25/11/2015 8:51 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Can Modi Take India-Singapore Equation Beyond Infrastructure And Finance?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wear safety goggles before they handle heavy machinery in a workshop at a vocational and technical training institute in Singapore on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015. Modi is on a two-day official visit to the city-state. (Wallace Woon/Pool Photo via AP)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ongoing visit to Singapore has already seen the signing of several bilateral pacts for increased cooperation in areas ranging from defence and cyber-security to culture and urban development. So far, the general discourse around India-Singapore relations revolves around a prosperous Singapore as an investor in a booming BRIC country market. However, even this narrative, driven by the business media, is under-nourished.

The Singapore model of development pioneered by the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, which brought the city-state global fame for its transformation from "Third World to First World", has undoubtedly inspired the Modi government's 100 Smart Cities programme. Amravati, the new capital of Andhra Pradesh, is being designed by urban planners from Singapore who have already completed the blueprint for the city. Singapore also became the largest source of Foreign Direct Investment in India in 2014, and recently saw a visit from Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and a team of bankers seeking to attract institutional investors to India.

"India does not give Singapore the same diplomatic attention as the USA, UK or Canada where there are also large Indian communities."

This commercial relationship is a deeply symbiotic one. State Bank of India and ICICI Bank, along with others, have retail banking licences in Singapore. Many Indian start-ups have moved to Singapore for easier access to capital and regulatory clarity. Singapore water technology Major Hyflux has picked up desalination projects in Modi's Gujarat; Singaporean banks and sovereign wealth funds are increasing their investment footprint in India. Hyderabad-based environmental infrastructure group Ramky maintains parking lots as a facilities management firm all over Singapore.

These examples are, however, fleeting reflections of the Singapore-India relationship which shares a deep historical and diasporic bond. Singapore is home to a large minority of people of Indian descent; the city-state observes Deepawali as a public holiday and counts Tamil among its official languages. There are several Indian-origin ministers in the Singapore Cabinet too, including Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. The Indian expatriate community makes its presence felt everywhere, whether it's a construction site or corporate headquarter (a stellar example is Piyush Gupta, the CEO of DBS Bank). It should also be noted that Singapore was the first country to enthusiastically embrace India's Look East Policy in the early 1990s, with then Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong visiting Narasimha Rao and his ministerial team.

For all of this, the truth is that India does not give Singapore the same diplomatic attention as the USA, UK or Canada where there are also large Indian communities.

Earlier this month, Chinese President visited Singapore to mark 25 years of diplomatic relations and signed a range of agreements including the third joint industrial park in western China. Singapore's majority community is ethnic Chinese but its relationship with China is layered. Singapore has been an ally of the US from the Cold War era and has hosted American military ships in the past. The two countries have had a close relationship since the late 1970s, when Chairman Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore and was sufficiently impressed to use it as a role model for China. I do not sense the same intensity in the relationship between India and Singapore at the diplomatic level.

Narendra Modi's visit has created a lot of buzz in the Indian community which is driving the logistics for his address at the Singapore Expo on 24 November, but how successful the event will be remains to be seen. For one, there are reports that only Indian nationals are encouraged to attend the event. Second, the major language in the Indian diaspora here in Singapore is Tamil, and with Narendra Modi usually preferring to speak in Hindi, he may find it more difficult to connect with the community. Also, controversies from back home have followed Modi here, with the Straits Times publishing an opinion piece by Prof Mohan Jyoti Dutta of the National University critiquing the BJP's policies on beef and India's "chilling climate" of religious intolerance.

The strength of soft power

Singapore is a major mercantile port hub in Asia and a few months back an Indian Coast Guard vessel on a Southeast Asia goodwill tour docked at Changi Naval Base, with many of the young sailors in white seen shopping in Singapore's Little India neighbourhood. India competes for influence in the Southeast Asia region with China, which has a natural advantage with its influential diaspora communities who are better connected to structures of power.

"The cultural inter-weaving is extensive and deep, and the key pillar in the Singapore-India relationship."

India's engagement with Singapore and the region is more effective at an informal business and community level. Many Indian-origin intellectuals thrive here, with plenty of think tanks at the National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological University focused on research themes based on India. Thousands of Indian students study in Singapore, and many will head back to India to work with the knowledge imbibed here. Indian films and TV series have been shot in Singapore since the 1960s, including the Hrithik Roshan starrer Krrish. Indian films, both Tamil and Hindi, run to packed theatres here as soon as they are released in India. The cultural inter-weaving is extensive and deep, and the key pillar in the Singapore-India relationship.

I hope that this state visit by Prime Minister Narendrabhai Damodardas Modi will take the Singapore-India relationship to the next level by engaging the non-elite diaspora who send back remittances and by leveraging common areas of strength such as a shared understanding of culture missing from the world of diplomacy.

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