. India moved in a different direction particularly when it came to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia.
Singapore, as a small country, protested when Cambodia was invaded. At that time, even as we were trying to isolate Vietnam, India upgraded its presence in Vietnam. Singapore did not like the regime in Cambodia but, at the same time, it could not accept that Vietnam could walk in and change the government.
We are also a small country and highly vulnerable, and cannot have a situation where a neighbour walks in.
Another reason for the lack of robust ties historically was because India was inward looking when it came to trade. The relationship between both countries began to take off after former Indian Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao launched reforms in the early 1990s. Our Prime Minister at that time, Goh Chok Tong, started what was called “mild India fever".
This relationship then became warm. Rao was invited here, and he delivered the Singapore lecture, and that was chaired by (Singapore’s founding father) Lee Kuan Yew himself. It was a sign of the blossoming of the relationship.
When India opened up, the first investment Singapore made in collaboration with the Tatas was Technopark in Bengaluru. There was a change of government in Karnataka as this project was underway, and we feared (for) its fate.
The then new chief minister, H. D. Deve Gowda, flew to Kolkata, where our then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong was attending an event, and assured him that Karnataka would not stop the project.
This had a tremendous impact on Singapore. We saw it as institutions surviving changes in government, and it gave us the confidence to invest in India.
Our politicians visit leaders from all parties in India. When the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) was set up, the first speaker at that time, in 2003, was the then chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi.
At that time, there were a lot of negative reports about him, but I had no problems. He (Modi) was running a successful state, and I wanted to know about it. Singapore reaches out to a wide spectrum of political leaders in India.
We are a small country, and we are not a threat to anyone, and we are therefore able to have these relationships. If China or American were to do the same, it won’t be seen in the same way.
Going forward, what are the challenges to the India-Singapore relationship?
For Singapore, there are very few areas of possible conflict. We don’t share common borders, we don’t go into each other’s air space and we have a healthy trade relations. During Modi’s visit, there will be some developments on taking the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement that both countries had signed earlier to the next level. Singapore plays host to about 6,000 Indian companies. They use Singapore as a base to invest in other countries in the region.
I can’t see anything that will blow up the relationship between both countries. Singapore is too small to have an impact on India as a whole.
We’ve started with Andhra Pradesh, and we will look at helping build more smart cities. We are interested in deepening the economic relationship. As India looks at establishing institutes to train its people in upgrading their skills, Singapore can play a part here. We have capabilities here, which can be useful to India.
I see the relationship between both countries growing in a healthy manner. Singapore does not interfere or comment on the domestic issues of other countries and, therefore, they won’t have any opinion on Indian politics. But Singapore is business-minded, and looks for opportunities, as it would like to do more in India.
Singaporeans have not taken to India, as much as they have taken to China, or even Vietnam and now Indonesia. One of the major reforms India needs is judicial—international investors get very nervous with Indian partners as any court case in India can finish them.
The delay, when fighting a legal case, for the foreigner can go on and on—many things need to be done before India can be a modern destination for investment, especially for smaller firms from abroad.
Modi has been, and still is, compared with Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew. What is your take?
The difference is when certain things happen, Mr Lee voiced his strong opinion. Let me give you an example—when the churches are allegedly attacked in India, the response time was very long.
In Singapore and under Mr Lee, that would not have happened. So their styles are different. Whether it be Chinese chauvinists or Malay radicals, Mr Lee voiced strong opposition to such elements.