A paradigm shift for India-Asean relations

The recently concluded Parvasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) in Singapore has sent a clear message that strategic ties with Singapore and the region have leapt to the highest level, say experts. India Se Magazine spoke with India’s High Commissioner to Singapore Jawed Ashraf, the brains behind the PBD (the first time it has been held outside India) on the reason for choosing Singapore and what it means for India’s Look East policy. Here are some excerpts:

India Se: The Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) was very successful. It seemed like a paradigm shift took place in the relationship between India and Singapore, India and Asean. It’s hard to believe you accomplished this in three short months.

Jawed Ashraf: Thank you very much. People are really at the heart of the success of this endeavour. This was the tail-end of the holiday season, and a weekend. But we had 4,500 registrations, an average of 2,800-2,900 people throughout the day on both days, a sit-down dinner with 2,700 people, the same level of participation in the plenary session, the enthusiasm and the festive atmosphere that I saw in the long corridors of the Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre – that is what gave it that sense of energy, the sense of participation.

That’s one side of it. The second is that it’s successful because of the extraordinary talent of the diaspora that was on display. Since I came here just a little over a year ago, I have been really astonished by the sheer diversity of talent and the wealth of accomplishment that we have in Singapore and the rest of the region, particularly Singapore. It isn’t just restricted to business or geopolitics or academics or technology or finance. You see this in everything – in the performing arts, in literature, in art, yoga, ayurveda, in every field of human endeavour, you see great accomplishments. That is what really got me excited about the PBD.

When I first made a presentation on this to a group of very senior people from the Indian diaspora, they were quite sceptical about the ability to pull off something which had such a wide range of activities and which was conceived on such a large scale. And to be able to raise the money for it, to do it in three months. But I was quite confident that we could pull it off. So the first important element in this was what I would call the centralisation.

I didn’t want it to be restricted to panel discussions and speeches. So you saw that there was an exhibition on 2,000 years of links between India and Southeast Asia. We had a wonderful cine-fest. It was a lovely writers’ festival. Then we had one day of yoga sessions and meditations. Then a day of ayurveda conference. We had a youth corner. The whole conceptualisation was to reflect the diversity of talent, the accomplishment and diversity of themes. It would have been very unfair if it was restricted to the usual mix.

The other aspect, which was very important to me, was that it had to be the best in every respect. It had to have the best venue, which it did. It had to be uncompromising in quality in every respect, whether it was branding, whether it was advertising, whether it was the theme that I chose – Ancient Routes, New Journeys – the design of the logo, all of that had to be of global standards. I think what we do and how we do it says something about our country and about our community and about our links.  Some of the people working with me told me that “To you not even the smallest detail was unimportant, to be left without it being examined.” I did pay a lot of attention to writing and even designing the menu. The experience finally becomes good because of the attention to detail. But I also had a tremendous support in putting this together from De Ideaz. And it’s a joy to see that because you know in some sense, it’s a reflection of new India, and the power of new India.

Then, of course, my own High Commission team truly put their heart and soul into it. They are a very small team. We also were short of staff for a number of administrative reasons during this very crucial period, but we all pulled it together.

What was a really important thing to me in the course of doing this was to be able to bring together all sections of the Indian diaspora here together on one platform. And the fact is when you tap the full potential of a community, empower them, give them the sense of belonging in a project – and I’ve always said this is not my project, this is not about the Government of India or the High Commission, this is about all of us here – and people came forward, validated what I was thinking.

This was a truly remarkable exercise. This is the big lesson that shows how much we can achieve if we are together. The Indian community is not a disruptive community. The Indian community is a community which only adds value to the country in which they are living. This event could have been just an India-Singapore event, and it would have still been a great event.

I am sure we can achieve great things together. The Indians are by birth, by civilisation, by their nature, used to living in diversity.

So for us here when we are in Singapore or in the Asean region we should be not just embracing each other but be part of Singapore’s absolutely wonderful, multicultural society. We chose Singapore (for the PBD) for a number of reasons. First, it is an example of harmony and multiculturalism. And it is not just because of laws. It is because of what the government, the leadership and the people tend to do on a daily basis. The second is that you know in Singapore they have made sure that it’s not just the law that is there as a deterrent but that they actually work hard to ensure that people embrace each other across their own identities.

It’s because of this that Singapore has been able to create that space for communities to nurture their traditions, cultures, faiths, languages. If you look at the Indian languages, apart from Tamil, which is an official language, there are provisions to teach five other Indian languages in schools. It shows the sensitivity.

The second is that Singapore is our regional partner, our strategic partner, a leading economic partner and also a strong diplomatic partner, a great partner in this region. We have outstanding defence, security relations. Connectivity is very high. Sixteen cities are connected directly to Singapore. Then, when we talk of Asean and India, it is important to emphasise that Singapore played a very crucial role in being the intellectual bridge between India and Asean, bringing the entities India and Asean closer, and then helping build this relationship from what was a dialogue partnership into a strategic partnership. For all these reasons, and obviously, the infrastructure here is outstanding, it’s much easier to organise an event here, and the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and my own remarks have emphasised the different dimensions of Singapore’s natural claim to be a venue for an event of this nature.

India Se: Now that the PBD was so successful, what is the future for India-Asean and India-Singapore relations?

Jawed Ashraf: (While) this was a diaspora event, this was much, much more than a diaspora event, This was actually an Asean-India platform. You could see from the kind of topics we had for our panel discussions over two days, the whole purpose was to see how we can advance India’s relations with Southeast Asia as well as India’s institutional engagement with Asean. We need to develop our economic relations. Our political and diplomatic relations are outstanding; there are no irritants, there is only goodwill.

Our economic ties have grown. Singapore is the leading investor in India. Singapore is also the largest destination for Indian investors. We have an enabling framework in the form of India-Asean FTA, India-Singapore CECA, and we are all part of the ongoing negotiations in the regional conference for economic partnership.

What we have to do is to recognise what this event showed, that there is great potential for two billion people of India and Southeast Asia to forge a strong partnership for peace and prosperity for a number of reasons. One, we have the right demographic in both: 640 million people (in Asean countries). In India, there is a similar ratio of young people to this part of the world. We have rapidly growing and dynamic economies. We have proximity and growing connectivity. We share a very similar vision of peace and stability in the region in the sense of what it takes to achieve long-term stability and prosperity. Chiefly, strong in rules-based order, adherence to international norms, dialogue rather than dispute, sense of building consensus in the region, particularly at a time when this region is undergoing so much change.

As I look to the future, I also see great opportunities for partnership in the digital world, not just in terms of digital enterprises but also to do what we in India have been doing very successfully, which is to use the power of digital technology for transforming governance, financial institutions, marginalising the mainstream, empowering the poor. You know, for example, as you are aware that with Aadhaar, mobile telephone and digital connectivity, we have brought the entire country into the banking system. So we have a billion bank accounts today, all in a short span of time with more than a billion phones and with more than a billion people, (each) with a unique identity. And that is changing many things in the country. The Asean region also has a similar kind of structure. Most people are still, 70 per cent I think on an average, government payments are in cash across the country. They also have an internet penetration of 50 per cent. But the telephone penetration is above 130 per cent. So there are enormous opportunities and we just need to engage more, and I am sure that as India’s economy develops and becomes more mature, one of the first things you will see is a rapid increase in our economic engagement with the region.

India Se: The infrastructural partnership that Mr Ishwaran and Mr Vivian Balakrishnan were talking about sounds extremely interesting – particularly the fact that Singapore and India have partnered to join hands and develop the infrastructure of Asean together. It seems as if all these years of cooperation – from the trade and cultural links of two millennia, to the latter-day immigrations and more current tie-ups like the CECA (Comprehensive Economic & Cultural A….) and now this PBD was, in a way, working up to a perfect storm – a good storm – to converge over India-Asean.

Jawed Ashraf: Yeah. You know that was exactly the motif for our theme of Ancient Routes, New Journeys: Diaspora in the Dynamic India-Asean Partnership. People can easily forget that there have been more than two millennia of links. The earliest evidence we have is about 2,500 years ago, of links between South India and Southeast Asia. You can see that imprint in every aspect of life in the region – language, culture, festivals, names, architecture, temples. I even heard an Indian say that if you want to see all the Indian festivals in one city, then you come to Singapore. You won’t find that anywhere (else) in the world. In one year, I have probably seen more festivals here than I have seen in India. So we have had this two and a half millennia of links which provides a very solid foundation. I mean the familiarity, the comfort, that comes from cultural affinities, those are very important facts. As we look ahead in this changing region, we find we also have great convergence of views and approaches and thinking.

We believe in India that Asean unity, leadership and centrality are absolutely critical for the evolution of an architecture in the region that advances peace, stability and prosperity. We will always continue to emphasise this aspect. It is for this reason that we are going to have a commemorative summit in New Delhi on January 25 with leaders of all 10 Asean countries. It will be hosted by Prime Minister Modi. It is an even bigger honour for us that on Republic Day, on January 26, all 10 leaders of Asean countres are going to be there as guests of honour to join our President and our Prime Minister to review the Republic Day parade. That’s a very important message we are sending not just to the 1.32 billion people of India or the 640 million peope of Asean but to the (whole) world. They will all see that this is the importance that India attaches to Asean, this is the importance of Asean.

India Se: In some ways you could extrapolate that this is the burgeoning of a new world order?

Jawed Ashraf: Yes. Absolutely. Which is why one of the topics was India, Asean in a new world order. And it’s a fantastic panel we had on that.

India Se: How would you sum up your last one year in Singapore? How has the entire experience been?

Jawed Ashraf: Busy, intense and exciting. I am learning a lot. This is my first posting in Southeast Asia. Couldn’t have been in a better place. It has been enjoyable. The city has many treasures, some obvious, some not so obvious. So personally, also it has been very rewarding for me, but professionally it has been very, very outstanding.



Shobha Tsering Bhalla

Shobha Tsering Bhalla is the Editor-in-Chief at India Se.