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Tan Tai Yong, director of the Institute of South Asian Studies, says if land connectivity between India and Asean through North-East India is achieved, it will not only boost trade, but will also be a critical link for India to the region.
Tan Tai Yong, director of the Institute of South Asian Studies, says if land connectivity between India and Asean through North-East India is achieved, it will not only boost trade, but will also be a critical link for India to the region.

Tan Tai Yong | Putting South Asia in people’s consciousness

The Institute of South Asian Studies director on his fascination for India's history and the country's historic ties with South-East Asia

Singapore: For Tan Tai Yong, director of the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) in Singapore, his fascination with Indian history began when he was an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

But courses on Indian history were few and far between when compared with the ones on China, Europe, America and South-East Asia. “I always felt India and South-East Asia had a long historic connection and that there is a need to understand this better," he said, explaining his reasons to focus on India for his junior thesis in the late 1980s.

Tan eventually ended up researching and writing on the Sikh community in Singapore. “My professors said there was not enough time to spend in India for my research. After looking into the Sikh community here, it got me more interested, and I decided to focus on Punjab for my PhD," he said.

His PhD work, later published as a book called The Garrison State, examined the military, government and society in colonial Punjab between 1849 and 1947, and studied the factors that made this province the principal recruiting ground, or the “sword arm", of the Raj.

Tan explained that Punjab was transformed by the British because of its importance as a recruiting ground for the Indian army, and this civil-military nexus strengthened a group of people in that province, who were rewarded with land and other benefits, the aftermath of which continues to be felt in modern-day Pakistan.

“After partition, it was this civil-military group in Western Punjab that had benefitted from the British, who become the dominant mainstay of the state of Pakistan. Post-colonial Pakistan did not have an established party like the Congress—the institutional strengths rested with the military and the bureaucracy. The garrison state was built before independence and it persisted because the other institutions in Pakistan were weak—it, therefore, had to depend on the strongest institution, which is the military," he added.

After his first two degrees—BA (Honours) and MA—from the NUS, Tan earned his doctorate in South Asian history from Cambridge University and was back in Singapore in 1992 with the NUS.

“I was also among the few who could offer courses in Indian history at NUS due to this specialization," he said.

Tan said Singapore’s view of India began to change in the early 1990s when India began liberalizing and opening up its economy and credited the city-state’s then prime minister Goh Chok Tong for this change in perception, which eventually led to the setting up of ISAS.

He recalls Goh as saying at a National Day rally in the early 1990s that it was important for Singapore to look at India as a rising Asian power and that he wanted to start “an Indian fever here".

Tan then worked with S.R. Nathan (who was to be elected President of Singapore in 1999) to set up an undergraduate programme on India at NUS.

Nearly a decade after his asking Singapore to take note of India, Goh in 2003-04 stressed the need for creating greater awareness of South Asia and suggested that a research institute and think tank be set up to focus on the region.

“Singapore approached ambassador Gopinath Pillai for setting up ISAS, and he (Pillai) was looking for a director to run the institute. At that time, I was dean of faculty of arts and social sciences, and when he approached me, I agreed for a six-month stint to set up the institute. Six months was the promise that I made in 2004 and today I am still sitting here," he said.

Describing his stint at ISAS as an “interesting and an enjoyable ride", Tan said the institute had grown significantly from just two researchers to about 24 currently, and added that the quality of its work now was being recognized globally.

“Even within Singapore, we have started to put South Asia in the consciousness of people," he said.

As a long-time observer of India, Tan said Western commentary on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi stemmed from concerns that Modi was “someone who was not entirely secular and had a certain strong religious ideology which may not be good for a country like India".

He said concerns about Modi were not similar to the concerns about the leadership in Japan and China that appeared to be encouraging rising nationalism among their peoples.

“It is what form of nationalism that matters. In case of China, it is the fear of certain muscular, intense nationalism that basically sees China’s pre-eminence that must be accepted—that is a concern. That expression that China must not be bullied again is very strong. This is not a problem in India as it is a secular democracy. The point is that if it is a narrow form of nationalism—religious nationalism, then it can be potentially harmful. I think that Modi has a constituency that he would like to nurture and cultivate—that is the Hindu constituency. Question is how will he be able strike a balance," Tan said.

The ISAS director has written several books covering topics as diverse as the partition of the Indian subcontinent to Creating Greater Malaysia: De-colonisation and the Politics of Merger (2008); The Transformation of Southeast Asia: International Perspectives on De-colonisation.

On the future of Singapore, Tan listed a key point highlighted in his book—that it has always been an “open port city" that has functioned as a nodal point for regional trade for the last 700 years.

“In 1971, Singapore’s first foreign minister S. Rajaratnam said we will position ourselves as a global city-state. The idea of a global city state is that it will not function as a country that looks inwards, but it will continue to connect with the regional and global economies and make itself relevant functioning very much like it did during the 16th and 17th century as a port city," Tan said.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

ISAS studies social, political and economic trends, and developments in the region—what are the key issues you are looking at?

Our brief is to look at developments in contemporary South Asia. Because we are located in Singapore, we want to understand the development in the region in relation to our interests.

First, we need to know what is happening in South Asia—political trends, elections, who is in power, how stable are the regimes and what are the changes one can expect in terms of shift of power.

Second, we are interested in the relations among South Asian countries. One of the critical factors we felt was that if South Asian region can integrate more fruitfully as an economy, the potential for the region is going to be quite tremendous. The intra-regional trade is very low and SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) has not really been a success.

Third, we are interested to look at how this region features in world affairs and how it relates with other powers—China, US, Japan—and also its relations with South-East Asia. Asean (Association of South-East Asian Nations) is interested to link up. South Asia has not lived up to its promises, but I think it is a great potential. India already has a free trade agreement with Asean.

How have the relations between South-East Asia and South Asia changed during the last 10 years?

It all reached a high point when India announced its Look East policy in 1991-92, and it has been 20 years since and the relationship has been strong and sustained. There is a free trade agreement between Asean and India that covers services and investments also. The question has always been asked, if that momentum could have produced a lot more, and the answer is yes—but this is a function of various things, including domestic politics in India. The UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government has always been interested in looking at South-East Asia, but there were periods where it looked West rather than looked East. India is a very critical player in the region and Asean countries know it. Let me give a very specific example—the land connectivity between India and Asean through North-East India is something that has been talked about for many years. If it can be achieved, you then drive all the way to India from Singapore. It will boost trade. People are waiting. India’s North-East is something we are closely monitoring because that will be the critical link between India and Asean.

Can the Singapore model of governance be transferred to larger states like India?

There are quite (a few) fundamental differences between Singapore’s model and other countries. Just sheer size—Singapore is probably the size of a small city in India. What you can achieve in one city and how you transplant it is a different proposition. Second, the priorities that were set out by the Singapore government from the 1960s were very clear—economic and social growth to maintain the viability of the country, and it was a very focused strategic approach. The challenges Singapore faces is very different from that of a large country like India, which has a much more complex social and political make-up. Leadership has been another issue—Singapore had a very strong leadership that was very committed to a certain path of development. In India, you had periods of strong leadership, but the nature of democracy is such that you cannot always have strong leaders and, therefore, policies and priorities change. I would not want to suggest that Singapore model can be replicated in large countries, but what I’ve always said is that India can have 1,000 Singapores as agents of change. You don’t try to make it a nationwide kind of experiment, but if you can incorporate some of Singapore’s development strategies to parts of India—city management, education, technical education in Singapore, universities—you can replicate elements of success.

What is your take on a rising China—will it be peaceful? China has territorial disputes with nearly all Asean countries, and do you see the latter allying with the US to counter China?

China has always articulated that it wants its rise to be peaceful. At the same time, one is witnessing a resurgence of Chinese nationalism—the pride in being Chinese, the belief that China’s time has come, and a reminder because of its history that it does not want to be bullied again, and it wants to be a respected power. China knows it needs to continue to grow economically—the legitimacy of the Communist Party depends on that. In an integrated international economic environment, it has to be a responsible player so that it can continue to trade, export and draw in investments. At the same time, it wants to be respected for being one of the key powers in the world, especially in Asia, and it is not going to compromise on key things like territorial integrity or if its trade routes are threatened. The disputed islands are symbolic of a deep seated historical animosity between China and Japan. I don’t think it is in China’s interest to displace the US out of Asia. It can accept America’s presence, but if the US were to team up with Japan and India to stop China’s growth, then it may react. China does not want to be the sole power in Asia—it is prepared to co-exist and so there will be some degree of competition, but the question is whether this competition will lead to conflict. I don’t see a bandwagoning by Asian countries towards the American side—I think all countries will act with a degree of independence. Japan and the Philippines have been long-term allies of the US—those countries will act in a specific way. At the same time, a lot of people see China as an opportunity.

Despite what some people may think, I don’t think the predominance and pre-eminence of American power is going to diminish any time soon—in terms of economic, military technology, it is very far ahead. Whether it remains the sole power is another debate. Much will depend on what it wants to do, like the pivot to Asia. China’s rise is inexorable unless there is an internal collapse, which I don’t see happening. Japan is still technologically and economically quite powerful. If India can sort out its issues and go back to the 8-9% growth and sustain it for a prolonged period of time, it will be a power with its land size, population size and its economy. Russia has significant interests in Asia—the Asian security architecture that is evolving is going to be quite interesting.

You have also co-authored a book on the aftermath of partition in South Asia.

As historians, we have always looked at partition as the end of a story—India attained independence that came at a price and there was division of the sub-continent into two countries. What my co-author and I were trying to do was to rethink the whole idea of partition as the start of a story because partition continues, we argue in our book, to have long-term impact on developments in our region. Kashmir, for instance, is an unresolved issue left over from partition. There are refugee problems and if you look at the boundaries between India and Bangladesh, there is no man’s land and that is also due to partition. If you look at the development of some cities like Delhi, which is essentially a Punjabi city, that again is the outcome of the migration following partition. We felt partition continues, especially for Northern India, not just in the memory of the people who went through that phase, but it has its impact on the region.

How does Singapore handle a rising and more assertive South-East Asia?

There is (through a) number of ways—first is to ensure it is not militarily weak, or in other words, it must ensure that it has strong capability to defend itself, and make the point it is prepared to do so. Defence is only one part—more importantly, it is diplomacy. Singapore’s diplomacy has worked well to make it relevant to regional groupings and has also helped it make friends. Singapore has always welcomed American presence in South-East Asia, not because of just trade and commerce, but also because of balance. Small countries want big players to balance each other so that no one country can hegemonize. With America here, China rising and India growing, there is a nice balance, and there will always be a place for a small country—Singapore. Asean as a body is very critical to maintain that balance.

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