Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam, who met Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this week, tells The Hindu in an interview in Chennai that Mr. Modi was “focussed” in outlining the areas in which India needs assistance, and spoke about his vision for smart cities, upgrading skills and the development of industrial corridors. Excerpts:
You have been in the country since Monday and you have met a lot of important people. I would like to begin by asking what your discussion with Prime Minister Narendra Modi were about?
The Prime Minister is very focussed, on his viewpoints on what India needs and in what ways people can work with India. And the primary focus was economic, the upliftment of the people of India. He talked about his vision, the needs, the smart cities project that he is thinking of, the skills upgrading that is necessary, the other areas in which he wants to focus on, including the industrial corridors and the topics along these lines.
So with regard to these smart cities did you discuss any specifics about which cities, or are these going to be the new cities?
We didn’t get to that level of cities at this discussion. I have no competence to start discussing that sort of thing because ultimately these investments are made by the private sector. The role of the government — of the two governments is to try and create that structure, that bridge, the framework that will make it attractive for the private sector on both sides to combine together and build something for the benefit of the people. And it must make sense for them as corporations.
So what was important at that meeting was the clear identification by the prime minister of his priorities and my own point to him that Singapore is a trusted and valued partner of India wants to see India succeeds, and we need to give shape to these big ideas. And how do we give shape? We have suggested that the way to do it is for a platform to be setup with some ministers on both sides and senior officials who should be thrashing out — first we need to identify which of these areas because India will have many people who want to invest each of them will have their own areas of expertise. So which areas can Singapore participate in, where India may need Singapore to want to come in, or India may want Singapore to come in and what type of discretion, and what type of legal and fiscal frame work. All that needs to be thrashed out so we suggested that we do that but to give ourselves some time line so that by the time the two prime ministers meet some time later this year there will be some concrete outline of what can be achieved.
So you spoke about a platform. What kind of platform is this?
We have platforms with countries were Ministers meet together in a formal setting with a clear mandate for what they have to do. So the Prime Minister identifies a couple of ministers, on our side we identify a couple of ministers, and then we identify the relevant agencies which would have the mandate, or whose remit it is to deal with the areas that the prime ministers outlined and which way I also discussed. We discussed skills upgrading, we discussed hospitality, we discussed the smart cities project, urban solutions.
So you know there are specific agencies with the remit to deal with regulatory issues, and to push it through. So they will need to come through and sit together with our people, identify which of them are doable on the Indian side. We have to identify which of them are doable on the Singapore side, and then we narrow down, you identify specific projects and we need to talk to the private sectors. So there ar lot of works to be done.
So each of these will be a separate platform or it will be together?
No, it will all be together. And you know, it doesn’t mean that every one of them will go through. That’s what I meant by one has got to work out — what is doable by us, may not be doable by others.
Great! And the visit is going to be later this year in November?
Not a visit to direct/bilateral visit but there are a number of places where the two Prime Ministers could meet at multilateral and the idea is that this gives a time frame for the ideas to be crystallised.
What is the time frame you are looking about?
We are talking about five/six months at least to get an outline.
So just moving on, you met also Chief Minister Jayalalithaa today do be able to give the specific or draft discussion.
It was pretty much along the same lines. The Chief Minister pointed out that Singapore investments in Tamil Nadu were significant, but she also pointed out the given this close and strong social and cultural linkages between the two places Singapore and Tamil Nadu, the economic relationship has a lot more potential. I agreed with that I said there is a huge amount of international capital which is in Singapore looking for deployment, and international capital will go to the best places which offer the best returns. And she identified specific areas which are part of her vision: desalination so as to provide clean drinking water for the people, industrial corridors; she talked about finance, and infrastructure. So as I said look — again at the ministerial level it is difficult for me to sit down and either discuss or commit and equally it is not easy for her to discuss or commit when these are big things. She knows the areas were her priorities are. I know roughly where we can add some value.
But the next step, and she had senior Ministers and Secretaries, particularly in the industrial and financial sector there, and I said look the next step is for officials to follow up and discuss and she agreed and so that will happen. In addition I suggested that there is a social project, there is a not for profit organisation called Singapore International Foundation which does good social work in many parts of the world, and they have done some work on health care in Tamil Nadu and they would like to do a bit more. I offered that they can touch base with their officials and we can try and do some thing.
They already do something?
They have done something. The idea is to also build the sought of what you might call as moral linkages. We have some capacity in these fields and we want to try and do some good around the world. And so this is an area that chief minister was very enthusiastic about it because it dovetails with her own priorities and primary health care. Of course one is got to understand we are a small place Tamil Nadu itself is a much bigger place than Singapore, so the scale in which we can do these things will be limited but it can form a useful template for others to pick up and take it further.
I was going to come to the size mismatch between Singapore and India...
Well that has not prevented us from being the largest investor in India and China last year.
That’s right, I was going to come exactly to that. We have a double taxation treaty and limitations benefits clause. We have seen that Singapore is now the largest source of FDI into India I think 25 per cent and its kind of toppled Mauritius…
I don’t know Mauritius may still be higher but Mauritius is sui generis, its unique. I mean its money that comes in because of the special position Mauritius has in terms of tax vis-à-vis India.
Without relating these two, I am asking if we can be sure that everything that comes into India from Singapore is not out of front office company?
Well Madam, I don’t run the private sector. I provide the legal frame work. I can be sure and guaranteeing that it is all in conformity with the laws, and you know the investments come in here. The Indian authorities are aware of that . Beyond that who the investors are how they raise the capital is really not something I can talk about. But if you look at the type of investments -- just take the Ascendas investments: Ascendas is a highly reputable company, listed US $ 700 million in combination/partnership with two Japanese companies — one is a bank and the other is JGC, and it will create 200 thousand jobs when fully completed. Those are the kinds of investments that you could see in.
There is the industrial park, there are investment in warehousing, in the financial sector. Ascott, which is a big brand name in Singapore has started serviced apartments. So you have a variety and this is what we know as big ticket items. Small and medium industries are investing huge amounts but that is not something that we can keep track of.
In recent years we have also seen Singapore and India developing very strong defence cooperation, it is over a decade old this defence agreement between the two countries. How much does it have to do with Singapore’s own balancing of regional powers, perhaps vis-à-vis China.
We have an excellent relationship with China. As I said we are the largest investor in China last year, and we have several government to government projects for obvious historical and cultural reasons. 74 per cent of our population are Chinese. They trace their roots back to China. There is a lot of people to people connectivity and our relationship with China is very good and we don’t see that as being held hostage to any other relationship.
Likewise we have an excellent relationship with the U.S. Japan, India and that’s always been part of our foreign policy. And if we train here and we have a close defence relationship with India, that’s because India provides us with space for training, which is important for us, and we value Indian assistance there. And we cooperate with those countries in defence where we think they were able to cooperate with us — India and others. These are our good close trusted partners. But we don’t even thinking in terms of balancing India and China. That’s too big again. It’s not the game we can play.
So what are Singapore’s national security concerns if I may ask. If there is a defence cooperation, if there is all this training, do you perceive security threats?
We believe that as a small country whose very existence was laughed off at our independence, 720 sq. km with no natural resources, and don’t forget when we became independent, we were in a low intensity complex with our giant neighbour Indonesia, so we were born at a time when there was war so war is a part of the psyche. Small countries, history shows you, don’t last for a very long so we said to ourselves we have the ability to defend ourselves. It doesn’t mean that you will necessarily be under attack, but the best way to prevent any trouble is to make it clear that you were able to defend yourself. So when we have defence cooperation agreement with India it allows us to train in India, it gives us a space to train. That is vital for us, for own national security. It is not a question of expecting India or any other country to come in to help us.
Do you see this whole spat between China and Japan as something that is threatening the region’s stability?
Basically, as a small country we want peace and stability. That’s how Asia is progressed in the last 50 years. For that to happen, you need the relationship between Washington and Beijing to be on good footing. They have to sort it out and work out something. They are going to be competitors and they are going to be cooperative in some fields. They need to sort it out in such a way that it doesn’t lead to tension. That’s one. The second most important relationship is between Beijing and Tokyo. That is undergoing some stress right now, some stress because there are disputes which had long been put aside which have now taken center-stage. And there is some considerable trust deficit between China and Japan. So, all of this has increased tension. We can only sit back and say that this is not good for the region. And it’s not in China’s interest and it’s not in Japan’s interest.
So as a leading member of ASEAN is there something that ASEAN itself can do...
ASEAN has built a series of multilateral platforms including the ASEAN regional forum, and ASEAN Defence Ministers meeting, which involves a number of partners, and the East Asia summit which brings together leaders at the summit level. All of these provide the scope for regional issues to be openly discussed so it’s at least something where people have to talk about the issues and the rest of us try and see the tensions are kept to the minimum possible. But you know there is no one solutions that can completely take care of all issues between big countries. It requires will power and a lot of political will on the part of each of the countries.
I just wanted to move on to Singapore’s strong defence production industry its own, and in your discussions in Delhi with the Prime Minister and the foreign minister, and Mr. Jaitely as well, did you push for whole issue of FDI...
No, I didn’t raise the topic.
But you would obviously be looking forward to that?
I know this really depends on what how India proceeds. When we go to a country we play by the rules of that country, and so this is something that India will have to decide. If and when in the rules here change in that, I am sure companies will look at it. But I didn’t raise it. It was not an area of specific discussions on Monday or Tuesday.
India has its Look East policy. The UPA government had pushed it, but for some reason it has not been able to live up to its potential. It has always remained a slogan. From your side what do you see as road blocks to that? What is stopped this potential from being fully achieved?
I think a big country like India would have and does have a whole lot of domestic issues to deal with and any government will prioritise that. Then if you move beyond the domestic issues again a big country has number of international interests. Its relationship with Washington is important its relationship with Europe is important, relationship with Beijing is important and at the same time there are relationships with Pakistan, Afghanistan and there are a set of issues relating to the North West. So which of these are not important? Given that the neighbourhood has been busy given that domestically there is a growing population with growing aspirations and economy that is huge and which needs to be managed, I think one has got to look at India’s policies with that frame of mind. So it has had a look east policy with good intentions, and India did take part in some initiatives. I think people will say the potential for doing is much more is that. But when we assess that we else also have to accept that India has a large number of priorities.
The other thing that I wanted to ask you about is recently, in December last year, there were riots in Singapore in Little India. A number of Indian workers were arrested and some are being sentenced and I am just wondering what are lessons for all sides to draw from that episode?
No. It’s a law and order situation and the Committee of Inquiry has issued its report. It started out with the unfortunate death of one individual who was intoxicated, tried to get on to a bus. In Singapore the rules are if the bus is full you cannot stay in the bus so he was told to get down. He was upset and he dropped his pants in the bus, and then finally he got off but the poor chap ran alongside the bus which he shouldn’t have, and when the bus made a turn he got caught into another wheels.
As the COI, which had extensive hearings concluded, he was primarily responsible for that. Others who were at the scene were upset at his death, and also some misconceptions about how he died and they were themselves also intoxicated so it was fuelled in a large measure by alcohol. So we have to look at it this context and the point I made to various Indian interlocutors — no one has raised it with me at the official level, only journalists. They have asked me after they understood the facts, why we were making such a big deal, something like this happens in every Indian city once a month in slightly bigger scale, so why is Singapore making such a big deal of it. So let us look at it in this context. For us we took it seriously. We had a COI because something like this hadn’t happened in 44 years.
But you saw what the COI has said. Alcohol was the main reason. They took it upon themselves to destroy public property and they were dealt with in accordance with the law; some were repatriated immediately, some have been charged and caught due process, they pleaded guilty and some have served their jail sentence some are waiting for trial. If a Singaporean or foreign national commits a crime in India you will deal with him accordance of laws of India.
Likewise we deal with them in accordance with the laws of Singapore. In terms of foreign workers are, workers from India, let’s get a few things clear. First they are there by free choice. No one is asking them to come to Singapore. First of all they could stay in India. If the conditions were superior to what is available in Singapore they will stay here. So after taking into account pay, living conditions and working conditions they have chosen to come to Singapore over staying here. Second, as between Singapore and other countries they could choose to go to the Middle East, they could choose to go to Malaysia, choose to go to other countries. They have chosen Singapore. In fact when I visited the workers’ dormitories to speak with them because I speak Tamil, uniformly they told me Singapore is number one on their list because it is a place of workers’ rights are protected, there is a framework of rule of law, there is a certain freedom and they are treated better than many other places.
It doesn’t mean that there are no errant employers and doesn’t mean that there will be no errant employees, but there are no systemic issues. As a system we see to protect all sides and we allow the free market to operate.
There are no new restrictions on Indian workers?
There are no new restrictions but there are restrictions on where they can congregate, about alcohol consumption and so on, and the COI has made some further recommendations.