Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s recent five-day visit to India began with meetings with Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and President Pranab Mukherjee. Two agreements were signed in the area of skill development, and one on industrial property.
On skill development, agreements were signed between ITE Education Services, Singapore (a vocational training arm of the Government of Singapore) and National Skills Development Corporation (India) with the objective of developing advanced skills training for Indian youth. The second agreement was signed by ITE Education Services and the government of Assam with the goal of setting up a North East Skills Center in Guwahati, Assam. This center will provide vocational and technical training for students from Northeast India. The third agreement was signed between the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore and India’s Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion and pertained to industrial property.
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While India’s ties today with ASEAN have considerably strengthened both in the strategic and economic sphere, the Look East Policy is often traced back to a speech delivered by Former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in Singapore in 1994. Singapore was one of the few countries to recognize India’s potential and responded positively to the economic reforms undertaken in 1991. Singapore has also pitched for a greater Indian role in ASEAN. Today, bilateral trade between the countries was estimated at $15 billion. Between April 2000 and March 2016, Singapore invested nearly $46 billion in India (PDF). Apart from strong ties between successive governments, the Indian diaspora has played a significant role in strengthening ties between the countries.
Modi himself has visited Singapore twice, first for Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral in March 2015 and then again in November 2015. While delivering the 37th Singapore lecture, Modi stated, “Today, Singapore is one of our most important partners in the world. It is a relationship that is as strategic as it is wide-ranging,”
In recent years, strategic ties between Singapore and India have strengthened. While issuing a joint statement, the Singaporean prime minister condemned cross-border terrorism and offered condolences to the families of soldiers who were killed in the Uri terror attack. Modi did the same while also emphasizing the holistic nature of the strategic partnership between India and Singapore. Modi commented, “As two maritime nations, keeping the sea lanes of communication open, and respect for international legal order of seas and oceans is a shared priority.”
In 2003, both countries signed a defense cooperation agreement. During Modi’s visit in 2015, a joint declaration establishing a ‘Strategic Partnership’ was touted. The joint statement, apart from supporting high-level meetings at the ministerial level, also mentioned joint military exercises and training between their armies, navies, and air forces
Of late, Singapore has also been backing a greater role for India in the Indo-Pacific region. The landscape in ASEAN is changing, with the current president of the Philippines seeking to strike a balance between China and the United States and China reaching out to Vietnam. Singapore, while remaining neutral, has categorically said that the decision of a Hague-based tribunal earlier this year on the South China Sea should be accepted. During his visit to the United States, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee said, “Singapore must support and strive for a rules-based international order. We have to depend on words and treaties. They mean everything to us. We cannot afford to have international relations work on the basis that might is right. If rules do not matter, then small countries like Singapore have no chance of survival.”
In such a situation, Singapore’s voice is likely to become even more crucial and the India-Singapore strategic partnership is likely to further strengthen.
Beyond the strategic and economic sphere
There are a number of changes that have taken place in this relationship in recent years. One of them is the emergence of India’s states as key stakeholders. This includes visits undertaken by chief ministers from a number of states such as West Bengal, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana. It is not just states with a substantial diaspora, such as Tamil Nadu, which have close ties with Singapore, but other states which are trying to learn from Singapore’s successes in the infrastructural sphere. Andhra Pradesh, for instance, is partnering with Singapore in the creation of its new capital, Amaravati.
Another Indian state with which Singapore is developing close links is Rajasthan. The latter is keen to learn from Singapore’s successes in areas like urban water management, tourism, and skill development. During last year’s Investor Summit, Singapore was one of the partner countries in the Rajasthan Resurgent Summit. Connectivity between both states is being strengthened. During the Summit, Singapore Home Minister K. Shanmugam made the announcement that Scoot, a group company of Singapore Airlines, would soon commence direct flights between Jaipur and Singapore.
During his current visit, Lee visited Udaipur. Upon landing on October 5, his first stop was the Celebration Mall, which is owned by a Singaporean company – Capita Land. On October 6, he met with Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje and also launched the Center of Excellence for Tourism Training (CETT), a joint venture by Institute of Technical Education Services and Rajasthan to teach hospitality sector skills in Udaipur. Faculty members of CETT will be trained in Singapore.
Commenting on the relevance of the CETT and enhanced connectivity in strengthening ties between Singapore and Rajasthan, Chief Minister Raje said in an opinion piece for the Indian Express:
The CETT aims to produce chefs and front office staff, and the first batch will be graduating next year. In parallel, the direct flight from Singapore to Jaipur has important implications for tourism in Rajasthan because Changi airport is the supreme air hub for south-east Asia — it handles over 55 million passengers every year — and is a perfect gateway for the 1.7 billion people who live within a five-hour flying time to fly directly to Rajasthan.
Second, what is clearly evident is that both countries are not just restricting their cooperation to trade and commerce, but are seeking to explore other areas such as tourism and skill development. In 2015, Singapore received nearly double the number of foreign tourists as compared to India in 2015 (while Singapore received 15 million, India received a little over 8 million). India thus has a lot to learn in this sphere from Singapore. While the state of Rajasthan has taken the lead in seeking to benefit from Singapore’s successes in the above areas, other states should follow suit.
Due to Singapore’s strategic and economic relevance, it is extremely important for India. It is important for New Delhi to deepen the relationship by involving new stakeholders, such as state governments and the diaspora. This will only further boost India’s Act East Policy. Along with this, it is important to explore newer areas of cooperation, and not just focus on FDI, as is being done by Rajasthan.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat (India).