As we observe Singapore’s 49th National Day on August 9, 2014, Singapore and India will commence a year-long celebration to commemorate 50 years of diplomatic relations in 2015. Our two countries’ historical friendship goes back a few hundred years, with early maritime traders from India plying the region. India’s influence on Singapore can also be found in Singapore’s name, which means “Lion City” in Sanskrit.
It was from Calcutta that the founder of modern Singapore, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, sailed to Singapore in 1818, and from Calcutta that Singapore was governed between 1823 and 1867. As a free port, Singapore grew rapidly with the influx of immigrants from China, India and Southeast Asia, all in search of a better life. As the fledgling British colony matured, Singapore became a destination for various Indian luminaries, such as Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose and Rabindranath Tagore, who all left their indelible mark on Singapore’s early history. With our Indian forefathers hailing from places like Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Bengal and Gujarat, Indian languages and culture have been woven into Singapore’s multi-racial and multi-religious fabric. Today, 9 per cent of Singapore’s population is ethnic Indian and Tamil is one of our four official languages.
Politically, relations received a boost in 1994 when then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao visited Singapore and delivered his seminal lecture on India’s “Look East Policy”. Rao outlined a bold vision for India to move closer towards Southeast Asia, and it was under his charge that India embarked on a path of economic reforms. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong responded by igniting an “India fever” in Singapore. Goh believed in India’s future and potential, and strongly urged Singapore businesses and companies to invest in India. He further embraced India by playing an instrumental role in persuading the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to welcome India into the ASEAN family as a dialogue partner in 1995, and encouraged Indian membership in the ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asia Summit.
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Since then, our relations have rapidly broadened and deepened. Singapore has the distinction of being the first country with which India concluded a comprehensive economic cooperation agreement in 2005. The results have been highly beneficial for both countries. India is a vital trading partner of Singapore, with a trade volume of almost $20 billion in 2013. Trade is balanced and growing, and we are one of India’s top-10 trading partners. Singapore became the top investment source for India with $6 billion in foreign direct investment in 2013-14. Today, Singapore has major investments spread across different strategic sectors in India, including aviation, port, industrial parks and water technologies. As a further indication of our comfort level, Singapore and India enjoy close defence cooperation, including joint exercises with the army, air force and navy. Our people-to-people linkages are strong, with one million Indians visiting Singapore annually and 440 weekly flights between Singapore and 12 Indian cities.
While we celebrate our past, we also look towards the future by considering how we can further elevate our already close relationship. For a start, we look forward to sharing with India our experiences in developing “smart cities”, skills training, port management and water management. These are among a few exciting opportunities that Singapore and India can consider for joint cooperation.
As part of our commemorative celebrations, Singapore and India will be exchanging high-level visits by our respective presidents in 2015; President Tony Tan Keng Yam will come to India in early 2015 and President Pranab Mukherjee will visit Singapore thereafter. In India, Singapore will be hosting a “Festival of Singapore” that will highlight our cultural heritage through a curated Peranakan exhibition, celebration of food and a film festival. We will jointly issue commemorative stamps and books. In Singapore, India will be hosting a parallel “Festival of India” to showcase India’s vibrant culture.
As our air connectivity with more and more Indian states increases, Singaporeans are exploring the diverse wonders and manifold business opportunities that India has to offer. Just as many Indian friends have told me about their closer connections to Singapore, and how comfortable and familiar they feel in Singapore, the same can be said of Singaporeans who visit India. At the end of the day, these are the ties that bind.
The writer is the high commissioner of the Republic of Singapore to India