SINGAPORE - Singapore is in a unique position to facilitate even closer ties between Asean and India, said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean on Sunday (Jan 7), as he made a vigorous pitch on the opportunities available for Indian businesses which set up shop in Singapore.
"As a civil aviation, trading and financial hub, we are a good base for Indian companies to work from in order to expand to South-east Asia and beyond," he said at a gala dinner that capped off the Asean-India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas.
The annual conference, that celebrates the achievements and contributions of the Indian diaspora, is being held with an Asean theme this year, to mark 25 years of dialogue partnership between India and the regional bloc. Singapore, the Asean chair, is hosting the meeting this year.
Many multinational companies have their headquarters in Singapore, noted Mr Teo. Today, Indian companies form the largest contingent of foreign companies here: there are more than 8,000 of them, double the number in 2009.
Singapore, he said, plays a role in connecting many companies from all corners of the world who use the country as an operational base, among them more than 7,500 Chinese ones registered here.
These Singapore-based companies form a vibrant community, and can work together to tap on the country's business infrastructure and its network of 20 implemented free trade agreements with 31 trading partners to help them expand abroad, said Mr Teo.
Noting the strong turnout from Indian and Singapore businesses - many of which operate across the region - at the conference, Mr Teo also made a pitch for businesses to urge governments to facilitate the ease of doing business and to enact policies to attract greater investments and cross-border partnerships.
"Businesses can play an important role by encouraging governments, both at national and state levels, to be more competitive, responsive and plugged into global value chains," he said.
He added that, as Asean chair, Singapore is committed to deepening the group's relations with its key partners, including India.
Two events on the horizon will help further enhance ties: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's trip to India later in the month for the Asean-India Commemorative Summit - his first Asean-related summit as 2018 chair - and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Singapore later in the year to deliver the keynote address at the Shangri-la Dialogue, the first time an Indian Prime Minister will speak at the event.
In his speech, Mr Teo also detailed three key areas in which Asean and India can work together more closely: economic integration, connectivity, and digital technologies.
Southeast Asia and India represent a quarter of the world's population - 1.8 billion people - and a combined GDP of more than US$4.5 trillion.
By 2025, India's consumer market is expected to become the fifth largest in the world, while South-east Asia will see a doubling of middle-class households to 163 million.
"Against this backdrop, we are starting from a modest base," said Mr Teo, noting that Asean-India trade accounted for only 2.6 per cent of the bloc's external trade in 2016. "There is much scope to strengthen our linkages and trade ties."
He called for Asean and India to press on with economic integration, pledging that Singapore, as Asean chair, will do what it can to secure the support of India and all other Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership countries to advance negotiations on the pact.
Connectivity can be boosted too, said Mr Teo, noting that with India's strategic location, maritime and air connectivity can be expanded to bring the country closer to the rest of Asean.
He noted that India has many airports ready and available to connect many more points in Asean.
"The key to unlocking this potential is to further liberalise air services as Singapore has done," said Mr Teo, adding that India could start, as a pilot project, to allow one or two of its key cities to have open skies with those in Asean.
Thirdly, Asean and India - both fast-changing markets with an appetite for innovative solutions - can cooperate in digital technologies.
There are opportunities for platforms such as India's e-payment and digital identification systems to be harmonised with those in the region.
On the security front, Mr Teo, who is also Coordinating Minister for National Security, was heartened to see that defence cooperation between India and Asean has intensified.
India, which is located strategically along important sea-routes from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, is integral to the security in the region, he noted.
"Asean and India share a common interest to keep these vital conduits of trade and economic exchange open," said Mr Teo. "And it is crucial that we continue to uphold our shared principles of the freedom of navigation and respect for the rule of law."
In her address, delivered in Hindi, India's External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj , highlighted Singapore's role in initiating India's engagement with Asean. She also asked for the Indian diaspora to take a second look at India.
"India today is not the country you left 100 or 150 years ago, it has been transformed," she said.
She drew attention to India's growing prosperity, asking the diaspora to tap into business opportunities thrown open by such schemes as the 'Make in India' campaign which offers various incentives for the setting up of manufacturing enterprises in India.
India's High Comissioner to Singapore, Jawed Ashraf, said there was new urgency and priority in India's Act East policy, with Asean as its anchor.
He lauded the two-day conference as a tribute to Asean's dynamism and diversity as well as that of Singapore - "a nation that has its arms open to the world and, at the same time, held together in embrace of its multicultural sociey."
Mr Ashraf said: "Singapore has been the bridge between India and Asean. It has now become a leading global strategic partner for India."