Commerce, connectivity, and culture are the 3Cs that mark the strategic ties between India and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean). The Indian diaspora is a key pillar for building this foundation, and Singapore the ideal meeting ground," says Jawed Ashraf, high commissioner of India to Singapore since November 2016.

Ashraf organized this month’s Asean-India event featuring the Indian diaspora in the region. Asean groups Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

“In their values, in their embrace of diversity and their vision for the region, Singapore and India mirror each other. Today, Singapore is the bridge between India and Asean and our gateway to the broader East," Ashraf said in an interview.

He added: “Deeper economic and cultural integration with the Asean region has become an important aspect and vision of India’s ‘Act East Policy’ in recent years."

By all accounts, the Asean-India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD, or non-resident Indian day) 2018 was a huge success. Held at the Marina Bay Sands Convention Center on 6-7 January, it was attended by more than 3,000 delegates and 120 speakers. The event was a part of the commemoration of 25 years of the partnership between Asean and India that will culminate in the Asean-India Commemorative Summit in Delhi later this month.

Asean is India’s fourth largest trading partner, accounting for 10.2% of India’s total trade. India is Asean’s seventh largest trading partner. Trade is back on track and registered an 8% increase in 2016-17 over the previous year. Indian investments in Asean stand at over $30 billion, while foreign direct investment equity inflows in India from Asean over the same period crossed $25 billion. India has a trade target of $200 billion with Asean countries by 2022.

“Enhancing trade and investment, maritime security, education and cultural heritage has become the priority going forward," said the Indian high commissioner. “This year’s PBD reflected this vision."

The event was attended, among others, by Sushma Swaraj, Indian minister of external affairs; Nitin Gadkari, Indian minister of road transport and highways, shipping and water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation; and Sarbananda Sonowal, chief Minister of Assam state. Singapore political and business leaders at the event included Teo Chee Hean, deputy prime minister; Vivian Balakrishnan, minister for foreign affairs, S. Iswaran, minister for trade and industry; Piyush Gupta, chief executive officer and director, DBS Bank Ltd.

Ashraf said the presence of a large number of political and business leaders who have played a key role in fostering India-Asean relations made this year’s PBD substantial.

“There are few ministers in the world as S. Iswaran, who are invested in engaging India or who understand the country and the nuances of competitive and cooperative federalism the way he does. In many ways, the iconic Amaravati project and much else that we are doing are the result of his belief and his efforts." Amaravati is the new capital of Andhra Pradesh state; Singapore entities are helping develop the city.

Ashraf also gave credit to Gadkari, who spoke at PBD. “The optimism and confidence about India’s economic future stem in large part from what he is doing to transform India’s infrastructure with a speed, scale, and quality that is unprecedented. He has made India the best infrastructure story in the world."

PBD is an event that usually focuses on celebrating the diaspora and deepens their emotional and economic links with India, but this one, as Ashraf pointed out, was different. “It was also a strategic platform to advance Asean-India ties through the Indian diaspora." This year’s PBD theme was “Ancient Route, New Journey: Diaspora in the Dynamic ASEAN-India Partnership".

“The tides of politics and trade have seen their ebb and flow. But the currents of faith and culture, language, and art have flowed and have endured through the fluctuating fortunes of time and changing history in this region," said Ashraf. “This is why we hosted a writers’ festival, cinema festival, art exhibition, an exhibition on the history of India’s links with South-East Asia, yoga and ayurveda—all showcasing diaspora talent in this region."

Ashraf noted that PBD 2018 was also one of the biggest business meetings on India and Asean in Singapore and was attended by speakers who understand the region well. “Ambassador Gopinath Pillai, for example, has more accumulated experience of doing business in India than most in India have and has an equally deep knowledge of doing business in Singapore and the region."

The inaugural India-Singapore Entrepreneurship Bridge (InSpreneur) was launched at this year’s PBD. It is designed as a platform to connect start-ups and investors in India and Singapore and to promote collaboration in the Asean region. Its focus is on start-ups, fintech, cyber security, disruptive technologies in manufacturing and India Digital Stack (India’s successful model of Aadhaar-enabled governance, public services, financial inclusion and payment systems).

The start-ups pitch their ideas to investors and also interact with other start-ups. Around 600 delegates, including 250 from start-ups—with 120 representing India—participated in the event.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

What do you think have been the key success factors for the Indian diaspora in Singapore?

Well, it really all started in the late 1980s as Singapore began to position itself as the financial hub of the region and one of the major financial centres in the world. It started to attract various foreign banks over here then.

Many of these had top Indian management talent already, so they got posted and promoted here as their talent got recognized. Many Indian bankers were later directly recruited to come here and, gradually, this kind of fed on itself.

The government recognized that as it ought to keep Singapore’s competitive edge in the financial sector, that top-notch Indian bankers should be encouraged to come here. At the same time, global corporates also set up here and brought in an influx of Indian management talent and promoted them to bigger roles.

And so, from 2000 to 2012, there was a very large influx of Indian professionals in banking, information technology, consulting finance and tech in Singapore. The caliber of talent is almost unparalleled as compared to any other city in the world.

There has been a large influx of professional Indian diaspora from cities like New York, London, Hong Kong in the last decade to Singapore. Why?

Yes. As Singapore became a global financial hub, the remuneration, benefits and expat packages put on offer became at par with any other place in the world. Reputationally, it became great to be working in Singapore, at par with New York and London.

Professionally it was a good place to be in. Personally, it couldn’t have been better. Indian expats got closer to home with a 3-5-hour flight to be with parents, with families, and to attend to businesses there. The lifestyle in Singapore is vastly better for some over New York and London, given that domestic help couldn’t be better.

The city was also designed for an unparalleled mix of factors, including world-class education, infrastructure, healthcare, best safety and hygiene standards, and multiculturalism.

You said Singapore’s multiculturalism enables Indian diaspora to succeed and feel a sense of belonging more than in any other country in the world. Can you explain?

Indeed. Being Indian in Singapore is better than anywhere else in the world because of the ecosystem that the government has created to create a vibrant, multicultural community. There is this intangible element of multiculturalism. I mean, you could let your “Indianess" completely flourish over here. You are able to celebrate most Indian festivals with great ease. The whole city celebrates Diwali as a national holiday! The festivities go on for two months.

Serangoon Road is lit for three months. It is the same with Eid, Mahashivaratri, or Thaipoosam. On Holi, at Tanjong Rhu Road, the deputy speaker of Singapore was there with me and there were 8,000-10000 people in that park, something you won’t even see in India! In terms of culture, you get to see the finest dance and music performances both from here and from India.

Esplanade hosts the 12-day Kala Utsavam (art festival). Every month you see great performing artists, cinema stars, writers, and artists from India performing here. So, you feel like you have the best of all worlds. And all this has not happened by chance.

The effort that the Singapore government has put in to make this city a vibrant multicultural society is phenomenal. And they have equally nurtured and embedded the Indian diaspora into its weave.

Senior ministers and government officials, and even the Prime Minister attend major Indian events wearing sarees and kurtas.

This kind of cultural sensitivity and soft diplomacy is unique and goes a long way.

How do Singapore firms feel about doing business in India and what role does the diaspora play in boosting their comfort factor?

Even though they make a lot of money in India, some of them are the largest investors there, they are very comfortable in doing big projects across different industries in a number of states—but there is still that hesitation that stems basically from a lack of cultural familiarity or comfort which they feel, for example in China, notwithstanding how much they make there or what kind of political or economic circumstances that exist.

At a very personal level, at an individual level, it is much easier to go there and do business there. But the comfort factor is slowly but surely improving with India, too. The Indian diaspora here has a large part to play in it.

They are leading some of the biggest of firms over here or are in very top management positions in Big Four accounting firms, private equity, consulting and tech firms. There are about 3,500-4,000 IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) alumni in the city, about 1,600-1,800 IIM (Indian Institute of Management) alumni. Probably one of the largest alumni group in the world located in any one city.

They are highly connected to India, partly because of proximity and partly because of their positions and roles here. They are shaping India-Singapore relations in business and commerce.

Singapore wants to see more geopolitical engagement from India in the region. Why and in what ways are the two countries cooperating?

Indeed. We have a convergence on many critical geopolitical and geo-economic areas. We have a shared belief in rules-based international order; in an open and inclusive architecture in which every stakeholder in the region, both those who are located here, and those who are outside, have a role to play.

If there are a large number of major countries that have stakes in this region working together, you can actually achieve a more stable environment, and one that exercises some sort of restraint on every country because there are so many large stakeholders involved in it and that issues are addressed more through accepted norms or through dialogue rather than through coalition or arbitrary reaction. That means savvy diplomacy.

We have very good defence partnership with Singapore, one of the most sophisticated and comprehensive defence relationships that we have not just in the region but anywhere around the world.

We have annual ministerial dialogue, permanent secretary-level dialogue, we have staff talks and exercises in all the three wings of the armed forces; we have the longest uninterrupted naval exercise with any country.

We also have a joint technology group which looks at future defence technologies and we do a regular exercise here in the Andamans, we exercise in the South China Sea.

So, our relationship is underpinned by a great deal of strategic convergence.

Close