India, Pakistan should look east for lessons on trust

Indian Director General Military Operations Lieutenant General Vinod Bhatia (2L) walks with officials at the India-Pakistan Wagah Border Post on December 24, 2013. A five-member delegation lead by Lieutenant General Vinod Bhatia returned from Pakistan after meeting with his Pakistani counterpart DGMO Major General Amir Riaz, the first such meeting in 14 years.

WAGAH-ATTARI, which hosts the only land crossing between India and Pakistan along the 2,700km border between the two countries, has a distinguishing feature like no other. On either side of the border, there are rows of seats for spectators who, in their chauvinistic frenzy, watch an absurd parade of enmity, choreographed by the two security forces every evening.

The parlous state of relations between the two countries is reflected in the fact that only about 200 travellers a day, out of a total population of around 1.4 billion, use the crossing.

This is in sharp contrast to the vibrancy, hustle and bustle at the Malaysia-Singapore Woodlands border that I crossed several times during my posting in Singapore. From a total population of just about 35 million (Malaysia 29.7 million and Singapore about 5.3 million), 60,000 vehicles carrying people and freight cross either side on a typical day. City buses ply across. Thousands cross on foot. The activity is thunderous.

The efficient immigration and security procedures underscore the way walls of suspicion and hate have been overcome to produce an economic interdependence that has benefited both nations.

Data from Malaysia's Department of Statistics shows that bilateral trade between Malaysia and Singapore was valued at US$53.26 billion (S$67.5 billion) in 2012 to 2013, significantly up from the previous year. Malaysia remains Singapore's largest trading partner, while Singapore is Malaysia's second-largest trading partner after China. Investment ratios are equally high.

Compare this with India and Pakistan - two of the six most populous countries in the world. Total trade was worth a minuscule US$2.5 billion last year.

Mistrust, differing aspirations, demographics and mutual suspicions make for many similarities in the birth experiences of Pakistan in 1947 (out of India) and that of Singapore in 1965 (out of Malaysia).

The stories from there on, however, are very different.

Singapore and Malaysia complement each other in the quest to drive ASEAN forward. Continued tension between India and Pakistan, however, prevents meaningful growth in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc). Consequently, South Asia remains among the least connected regions, with the largest underprivileged population in the world.

Notwithstanding the multiplicity of conflicts in the ASEAN region, including several border disputes, overlapping maritime boundary claims and ethnic divisions, the intra-ASEAN trade is a remarkable 26 per cent of ASEAN's total trade. In the Saarc, of which both India and Pakistan are members, such trade is only about four per cent of regional trade.

Indian and Pakistani interlocutors are mired in the trivia of group interests that sacrifice the larger good of the two populations.

Disputes between Malaysia and Singapore have included issues over which some countries have gone to war.

They include water rights, Malaysian Railway land in Singapore and, more recently, a territorial dispute over Pedra Branca, an islet in the eastern Singapore strait. Each dispute, however, has been resolved amicably, through bilateral negotiations or through judicial process. Recourse to legal institutions to find solutions has also helped to eliminate the emotional baggage associated with them.

Pakistan and India too have successfully resolved at least three issues through the judicial process. They include the Rann of Kutch dispute in 1965 and, on two occasions, disputes regarding the Indus Water Treaty.

But India and Pakistan also attempt to resolve disputes by making military threats, a process that actually creates more problems. Former United States president Bill Clinton described the region as the most dangerous place on earth in 2001. It is no better now.

Opinion-makers in Malaysia-Singapore and other ASEAN states strive to build upon common ground. The leadership in India and Pakistan, on the other hand, use the opinion-makers to ratchet up tensions to pursue politically expedient agendas.

Indian and Pakistani students can be among the best of friends when they study in overseas universities. Yet politics back home prevents them from establishing joint student associations.

Demonstrating maturity, Malaysian and Singaporean students have joint student bodies in some of the most respected universities, such as Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, Yale and Berkeley.

Promoting mutual interests through cooperation in education was the purpose of my recent visit to India. I was honoured to speak on the topic, Can South Asia Overcome Political Differences To Collaborate In Higher Education?, at the One Globe Conference in Delhi last month.

I proposed that just like the Indian and Pakistan students becoming best of friends overseas, sharing the same classes, living under the same roofs and celebrating together, Saarc countries should share an agreed number of students and faculty in designated universities across the region.

This would allow these young men and women to respect each other's values, and work for shared aspirations, leading to a better-integrated region. They would replace the disappearing generation of friends who are living to regret the carnage of 1947.

If India and Pakistan can together choreograph an absurd act of mutual hostility at the border every evening, they can surely choreograph a "peace dance" to tap into the natural reservoir of goodwill between the two peoples. South Asia, with its large human resource, will then be the economic powerhouse for the world.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, and an associate fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. He was Pakistan's High Commissioner to Singapore 2004-2008.

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