Singapore is one of India’s closest partners in Asia. In his first visit to meet PM Narendra Modi after the formation of the NDA government, K Shanmugam, Singapore’s foreign minister, tells Indrani Bagchi they would build some of India’s new smart cities and involve themselves in skill development programmes in India.
Q: This is your first meeting with Prime Minister Modi and the new government. Could you give us a flavour of the discussions?
A: There is a context to the visit. Recently, we had a high level meeting where we covered a broad range of issues and India was one of the topics. I said, assuming all things are equal, the one big difference is that this is a government less constrained by coalition politics. That by itself is a significant difference – to that extent it will find it easier to move its legislative agenda. There is considerable— and I don’t just speak for Singapore but for a substantial part of the world —hope, optimism and confidence.
The secular trend in India’s economy is upward, we know. The question is whether that trend can be hastened. We have hope now. We are significant security strategic and economic partners of India. Our troops train here, we have defense cooperation, in security that underlines and showcases the degree of trust that exists between the two countries.
Our defense minister is due to visit next month. This will be followed by the visit of Ms Sushma Swaraj also in August. In September, our former PM Goh Chok Tong will be here. Then our two PMs will meet at a multilateral forum. Next year our two presidents will visit each other to commemorate the 50thanniversary of our diplomatic relations as well as the 50th anniversary of the creation of Singapore state. We were the largest foreign investor in India last year. Your outward flow to Singapore is also significant.
Q: But trade has dipped somewhat…
A: Yes, compared to other years. But it’s still $25 billion, compared with rest of ASEAN at $70 billion. Of course, a lot more can be done. But the current picture is positive. It is underpinned by mutual trust. India knows we want India to succeed. It’s not all about economics. A strong and vibrant India, if it’s economically strong and that can only happen with the uplift of its people, is important for securing peace and stability in Asia. We have been strong supporters of India’s role in Asia.
Q: Do you foresee an Indian role in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea?
A: Right now I think, India’s priorities, and they must necessarily be so, are internal. In so far as India looks outward, the first set of priorities are in Af-Pak and so on, and understandably so. We must realize what India’s priorities are. In the broader sense, India wants peace and stability. But in the current situation, India’s priorities are domestic. That has an external impact, therefore for a stronger external role, India has to be stronger internally. We support that.
Q: What was the focus of your conversations with the PM?
A: Broadly the discussions with the PM, EAM and FM was this – how can Singapore engage India in a stronger partnership. Some ideas were presented by the PM, some by me. PM talked about ports and port management, skill development, building of smart cities, rejuvenation of India’s rivers and water solutions.
I spoke about the similar partnerships we have with other countries. Of course they are not transferable and they have to be adapted to the Indian context. We already have a world class skills development centre in Delhi. We can replicate it in other parts of the country. In terms of technology and experience in water solutions we will share whatever we have. PM mentioned a Singapore company HiFlux which is engaged in providing water solutions in Gujarat. I agreed.
I suggested we can take this further where a small group of ministers from both countries take up these ideas and work with senior officials to give them concrete form. PM thought this was a good idea. The team can develop these ideas and by the time the two PMs meet later this year there can be some kind of outline. It can form the framework for a deeper partnership.
Q: Singapore already has a skill development centre. What more would you want to do here?
A: The prime minister is thinking in terms of 100 smart cities. Obviously we don’t have the capacity to do so many. We proposed that we can do one city and that can be replicated — as in China, where we have the Tianjin knowledge city, and smart cities in Suxhou, Guangzhou and Szechuan.
In education, we are looking at skilling students who don’t want or can’t go for college education. We can do vocational vocational training for students who don’t want to do academics. If you can keep them and give them on the job training, they come out trained for the modern economy. At the skill development centre in Delhi, we train the trainers. With government changes, some aspects can move a little faster. We are thinking that we can take up one district, where we identify, work with the trainers and train them and that can become the template.
Q: Did you have a conversation with the Indian government on the Little India incident? And what are your own thoughts about it?
A: The official report makes clear the specific incident of the unfortunate man who died when he came under the bus. He attempted to run alongside it and was not in control of his faculties because he was under the influence of alcohol. The subsequent riot was a result of misperceptions of the cause of the accident. A number of the rioters too were themselves under the influence of alcohol.
We spoke to many of them. Because I speak the language, I also visited some of the dormitories. Over 95 per cent agreed to the framework of their working and living conditions. The workers come out of free choice with full knowledge both about their salary, and living conditions. They have other choices – they could live in India, they could go to the Middle East, Malaysia or any other country. They choose to come to Singapore. That gives you the answer. Our survey says 95 per cent are satisfied with the way they are treated, their conditions. They hope they can be paid more, but there is an international market.
They said they preferred to live in Singapore because it functions within a framework of law, they have rights, they have a card with which to call a hotline if they are abused. This is not to say every employer is perfect or every employee. There is no systemic issue. This should not be made an issue between countries.
Q: An Indian-origin Singapore national has been caught, who was apparently on his way to fight in Syria and Iraq? What can be done to prevent this from become a big problem.
A: We talk to India on counter-terrorism we have close cooperation with a number of countries including India. This is a problem for all of us. Terrorism is a serious issue – self-radicalization, radicalization through access online. It happens everywhere. I think it’s not going to be easy to deal with. Governments have to work together to deal with this. I met the NSA yesterday. I wanted to understand his perspective on security framework and challenges that is important for him.
Terrorism is cross-border, solutions too have to be cross border. People and money move from country to country. It requires cooperation with many countries.We did not talk about specific mechanisms, but our agencies already speak to each other.