Singapore, India to take bilateral ties up a notch

Singapore and India will elevate their strong ties to a strategic partnership during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's two-day visit, which started on Monday.

The visit of the Indian leader, who was voted to power by a landslide last year, takes on special meaning as both nations commemorate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties. India was among the earliest to recognise Singapore in 1965.

"The strategic partnership will broaden and deepen ties across various sectors including defence relations, economic and cultural co-operation, skills development and capacity building," the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said yesterday.

Given Mr Modi's credentials as a strong, growth-focused leader, the visit could be as significant to the bilateral relationship as one made by the late Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in 1994, three years after he liberalised India's economic policies and set the nation on a faster growth trajectory. India now lays claim to being the world's fastest growing major economy.

Mr Modi's Singapore Lecture, to be delivered shortly after his arrival this evening from the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Kuala Lumpur, will likely highlight his vision for the relationship in the years ahead. Analysts also expect him to expand on his "Act East" policy, which itself builds on Mr Rao's "Look East" policy.

The lecture will be chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and attended by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Since then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong spoke of sparking a "mild India fever" in 1994, economic ties have boomed. A Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement was inked in 2005. In 2013, foreign direct investment from India into Singapore was $23.7 billion, nearly twice Singapore's direct investment to India of $12.1 billion.

Indian visitors are also big spenders. Last year, the 943,600 Indians who travelled here spent nearly $1.2 billion, the third-largest tourism receipts-generating market.

Still, some think trade is one area that could benefit from fresh momentum. Last year, India was Singapore's 12th-largest trading partner and export destination, with bilateral trade of close to $24.6 billion, about a fifth of Singapore's trade with China.

Mr Modi, The Straits Times Asian of the Year in 2014, is in Singapore at the invitation of PM Lee, who will give him a ceremonial welcome at the Istana. Tomorrow is his big day of meetings, with calls on President Tony Tan Keng Yam, and meetings with Emeritus Senior Minister Goh and PM Lee. PM Lee also will host lunch for Mr Modi and they will visit the ITE College Central for a look at Singapore's approach to skills training.

The first Indian prime minister born in the post-independence era, Mr Modi owes his ascent to his development-focused record as chief minister of western Gujarat state. He has often cited Singapore's leadership as a beacon since making his first trip here in 2006 as the state's chief minister.

Singapore also played a key role in facilitating India's Look East policy, helping to elevate its status to full dialogue partnership of ASEAN and its inclusion in the inaugural EAS. Mr Modi acknowledged this debt by being present at the state funeral service for Mr Lee Kuan Yew in March, and ordering flags in his vast nation to be flown at half-mast as a mark of respect to Mr Lee.

In turn, Singapore leaders have regularly visited him in Gujarat and taken part in the Vibrant Gujarat summits organised by him, even as many Western leaders shunned him for his perceived mishandling of communal tensions in the first months of his 12-year stewardship of Gujarat.

Since that early stumble, Gujarat had remained peaceful under his watch. Still, the United States lifted its visa ban on Mr Modi only a few weeks before his landslide victory in national polls last year.

Mr Modi, who continues to be personally popular in his country, arrives following his party's electoral setback in the populous Bihar state in the Hindi-speaking heartland. On the stump last year, he had often boasted of a "56-inch chest" - seeking to draw attention to his robust record as an administrator compared with the limp-wristed Dr Manmohan Singh.

He has declined the offer of a Singapore orchid named after him, Indian officials said.

"It was being talked about earlier but, due to paucity of time, we had to forgo that visit. So, that will not happen during that visit," said Secretary (East) Anil Wadhwa in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.

Mr Modi leaves for home today night after delivering a special address at the Singapore-India Economic Convention and a speech to expatriate Indians at the Singapore Expo.

This article was first published on Nov 23, 2015.
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