Singapore: Can the Nobel Peace Prize really become more than a symbolic gesture to bring together a Hindu and a Muslim, and an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism?

Can it have reverberations for long lasting peace between two neighbours that have fought bitterly since partition? Is there any cause for hope beyond the feel good factor of the moment?

Can the work of Malala Yusufzai and Kailash Satyarthi for forging peace in the sub-continent be realized against the context of the current geopolitical climate in the two countries?

These are the recurring questions being wrestled with by politicians, diplomats and peacemakers on either side of the divide and in Singapore.

One man is more optimistic than the rest.

“The Nobel Committee has symbolically rebuked the forces of bellicosity and regression in the sub-continent," says Sajjad Ashraf, former high commissioner of Pakistan to Singapore and adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

“It is no coincidence that citizens of two countries, who maintain borders only a shade softer than the Korean Peninsula, win the coveted Peace Prize together in the same year," he adds. “I am hopeful that things will get better."

These words come from a man who has seen the highs and lows of politics in both nations and has succeeded largely in softening the image of Pakistan abroad, especially in Singapore where he served from 2004 to 2008. Among his many admirers are former Singapore President S.R. Nathan.

Still, despite the optimism, Ashraf, a charming man in his mid-50s, born of Kashmiri parents, reminisces ruefully when discussing the current plight of the two neighbours. He says he prefers to travel to India by road—and cross the border—so he can feel the land that unites, and divides.

“Standing on the Pakistani side of the Wagah border—gazing into India, on my occasional visits—I have often remembered my late father with moist eyes," he says.

“He used to travel freely between Lahore and Amritsar on bicycle and tonga to play volleyball for Lahore. And then came a time—when strolling with me—in the narrow, walled city of Lahore, he would walk in stunned silence, passing one empty house after the other of his close friends who had gone away to the other side."

Ashraf is aware that the current relationship between India and Pakistan does not look back to the nostalgic past and indeed has no time to waste on it.

Still, people like him who have lived through it and have seen better times, choose to hold on to hope of a better future, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

They look at the long arc of history and the long-term interests of securing peace for hostile nations that were once families.

Ashraf says India and Pakistan should look East—to Singapore and Malaysia—to find ways of forging peace.

He has admiration for the Little Red Dot (Singapore), which he says “punches above its weight" in diplomacy and business. He calls the city-state a “second home".

Ashraf has been an adviser to Fullerton Financial Holdings where he helped facilitate major investments by Singapore in Pakistan. And he regularly advises think tanks here on Pakistan-ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nation) relations and Pakistan-India relations.

“Foreign service work is about tireless consensus building against all odds," he says. “India and Pakistan need to keep talking, and respect each other’s position and space more. We need to do this before we can start accomplishing any big goals."

He adds: “By awarding the Peace Prize simultaneously to activists from the two belligerent neighbours, the Nobel Committee has thrown a challenge to the political and military leadership of both India and Pakistan to do more for the combined population of almost 1.4 billion people. This should awaken their conscience—hopefully."

Edited excerpts from an interview:

What do you make of the current state of India-Pakistan relations?

It is absolutely critical that the neighbours maintain a sense of dialogue and communication between themselves. And, there are fewer countries that are similar to each other than India and Pakistan. I dismiss the cynics who crow about the differences more than our similarities. No two siblings are clones. They have different tastes in food, dress and other preferences in life. The aim should be to build on what binds the two people. When siblings grow, they need their own space. That is how I see the subcontinent.

You have always been a proponent of better India-Pakistan relations. Your Prime Minister has echoed the same. However, he seems to have weakened domestically recently and, as a result, the tensions at the border have spiralled. With the Pakistan army back in the invisible driver’s seat, what do you see in the near future for India-Pakistan relations?

There is a little connection between weakening of the Prime Minister and tensions on the Line of Control. Both sides have blamed the other for the violation of cease-fire. This sparring has continued sporadically over the last decades. Though more Pakistanis civilians have been killed, every human life is important. You have to watch the venom spewed over the respective TV channels. Honestly, it is a cliché to blame the Pakistan army for all that goes wrong anywhere on the subcontinent.

In India, the view is that Nawaz Sharif had enraged the army with his pursuit of treason charges against (former President Pervez) Musharraf, his attempts at peace with India and his decision to side with a major television channel (GEO). But he had to back down on every position he has taken after it became clear that he would need the army just to survive. Your comments?

The government’s handling of Musharraf is clumsy and smacks of personal vindictiveness. In Pakistan, the debate rages that how can you forgive him for the original sin of military takeover in 1999 and try him for the declaration of emergency in 2007? And why do you single him out for the alleged action. Such actions are a group activity. You become a party by acquiescing with the act. And further several of the present day “hawks" in the cabinet took oath from Musharraf when they entered the Pakistan People’s Party-led coalition government in 2008. By this logic they took oath from a “traitor". How absurd.

When this GEO anchor was shot in Karachi, this TV channel continued to show the photograph of the spy agency chief for over four hours and continued to allege that the spy chief masterminded the shooting. Now, this is no slip. One time it may be a mistake; but then, where was the government’s regulatory agency?. Obviously, they let it go to malign the army as best as they could. This is state abandoning its responsibility to protect its institutions. Can you imagine CIA or MI-5 or RAW getting blame of attempted murder, without proof, and they show pictures of the spy chief if a shooting takes place in US or UK or India and that, too, for over four hours?

What is the current mood in Pakistan on the street towards India?

Nations’ psyches are built on experiences over centuries. It is not through one-time experiences. India lives with its own fears and so does Pakistan.

Given the historic reasons and the bitter divide, it is natural that India and Pakistan will have many more issues to settle. The challenge is to manage the discord and live under an arrangement, which is good for the common citizen of the subcontinent. We divided the subcontinent most arbitrarily, to solve a problem. In the process creating its own problems.

In 67 years since independence, the chasm has widened at official levels. Growing up in Lahore during the 1950s, it was easy to move back and forth. No more. We are only a shade softer than the North and South Korean borders. Imagine just about 200 people cross the only land border at Wagah/Attari. Compare this with Woodlands between Singapore and Malaysia—with over 60,000 vehicles carrying thousands more, the pedestrians, and the motorcyclists…the thunder is palpable.

What were some of the key initiatives you undertook while in Singapore?

A Pakistani diplomat’s job is not easy. With a roller-coaster political story, we are left defending actions of one regime or the other. The system narrows scope for pro-active policy projection.

In a country like Singapore, my mission was primarily economic. I had to make Singapore’s investors feel good about Pakistan as a country and about its people. I emphasized the “soft image" and showcased aspects of our tradition and culture that go unnoticed.

Singapore’s investments in Pakistan during my term amounted to almost Singapore $2 billion. This includes investments from Singtel, Fullerton Financial Holdings, Port Authority of Singapore and Standard Chartered Bank and a host of smaller ones.

What can Pakistan learn from Singapore? What can it apply realistically, given the political climate?

Pakistan has a lot to learn from Singapore. This is a nation, which I call a marvel of human engineering.

The one big message is “leadership". Pakistan’s leadership has repeatedly chosen the easy route of appeasing interest groups and, in the process, destroyed our future repeatedly. Regrettably, Pakistan is a divided house today.

We can and should learn good governance and strict and uniform application of rule of law, without fear of backlash—from Singapore. This is the only way to root out corruption. The political leadership does not demonstrate the will to eliminate the curse of corruption and improve public service delivery. Like Singapore, Pakistan should have “zero tolerance" for corruption. It is possible.

What about Pakistan’s bureaucracy and what role does it play in keeping the culture of corruption going?

Pakistan’s bureaucracy has let us down more than any other institution. They have shown the way to corruption to the politicians and the other segments of the society. They have a deeply entrenched colonial mindset. In Pakistan, they are called “government servants" and not “public servants". The nomenclature affects the very thinking and the nature of their behaviour. And when some of the known indicted cronies, who are required to appear regularly in courts, run bureaucracy-training institutions, this is what you get. These are, unfortunately, the role models.

An important lesson Pakistan can take from Singapore—make citizen the basis and centre of planning and development and make bureaucracy serve the people. They should be more accountable for their deeds and misdeeds.

The recent spectacle of street protests by Imran Khan and Canadian cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri were seen by the global community and by Pakistanis themselves as spurred on by a shift in the army’s strategy to emasculate the elected government by backing the mass mobilization of people against Sharif and then stepping in to don the role of mediator. Do you agree or disagree? Can you provide some perspective on what effect that had in the country and what this implies for Pakistan’s future?

Yes, conspiracy theorists in the beginning spread this propaganda that the army is behind the protests against the government. As time has passed, their theories have proven wrong. The Prime Minister is weakened because of poor governance, nepotism, corruption and his failure in delivery and not because of any external force. The army has only advised restraint and that the political differences be resolved without the use of force. How much more time does one expect the army to wait before the army dons the mediator’s role? On earlier occasions, the army took over under much more peaceful conditions. They have shown exceptional restraint after most provocative statements from people close to the Prime Minister. We are past masters in blame game. If the Prime Minister had delivered, no external force could derail the process of India–Pakistan rapprochement.

Will the (Indian Prime Minister Narendra) Modi-Sharif handshake have any impact going forward or is that history now?

Larger countries have larger responsibilities. Gujral sahib, (former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral of India) who also hailed from what is now Pakistan, has articulated his vision in Gujral Doctrine. India is now too big to be paranoid about smaller countries around. It should show more leadership. Japan carried South Korea, Taiwan and parts of South-East Asia into economic resurgence. Now, China is a vehicle to growth in many countries here. Historically, India and Pakistan are natural and complimentary economies. Why cut that chord? Are we to remain one of the most backward regions in the world—certainly not. Trust begets trust.