India Looks East Through Singapore

Indian envoy says Singapore is critical to India in fundamental ways

12/31/2016 3:03:08 PM
written By : Shobha Tsering Bhalla and Nithya Subramanian Print

Months before his arrival, India’s new High Commissioner to Singapore Jawed Ashraf’s name had been spoken about in hushed whispers as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s blue-eyed boy, his hand-picked envoy.

Knowledgeable sources averred the respected career diplomat and former Joint Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, was PM Modi’s “speech writer”, an honour bestowed only on the most trusted and deserving bureaucrats.

When India Se Magazine met the affable diplomat in his office a week or so after his arrival his quick wit and impressively fluent articulation of India’s policy initiatives underscored his assessment by his peers of having one of the finest minds among India’s foreign policy wonks.

Ashraf who joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1991 is a graduate of Delhi’s prestigious St Stephen’s College and the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. He has served in Germany, Nepal and the United States and is considered an expert in Indo-US affairs. His wife, Dr Ghazala Shahabuddin, is an ecologist and conservation biologist who has taught at Yale.

India Se Magazine spoke to him on India’s “Act East” policy and demonetistion among other current issues. Here are some excerpts:

India Se: India and Singapore have an ancient relationship that seems to grow warmer by the day so what are the most important areas of this relationship that you wish to focus on?

Jawed Ashraf: You are right, the relationship is ancient, there were links of civilization and commerce. The period of colonization was at one level disruptive, but in another sense reinforcing. Indeed, that provided another strand of inter-connected history. There were decades as independent nations where we didn’t connect enough and pursued different priorities. Since the 1990s, three factors have simultaneously acted to build India-Singapore relations. One is India’s own economic reforms and opening up to the world. As we opened up to the world, we also began to look eastwards in ways we hadn’t done for a long time. 

The region, the larger Asia-Pacific region, was undergoing major transformation with unprecedented prosperity, rise of new powers and spread of democracy in many countries, but also unsettled questions that threw up new opportunities and challenges. All these changes meant that for India engagement with the region was vital for economic development and security and also larger strategic reasons.

India Se: So what role does Singapore play in your economic and security strategies?

Jawed Ashraf: Singapore was our gateway to the East, the biggest advocate of India’s engagement with the East, not just urging India to look East but also encouraging Asean (Association of SE Asian Nations) and member countries to deepen engagement with India. And it emerged as a major partner in our economic transformation. On top of that we have seen enormous expansion of people to people ties, growth in the population of people of Indian origin and citizens living here, spurt in flow of tourists and students. Cultural exchanges have also grown, driven not so much by the governments as by the people. We really have a relationship that is comprehensive and touches all aspects of human endeavour.

India Se: Can you give us more details of this India-Singapore partnership?

Jawed Ashraf: Singapore is a critical partner for India in three fundamental ways. One, in bilateral relations there are no irritants, it is politically very strong, we have convergent views and similar approaches on a broad range of international issues. Second, as we enhance our engagement with the East, consistent with PM Modi’s “Act East” policy, Singapore will remain a principal partner. Three, we see Singapore as an important partner in our development – skills, education, cities, trade and investment, technology, connectivity…

Finally, we have the extraordinary wealth of people to people ties. There is hardly any country in the world where people to people ties are at this level. We see Singapore as a partner in all dimensions of transformation.

And we both recognise that we live in very challenging times, uncertain times where the fundamental foundations on which regional prosperity and stability rested is now in the shadow of uncertainty due to a number of international factors. We both would like to work together and with countries of the region, to create and work for a more peaceful, cooperative, collaborative and integrated region that comprises all of Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Work together to address a number a regional challenges to ensure that it remains peaceful and stable, which was the bedrock on which the region’s prosperity has been built over the last several decades.

And finally, we have the extraordinary wealth of people to people ties. Hardly a country in the region where people to people ties are at this level. So if take all these factors, you will see a natural partnership between the countries and. I have personally seen it grow as working with two prime ministers, I have seen the importance our political leadership attaches to this, the priority the industry gives to the relationship and level of warmth that exists in the people in India. It is a very rich relationship but its potential is bigger. When I see my role here, I see it in all dimensions. The relationship must and can only move forward with speed and stability when it moves on all fronts together. 

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    2017.11.3yangping

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