Through the eyes of a think tank

Through the eyes of a think tank
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (L) smiles as he exchanges the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
PHOTO: AFP

NOVEMBER 2015 is turning out to be an important month for Singapore. It started with the state visit of Chinese president Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader to visit Singapore since Deng Xiaoping's visit in November 1978.

In a few days prime minister of India Narendra Modi will be here, the first prime minister in over 30 years to have an absolute majority in India's parliament. An important point to remember is that both these leaders represent countries with whom Singapore has special relationships.

The special relationship between India and Singapore started in the late '60s when India launched its economic reforms under prime minister Narasimha Rao. Singapore responded to Mr Rao's initiative by our then Prime Minister starting "a mild India fever" with the investment in Techno Park in Bangalore. The fact that this project was implemented in spite of a change in the state government in Karnataka speaks well of the Indian political system.

The first Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement that India signed was with Singapore and this agreement has over time spawned many more agreements between India and other countries. Singapore is also perhaps the only country which has training facilities for its defence forces on Indian soil. Singapore, on its part, hosts the largest number of Indian companies in South-east Asia which use Singapore as a base to invest in countries in the region.

ISAS a unique institution

The Indian Heritage Centre in Singapore showcases the rich Indian heritage of Singapore and other South-east Asia countries and gives a historical perspective to India's position in the region.

In 2004, Singapore established the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) within the National University of Singapore. It is unique in that there is no other institution in the region that focuses solely on South Asia. It also provides a platform for South Asian leaders, academics and bureaucrats to share their views with Singaporeans and the large foreign community that lives in Singapore. For Singaporeans interested in South Asia, it provides a forum to discuss in depth with specialists relevant and topical issues on the region.

ISAS carries out research, publishes books and research papers like other think tanks as well. The growing understanding is a two-way exercise with South Asia also gaining greater understanding of Singapore. The very first speaker ISAS invited after it was established 11 years ago was the then chief minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi who is now visiting Singapore as the prime minister of India.

Prime minister Modi's visit to Singapore will no doubt add greater momentum to the India-Singapore relationship. He is no stranger to Singapore, having met our leaders several times in India as well as at international fora.

He came for the funeral of Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. This was significant for two reasons. First he was here as a friend of Singapore to share with all Singaporeans their sorrow at the loss of

Mr Lee. Second he was here to signal to investors his respect for a great leader whose achievements may have some relevance to what he himself was planning to do for India.

Mr Modi is visiting Singapore at a very interesting time both from his domestic perspective as well as the international economic perspective.

From his personal point of view he is coming after the electoral setback in Bihar which has an electorate of over 60 million people with over 20 million below the age of 30. The election itself was testimony to the robustness of democracy in India and a triumph of the electoral process. It also contained a clear message that no matter how powerful a leader is he cannot take for granted that ruling India is a walk in the park.

This was the second election BJP lost in one year, the first being Delhi. He has to rethink his electoral strategy, forge new political alliances and recalibrate his reform agenda. These issues are unlikely to weigh him down during his one-day visit to Singapore. He knows he is visiting a major financial centre and he will need to a show a firm determination to set India on a growth path.

The fact that his government announced a few days ago through a press note a comprehensive policy package for FDI indicates Mr Modi's determination to proceed with the reforms in spite of the two electoral setbacks. This FDI policy, together with the new civil aviation policy, and the attempt to monetise gold held by ordinary citizens are all measures which will have a far reaching positive impact.

ISAS will study these developments in depth as policies are fleshed out for implementation in the coming months.

There are several areas in which Singapore can be of use to him in achieving his goals. Let me take just two of them. First, to achieve his "Make India" objective he has to rapidly teach the necessary skills to his 12 to 15 million young people who come into the job market each year. Singapore has some experience in this. I believe he will be visiting one of the ITEs and he will get a clear idea of our facilities and capabilities. Second, Singapore has a fair track record in attracting foreign capital.

It is true that India is a far more complex place than Singapore but there may be some issues related to the ease of doing business in Singapore that can be emulated by India.

Consistency, predictability and transparency are three words that are associated with the ease of doing business. Many of the things that are done in Singapore in this regard can be customised to suit India.

India's greatest achievement, which many take for granted, is the fact that in spite of its tremendous diversity, it has remained a united country within a democratic system. If to this we add economic growth, which Mr Modi is striving to achieve, India would realise its full potential and bring a better life to its people.

For foreign investors, India is indeed a land of opportunity. But there are no easy pickings. The investor needs to understand the country, develop an empathy for the country and approach it with a great deal of patience. I am optimistic that Mr Modi's proposed reforms will make the path much smoother in the future.


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