Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Singapore visit marked by new agreements; the two nations get closer
6/15/2018 5:35:27 PM
|written By : Shobha Tsering Bhalla & Abhijit Nag|
He came, he spoke and not only reaffirmed a marriage of interests but also participated in a wedding of wallets, a union of electronic money transfer systems. A raft of agreements was signed during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three-day visit to Singapore, but nothing impressed an old-timer more than the news that Indians using the RuPay card will be able to make payments at all NETS acceptance points in Singapore -- and Singapore’s NETs cards will be accepted wherever RuPay cards are in India. Indians today, with easy access to credit cards, may wonder what the fuss is about. But most Indians remember the late 1980s when Indians going overseas were allowed to carry only up to US$50, no thanks to foreign exchange restrictions. And PM Modi, the Make in India pitchman, launched not just RuPay but two mobile payment apps as well – BHIM and a State Bank of India app for easier rupee remittances to India, expected to benefit migrant workers and their families.
How times have changed. Mr Modi, visiting Singapore for the third time since he became prime minister four years ago, stressed India’s millennia-old links with Singapore and the region – what he called “Suwarnabhumi”. But there are ebbs and flows in history. No matter how long Indians have been in Singapore, there has been a significant increase in the last three decades. Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who as prime minister (1990 -2004) forged closer ties with India during the economic liberalisation of the Narasimha Rao regime (1991 – 1996), recalled at an Indian community tribute dinner in 2005: “My effort to generate a stream of capable Indian nationals to Singapore goes as far back as 1992 when I first met PM (Narasimha) Rao in Jakarta during the Non-Aligned Movement Summit. At that time, I raised with him Singapore’s interest in encouraging more Indians to come to Singapore. I told him that India was losing many students and professionals to the West. Since India was losing them, why not encourage them to come to Singapore, I pleaded my case. Singapore was nearer to India and these Indian nationals could contribute to both Singapore and India. Rao agreed with me. He replied that top Indian talent were all over the world. He supported their coming to Singapore to study, work or settle.”
One may wonder what that has to do with PM Modi’s visit. After all, Indians have been in Singapore from time immemorial. Yes, but the Indians as an ethnic group made up 7 per cent of Singapore’s resident population in 1970, declined to 6.3 per cent in 1980, edged up to 7.1 per cent in 1990, 7.9 per cent in 2000 and rose to 9.2 per cent in 2010. The Indian segment has increased under prime ministers Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong, whose terms coincided with India’s growing economic importance.
PM Modi, who first visited the city-state to attend the state funeral of Lee Kuan Yew in March 2015 and again in November that year to sign a Strategic Partnership with Singapore, has made more trips to China, Germany and Russia (four times each) and America (five times). But he lost no time expressing his admiration for Singapore. Addressing a gathering of 5,000 at the Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre shortly after his arrival on May 31, he said: “Singapore may be a small island, but its horizons are global. This great nation has shown us that size is no barrier to the scale of achievements or the strength of a nation’s voice in the world.” The encomium was followed by a home truth. “India and Singapore are contributing to each other’s prosperity,” he said. Both stand to gain. Business was certainly on the Indian PM’s mind when he chaired a round-table session the same day with 30 leading CEOs and business leaders. Whatever transpired at the meeting, it was not an appeal for investments from a hard-up nation, but a business opportunity presented by what’s about to become the fifth biggest economy in the world, overtaking Britain, behind only America, China, Japan and Germany.
Mr Goh was prescient when he said at the Indian community tribute dinner in 2005: “I believe that India will emerge as a major economic power and geopolitical player. Singapore can benefit from India’s growth just as we are benefiting from China’s.” Billions of dollars are changing hands. As PM Lee said at a joint press conference with PM Modi on June 1, “Since we signed the CECA (Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement) in 2004, our bilateral trade more than doubled from S$12 billion to S$25 billion. Singapore is now the second largest investor in India in FY2016, with a cumulative FDI (foreign direct investment) from 2000 to 2016 at S$36 billion.” Earlier, a Reserve Bank of India report on January 19 stated, “Mauritius was the largest source of FDI in India (21.8 per cent share at market value) followed by the USA, the UK, Singapore and Japan whereas” – and note this – “Singapore (19.7 per cent) was the major ODI (outward direct investment) destination, followed by the Netherlands, Mauritius, and the USA.” So, as Mr Goh hoped and Mr Modi said, both countries are benefiting.
India-Singapore ties were strengthened on June 1 when they agreed to upgrade their Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) soon, concluding the second review of the agreement. Eight agreements were signed in the fields of nursing, training public service officials, cyber security, narcotics control and defence cooperation. The Indian and Singapore navies, which have been conducting bilateral exercises for 25 years, exchanged an agreement for logistics cooperation.
There are nearly 500 flights a week between Singapore and 16 different destinations. And yet the two prime ministers discussed expanding the bilateral air services agreement. “Last year, more than four million passengers travelled between the two countries. This year, the growth has continued strong and it has gone up another 14 per cent in the first quarter. An upgrade of this agreement will boost the business and tourism sectors, and bring our two peoples closer together,” noted PM Lee.
It’s significant that the CECA review has now been completed, considering it was put on hold last year “in response to cutbacks in visa approvals for Indian software professionals bound for Singapore”. This was reported in the Straits Times in April last year, quoting the Times of India. “When we talk about employment passes, that is in the context of specific models, of delivering service. But I think there has been an improvement,” the Indian High Commissioner Jawed Ashraf told India Se magazine in an exclusive interview recently. “We are conscious of Singapore’s concerns and their strategy with respect to their economy. They are aware of the sensitivities that we have, particularly with respect to the ability of Indian companies to deliver their services and conduct business in a predictable, smooth manner in Singapore.”
After the joint press conference with PM Lee on June 1, PM Modi visited Nanyang Technological University (NTU). In his welcome address, NTU president Prof Subra Suresh noted how NTU’s close partnership with India had led to research collaborations with almost 170 Indian institutions. Together with Singapore’s Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, PM Modi witnessed the exchange of six landmark agreements and statements of intent to advance innovation for the digital age. These included joint NTU PhD programmes with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras, and IIT, Bombay, a joint supervision and research programme with the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and collaboration with the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology in research and education. NTU also announced a generous S$4 million gift from Infosys co-founder and Axilor Ventures chairman Kris Gopalakrishnan. Half the money will be used to create the Gopalakrishnan-NTU Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship for research at NTU. The rest of the money will be equally shared between the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, to fund research collaborations for their students at NTU.
Keen on further student interaction, PM Modi came up with an idea. Let students from India and Singapore participate in a hackathon, with each side setting questions for the other to solve, he proposed to PM Lee. “It’s a great idea,” said Singapore’s Education Minister Ong, “I think we should gather our universities and do this.”
Innovation has become the watchword for both India and Singapore with both invested deeply in the digital economy. It’s fitting that PM Modi began his visit by attending InSpreneur 2.0, a conference organised by the Indian High Commission in alliance with Enterprise Singapore and others, to foster partnership in technology, innovation and enterprise.
Mr Modi was invited to Singapore not only to draw the two countries closer but also for what he had to say to the region and the world at large. PM Lee invited him to deliver the keynote note address at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue – the first Indian leader to be given that honour. The Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s premier defence summit held in Singapore since 2002, has always had the keynote address delivered by the Singapore prime minister till 2008. Subsequently it has been delivered by the then Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2009, the then South Korean president Lee Myung-Bak in 2010, the then Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak in 2011, the then Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2012, the then Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung in 2013, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2014, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2015, the Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in 2016, and the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2017.
PM Modi’s keynote address on the night of June 1 was eagerly awaited as India has come to be seen as a counterweight to China, whose naval build-up and territorial claims to the South China Sea have sparked tensions in the region. In the event, PM Modi acknowledged India’s complicated relations with China. “No other relationship of India has as many layers as our relations with China,” he said. But he added: “Our cooperation is expanding. Trade is growing. And, we have displayed maturity and wisdom in managing issues and ensuring a peaceful border.” He, however, stressed the need for freedom of navigation, taking the same line as America and Singapore. But he also spoke against protectionism, growing in the West. “India stands for an open and stable international trade regime,” he said, taking the same position as Singapore and China, proving that politics does make strange bedfellows: bitter rivals on one issue can make common cause on another.
On the last day of his visit, on June 2, PM Modi with Emeritus Senior Minister (EMS) Goh Chok Tong unveiled a plaque at Clifford Pier where some of Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes were immersed in 1948. He also visited the Sri Mariamman Temple, Chulia Mosque and the Buddha Tooth Relic and bought a Madhubani painting with a RuPay card at the Indian Heritage Centre. He chose the two temples and the mosque because all three religions came to this region from India, reporters were told at a media briefing earlier. He also had an orchid named in his honour. Dendrobrium Narendra Modi is “a strong and robust tropical orchid”, tweeted Ministry of External Affairs official spokesman Raveesh Kumar. A robust flower for a strong leader. Later, he visited the Changi Naval Base and boarded the Indian frigate INS Satpura.
PM Lee in a statement said he was already looking forward to PM Modi’s next visit to Singapore in November this year for Asean meetings and the East Asia summit. He has clearly made an impression. “PM Modi has the charm, personality and diplomatic skills to play a leading role in shaping Asia’s future,” Mr Goh Chok Tong wrote on Facebook after unveiling Gandhi’s plaque. PM Modi and Indians everywhere will be pleased if his assessment is correct.