India-Singapore Relations: Time to move beyond Infrastructure and Finance?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Singapore on the 23rd November for a State Visit to Singapore in a longer follow up visit to earlier on this year when he visited the island city state to join other world leaders after the founding father of Singapore, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew passed away. The general discourse around India-Singapore relations is a prosperous Singapore as an investor in a booming BRIC country market. This narrative driven by the business media is however under-nourished. The Singapore Model of Development pioneered by the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew which brought the city state global fame in transforming itself from ‘The Third World to First World’ has undoubtedly inspired the 100 Smart City program of the Modi Government. The new Greenfield capital of Andhra Pradesh: Amravati is being designed by Singaporean Urban Planners and has cemented the relationship of Singapore as a symbol of urban excellence1. Singapore is the largest source of Foreign Direct Investment in India2 and testament to this unique fact is the recent visit of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and a team of bankers including the Managing Director of the State Bank of India to lure institutional investors in to India.  The 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 move to Singapore for easier access to capital and regulatory clarity. In the past Spice Group moved base to Singapore. Singaporean 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 reflection of the Singapore-India Relationship which shares a deep historical diasporic bond. Singapore is home to a large minority of people of Indian Decent with Deepawali a public holiday and Tamil an official language. There is a significant presence of minsters of Indian decent in the Singaporean Cabinet including Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanamugaratnam. The Indian expatriate community makes its presence felt from blue collared work to the heads of Multinational Corporations including the CEO of DBS Bank, Piyush Gupta, a former Indian National.

The truth is India does not give Singapore the same diplomatic attention as the USA, UK or Canada where there are similar large Indian diaspora communities. Singapore was the first country to embrace enthusiastically India’s ‘Look East Policy’ in the early 1990’s with then Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong visiting Narsimha Rao and his ministerial team.

Last week, the 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 and macroeconomic agreements3. Singapore is majority ethnic Chinese but its relationship with China is layered. Singapore has been an ally of the USA from the Cold War era and has hosted American Military Ships in the past. Pragmatic Singaporean policy has nurtured a close relationship with China from the 1970’s since Chairman Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore and opened up the economy after visiting it. The writer does not sense the same intensity in the relationship between India and Singapore at the diplomatic level. The gap however is more than adequately filled up by Indian community organizations and people to people contact. The same story is repeated in Oman, where I grew up.

The Narendra Modi visit has generated a lot of buzz among the Indian Community in Singapore, with community organizers taking the lead to arrange for the logistics for his ‘Madison Square Garden’ style address at the Singapore Expo4. However, only Indian Nationals are encouraged to attend the event as per media reports.

The major language in the Indian diaspora here in Singapore is Tamil and with Narendra Modi’s predisposition with Hindi, how much of it cut will ice with the same community that he is attempting to touch base with, is of question at the present juncture. There has also been a contradictory voice in the Singaporean media in the run up to the visit when Indian American Academic at the National University of Singapore Prof Mohan Jyoti Dutta wrote an opinion piece in the Straits Times on the contemporary politics of identity based on beef and the crackdown on activism in India in the present Modi regime5.


“The violence on the margins of Indian society is accompanied by the quick spread of a chilling climate, with a number of prominent rationalists being attacked and/or murdered, allegedly by right-wing religious groups.”

Increase the Soft Power Lens

Singapore is a major mercantile port hub in Asia and a few months back an Indian Coast Guard Vessel on a South East Asia goodwill tour docked at Changi Naval Base, with many of the young sailors in white seen shopping in the Little India Area in Singapore. India competes for influence in the South East Asia region with Asia, where China has a natural advantage with influential diaspora communities who are better connected to structures of power. India’s engagement with Singapore and the region is more effective at an informal business and community level. The overseas Indian Intelligentsia is based here in Singapore with plenty of think tanks at the National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological University focused on research themes based on India such as Institute of South Asian Studies. Thousands of Indian Students study in Singapore, and some of them will head back to India to work with the knowledge imbibed in Singapore. Indian Films and TV series have been shot in Singapore since the 1960’s including the Hrithik Roshan starrer ‘Krrish’ which had frames shot in the Business District in Singapore. Indian films both Tamil and Hindi are screened in theatres here as soon as they are released in India, and run to packed houses. The extent of cultural inter-weaving is dense, and the key pillar in the Singapore-India relationship.

The writer hopes that this state visit by Prime Minister Narendrabhai Damodardas Modi would take the Singapore-India Relationship deeper by engaging the non-elite diaspora who send back remittances and leveraging common areas of strength such as a shared understanding of culture missing from the realpolitik world of diplomacy.


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