Ascendas-Singbridge tells of positive India experience

Ascendas-Singbridge has had its challenges in India despite having the most established presence in the country of almost any Singaporean company, according to deputy group chief executive Manohar Khiatani.

"We have faced delays in projects, changes in government policies, lack of clarity and consistency in tax environment and also, until two years back, a sharply depreciating rupee," he told the Ninth India-Singapore Strategic Dialogue yesterday. "We have had our hits and misses, but overall the experience has been positive."

The company went into India about 20 years ago as part of a government-to-government initiative and built India's first IT park in Bangalore. Its presence in the country has certainly flourished since those early days, with it opening its eighth IT park there, International Tech Park Gurgaon, just last week.

Today, the company's assets under management in India amount to about $2 billion, while about 400 companies are in its parks.

About nine years ago, it listed Ascendas India Trust, the first Indian property trust to be listed outside the country.

The challenges noted by Mr Khiatani would have derailed many companies but several factors have helped Ascendas-Singbridge prevail. One is that the company is a long-term investor and only goes into projects where it can make a difference and where its interests are aligned with those of the local authorities. "In fact, in many of our projects in Bangalore, Chennai and Pune, the local governments are our partners," said Mr Khiatani.

The company has also built a good local team that is fully aligned with its parent in terms of corporate culture. It does not have a single expatriate among its 200 employees in India - everything is managed by locals.

"Finally, it is about perseverance. You have to build in delays and contingencies in your business plan," said Mr Khiatani.

India remains a bright spark in a gloomy world economy, which was the theme of yesterday's public forum. Other speakers at the forum were Mr Manu Bhaskaran, chief executive of Centennial Asia Advisors; Mr Ashok Malik, distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi; and Dr Shashi Tharoor, Member of Parliament of India and chairman of its Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs.

The Indian government is pro- business and clearly wants to make positive changes, Mr Khiatani said.

Economic growth is also robust at above 7 per cent.

The major trends of urbanisation and the expanding young workforce are of crucial interest to Ascendas-Singbridge. Just over 400 million people live in Indian cities, a figure that is expected to double by 2050. This means there will be a great need to create jobs, which in turn will mean strong demand for business space in key cities, which is essentially the company's product.

It has a development pipeline of 11 million sq ft to supply space for the fast-growing IT and IT-enabled services sector.

Mr Khiatani said India needs to focus on growing its manufacturing sector and continuously move up the value chain in the IT sectors if it wants to retain its spark.

It should also promote entrepreneurship such as with the Start-up India project the Indian government launched in January.

He said: "We do see India as a bright spark with tremendous potential and are totally committed to (it). But it is not easy to ride the Indian elephant. Our experience in India has been like having a difficult baby. At times, you feel like throwing her out with the bath water, but when all is said and done you are grateful you had her."

Correction Note: The designation of Mr Manohar Khiatani should be deputy group chief executive. We are sorry for the error. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2016, with the headline 'Ascendas-Singbridge tells of positive India experience'. Print Edition | Subscribe