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India and the little red bindi

As Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, arrives in New Delhi, the focus is on bilateral ties that go back a long way.

Written by Lim Thuan Kuan |
Updated: October 4, 2016 3:51:00 am
india singapore, india singapore ties, india singapore relations, singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, Lim Thuan Kuan (Source: Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

India is one of Singapore’s oldest and closest friends. Last year, as Singapore celebrated 50 years of independence, we also toasted the 50 years of diplomatic relations with India.

In truth, our friendship goes back further. Since the Chola period, Indian traders have defined patterns of commerce in our region, shaped our religious beliefs, inspired our cuisines, and enriched our languages. Our name, Singapore, is derived from the Sanskrit word singapura, meaning “lion city”.

Today, India is a major power with more than a billion people and a huge economy. Singapore is the size of a small Indian city. Yet India has always treated Singapore as a peer and a true friend. We speak frankly with one another. For instance, just last month, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam delivered the inaugural NITI Aayog Lecture on Transforming India to India’s top leaders. This was an unprecedented honour for Singapore.

Our collaboration has always been based on mutual trust and benefit. Singapore has been a steadfast investor in India. This has not only benefitted our investors, but also supported India’s development. In 2005, we were the first to initial a comprehensive trade agreement with India — the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement — which included a strong investment chapter. It proved to be a huge boon for both our countries. In the decade since its signing, bilateral investment increased five-fold and trade tripled. In sectors like construction and logistics, investment increased more than 10 times.

It is noteworthy that Singapore contributed 16 per cent of India’s FDI from 2000 to 2016. As a sign of continued confidence in India, recent Singaporean investments include Sembcorp’s $3-billion power plant in Andhra Pradesh — its largest overseas investment globally; PSA’s $1.3-billion development of the fourth terminal at Jawaharlal Nehru Port in Mumbai, which will become India’s largest terminal when operational; and Ascendas-Singbridge’s $400-million IT Park in Haryana. In the finance sector, Singapore’s DBS bank, which has been in India since 1995, has big ambitions for India and aspires to lead the growth of Fintech. In support of India’s initiatives, DBS has applied to be a wholly-owned subsidiary in India. Singapore’s sovereign wealth funds, GIC and Temasek Holdings, have actively invested in India for over a decade.

But more than just investing in India, our position as a major financial hub offers an important source of high-quality capital for India. There is a strong investment eco-system in Singapore comprising a community of investment and fund managers who have made significant investments in India, reflecting their belief in the potential of India and its people. There is a strong case to be made for India and Singapore to deepen finance collaboration and for Singapore to be at the forefront of investment funding for India.

Apart from finance, two new areas of India’s development excite Singapore. The first is India’s “Smart Cities” drive, which offers many opportunities for us to participate and collaborate. For example, our companies are bidding to be involved in the establishment of Andhra Pradesh’s new capital city, Amaravati. Given our track record in urban development, there will be many other Indian cities that can benefit from Singapore’s experience. The second is skills development, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi identified as a priority for India. Singapore also places much importance in skilling and re-skilling our people to meet the challenges of an ever-changing world. In 2013, we collaborated with the Delhi government to launch a Skills Centre. Later this week, we will be launching with the Rajasthan government a Centre of Excellence in Tourism Training in Udaipur. Another upcoming initiative is to work with Assam to collaborate on a Skills Centre for the Northeast region.

I am often asked, “What can Singapore do for India with its small size?” and “What does Singapore expect of India?” Our former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who visited India five times as PM, described “new Asia” as a jumbo jet with India and China as its two wings. The jet has taken off, but we would like to suggest two ways to help it fly faster.

First, to “Act East”, India must be well-connected by flights to the fast-growing economies of East Asia. Expanding air connectivity will support continued economic growth, cross-flows of people, lead to greater mutual understanding, and facilitate the movement of international businesses seeking opportunities in India. We should jointly encourage this. In December 2015, Singapore carrier Tigerair started flights to Lucknow, the first by an airline from the East into Uttar Pradesh. Scoot, a Singapore Airlines subsidiary, launched flights from Singapore to Amritsar and Jaipur just this year.

Second, greater engagement between India and Asia would enhance regional prosperity and security. We need a set of norms and rules to provide a stable political environment in which regional countries can continue to develop. Such collectively-agreed rules and norms would also facilitate trade and investment, such as the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). I believe that India, as a major economic power with deep strategic interests in Southeast Asia, will play an important role in maintaining its peace and security.

Singapore is a firm believer in India’s immense potential. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s visit to India will reaffirm this. Whether in finance, aviation, or skills development, we are ready to support India in engaging the rest of Asia. Singaporeans take pride in referring to our country as a “little red dot”. Given the depth of India-Singapore cooperation, I would take it one step further. Singapore can be a “little red bindi” — a virtuous point in the mandala of a rising India.

The writer is high commissioner of Singapore to India.

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