Getting Closer

India and Singapore, both celebrating independence this month, have a great relationship and the future is bright, says the Indian High Commissioner to Singapore, His Excellency Jawed Ashraf

8/21/2018 3:06:15 PM
written By : Nithya Subramanian & Shobha Tsering Bhalla Print

August is the month when both Singapore and India came into their own. Just six days after Singapore celebrates its 53rd National Day on August 9, India will be celebrating 72 years of independence on August 15. The former Jewel in the Crown and the Little Red Dot have so much in common that they even became sovereign nations in the same month. Far from fraying with the dissolution of the British empire. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Singapore and the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas held earlier this year in the city-state both underline the depth of relations between the two nations. The Indian High Commissioner to Singapore, His Excellency Jawed Ashraf, who played a key role in ensuring the success of these pivotal events, has high hopes for the future. “We look to the future of this relationship with great confidence and optimism,” he says in an exclusive interview. “I have been here for just over 18 months and these have flown by. Singapore is a very busy place! There are memorable moments practically every day, since there is so much that happens between India and Singapore and in the city itself.”

India Se:Both India and Singapore celebrate their Independence Day and National Days in August. This is yet another common factor that binds the two together, apart from ancient connections. How do you see the relationship between the two right now and in the immediate future?

Jawed Ashraf:It is a coincidence that our national days are just a few days apart in the month of August, but, yes, there are many strands of our connected histories, including links that are centuries old.  The relationship, elevated to a Strategic Partnership, is in an excellent shape and has a promising future.

This was evident during the visit of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi to Singapore from May 31 to June 2 this year for an official bilateral visit and to deliver the keynote address at the Shangri La Dialogue.  In terms of outcomes and events, we strengthened the four key pillars of the relationship: political and strategic; economic; innovation and technology; and, cultural and human. 

We had around 35 major outcomes and announcements that covered a wide range, including defence logistics, cyber security, skills development, higher education, space sector, business and manufacturing, infrastructure, fintech, innovation, water, urban planning and capacity building and culture. The long pending second review of Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement was completed, sending a positive signal to the business community.  Beyond the bilateral issues, the visit reaffirmed the convergence of values, vision and interests at the regional and global level, which PM Modi also articulated during his Shangri La Dialogue speech.

The events, besides the official engagements with President H.E. Madam Halimah Yacob, H.E. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and ESM H.E. Goh Chok Tong, reflected the diversity of our relationships – the business and community event attended by 5000 people, the startup and innovation exhibition from India and Singapore attended by both Prime Ministers, the CEO Roundtable, the visit to Nanyang Technological University, the unveiling of Gandhi Plaque at the Clifford Pier, the visit to the three places of worship on South Bridge Road, the visit to Little India and the Indian Heritage Centre and interacting with naval personnel on board Indian Naval Ship and Singapore Naval Ship at the Changi Naval Base, captures the strength and breadth of our relationship. At each of these places, the warmth and enthusiasm of the participants underlined what is unique and special about this relationship.

We look to the future of this relationship with great confidence and optimism. There is a great deal of warmth, comfort and goodwill in the relationship that comes from our cultural and human links, shared values and absence of any irritant in our ties. There is great momentum in every dimension of the relationship. Political engagement is deep and regular. Defence and security partnership is among the strongest for both countries. Economic ties are growing rapidly. Singapore is both a leading source and destination for investments for India. The India is the third largest and the fastest growing source of tourism in Singapore.  Air connectivity is expanding and will grow further.  Digital and innovation space is the exciting and burgeoning new area of cooperation.

And, above all, in these challenging and uncertain times in the region and the world, we believe our partnership can contribute to building a more inclusive, cooperative, open, balanced, peaceful and prosperous future for the region.

That is a long answer! But, I hope it captures the depth and diversity of the relationship and its extraordinary energy and momentum in it.

India Se:The present government is focusing on the “Look East” policy; what role could Singapore play in strengthening this, considering that it chairs the Asean grouping this year? 

Jawed Ashraf:Act East is a top strategic priority for India. Singapore played a key role in building the bridge between India and ASEAN since the beginning of the 1990s. Even today, it remains our economic gateway to ASEAN and a strong partner in India’s engagement in the broader East. 

One, Singapore and India have a shared vision and approach on many international issues, especially in the region, including on maritime security and advancing an open, inclusive and balanced architecture in the region. We can work together in institutional forums like East Asia Summit to pursue these goals. Second, Singapore can help achieve an outcome on RCEP that is comprehensive, fair and balanced in terms of goods, services and investments, and brings benefits to all participating countries. Third, we can work together to extend digital technology and innovation for governance, financial inclusion, digital payments and public services across ASEAN and other countries Fourth, we can work together to improve connectivity between India and ASEAN, including through collaboration in infrastructure projects in third countries. Five, we are two multicultural societies with many threads of culture, language and faiths that bind us. We can work together to revive the heritage of India’s ancient links to the region to power the future of India-ASEAN links. 

India Se:Indians have made substantial contributions to Singapore in the past and continue to do so even in the present. What do you think are the key success factors for the diaspora?

Jawed Ashraf: Indians have come here at different stages of history and in varying circumstances, but they have made immense contribution to Singapore’s public life and governance, its economic progress and the evolution of a vibrant, multicultural society.  I also firmly believe that the Indian diaspora will play a key role in driving Singapore’s competitiveness and success in the digital economy. 

Indians have a natural instinct to live in world of diversity. They can adapt to new environment easily, while retaining their heritage. They are hardworking, enterprising, innovative and talented. Increasingly, they also have a global outlook, backed by excellent education and exposure. In Singapore, it is heartening to see world class talent in the Indian Diaspora, not just in the realm of public service, technology, finance and business, but also in academics, art, literature, music and so forth. 

None of this would have been possible without the nurturing environment of Singapore that respects and rewards merit, provides equal opportunities and allows each individual to pursue and practice her culture and faith. That is an important reason for the success of Indian Diaspora in Singapore.

India Se:Many Indian firms have offices in Singapore, while only a few Singaporean firms are going to India, considering the fact that the latter is a big market. How do you think they can be given the confidence to do so? 

Jawed Ashraf: I don’t think that is an accurate description. For one, it is hard to compare Singapore and India, because of the sheer asymmetry of size. Nevertheless, Singapore is the leading investor in India, if we exclude Mauritius. All major Singapore companies have significant presence in India. Startups in the digital space and investment firms are also going to India in growing numbers.  We would certainly like to see more SMEs venturing into India. And, we are working with our Government in Delhi as well as with various state governments, chambers and investment agencies, both in Singapore and India, to support SME investments into India. The reforms in India, especially on Ease of Doing Business, has increased the confidence of SMEs. Digital technology has also opened new possibilities for SMEs. 

The number of Indian companies registered here is among the highest from anywhere. They find Singapore an easy environment to do business in and from and use it as a springboard to the region and beyond.

India Se: India has been focusing on digitisation in a big way, while Singapore is an innovation hub. While India has the scale, Singapore has the expertise. How can these two countries harness each other’s strengths in this area?

Jawed Ashraf: As I said, digital technology, innovation and startup space is the exciting new area of cooperation. And, it has taken off in a big way. 

During the visit of PM Modi, we saw the international launch of Indian digital financial products like the RuPay payment card, BHIM mobile payment app and Unified Payment Interface (UPI)-based remittance app. In addition, the two governments have launched a JWG on Fintech during PM Modi’s visit. The professional associations of alumni from IITs, IIMs and ISB, besides TIE Singapore, signed a Statement of Intent with NITI Ayog in India to support innovation initiatives, including in schools and tinkering labs for children that Government of India is setting up throughout the country.

In January this year, the High Commission of India, in partnership with Indian professional associations like IIM Alumni Association, IIT Alumni Association, TIE Singapore and Data Security Council of India-Singapore Chapter, launched the first India-Singapore Entrepreneurship Bridge, or as it has now been called, “InSpreneur” to a huge response. We had support from Indian agencies like Invest India and chambers like NASSCOM, CII and FICCI. We had over 250 startups, nearly 100 investors and overall about 700 registered participants for the two-day event. We had exhibitions, investor pitching and speed dating, besides panel discussions. In addition, we ran a grand challenge for Diaspora youth between the age of 16 and 25 years on six socio-economic challenges in India. We had 100 excellent proposals. The winners of the six challenges received awards and mentoring support from six state governments in India.

We had InSpreneur 2.0 during the visit of PM Modi, which was equally well attended as the first one. Besides the existing participating organisations, we also had the participation of Singapore’s SG Innovate and Enterprise Singapore, which we welcome. The themes for this edition were emerging technologies like AI and blockchain; fintech and cyber security; and social impact innovations (water, education, health, affordable housing, etc.).

There is an excellent ecosystem in both countries. Both have highly talented pool of human resources and a supportive regulatory environment. Singapore is blessed with a great pool of young Indian diaspora with world class education and technological and innovation skills. They constitute a huge resource for Singapore and a bridge between India and Singapore.  Investors, incubators and accelerators are also joining in. In fact, during PM Modi’s visit, Smart Group offered to start a New India Innovation Hub on 50,000 sq ft of space, with full facilities, for startups from India and Singapore.

India Se: You have spent about two years in Singapore. What are your most memorable moments in this place?

Jawed Ashraf: I have been here for just over 18 months and these have flown by. Singapore is a very busy place!  There are memorable moments practically every day, since there is so much that happens between India and Singapore and in the city itself. I have enjoyed the festivals of so many faiths celebrated with great enthusiasm and intensity here; the rich cultural calendar, especially the Indian cultural events, which could rival those in major Indian cities; some great concerts; the city’s excellent foodscape; the walks in the Nature Parks, the National Day set against a dramatic backdrop, etc.  Watching the Formula One on a wet track under lights against the backdrop of Singapore’s skyline and with wonderful hospitality was a great experience!

What will stand out professionally are the visit of Prime Minister Modi in June this year; the ASEAN-India Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas that brought the Diaspora together, with 5000 registered participants, 125 speakers and panellists and over 20 different sessions and events spread over two days in January 2018; the visits of Indian naval ships and receptions on board; the International Day of Yoga held over a week through 170 sessions in 100 venues in Singapore…The list could be long.

India Se: On the occasion of the two countries’ national days, what message would you like to send out to our readers?

Jawed Ashraf: I wish a safe, secure, healthy and prosperous future for the people of the two countries, our region and the world. Each of us should work to make that future a reality. To the Indian community here, I would like to wish personal success and happiness, commitment and contribution to Singapore’s future, continuing role as a bridge between India and Singapore and deeper connection with India’s rapid and unprecedented transformation.

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