Speaking Of Asia

Asean and the children of Gowri

For India to walk tall in South-east Asia, opening trade is the key

The Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore has a section on ancient Asia's trade routes that reminds us that the continent was once dominated by two great powers, China under the Tang dynasty, and the Abbasid Caliphate with its capital at Baghdad.

Srivijaya, established in Sumatra, Java and the Malay peninsula, lay at the critical connection between East and West Asia, or in the parlance currently popular in South-east Asia, enjoyed "centrality".

India's influence spread in both directions. In the mid-19th century, the Indian rupee was legal tender in the Straits Settlements and, until the 1950s, in large parts of the Gulf states. The pull of "Malaya" remained strong for them throughout as the settlement that lay at the crossroads of Asia. The early travellers from the subcontinent brought with them not just goods to exchange but also religion, culture and patterns of governance, all of which have become enmeshed in the region's magnificent tapestry.

Two disparate experiences these past two weeks set me musing on how old Malaya's rump states continue to be a magnet for Indians.

The first was to read Gowri, a book passed to me by the distinguished Singapore diplomat and pillar of the Indian community, Mr K. Kesavapany. The other was the spectacular convention of overseas Indians held in Singapore over the weekend.

Penned by the noted Malaysian academic V.G. Kumar Das, Gowri is the deeply moving story of his late mother's life - from her July 1934 arrival in Singapore's Keppel Harbour as a young bride aboard the British passenger vessel SS Rajula, to how she raised seven children in the new land despite being widowed early, and how her thriving progeny up and down the Malay peninsula today extend to three generations. It also recounts how facets of Malay and Chinese culture touched Gowri's life, experiences that she relished relating to her kin in India.

There are thousands of Gowris and their descendants across South-east Asia - by some counts as many as a fifth of the 31 million Indian diaspora are in the region, increasingly prosperous, patriotic to their adopted lands and enthusiastic participants in the march of their respective nations even as most of them maintain connections to the land of their origin.


Over the weekend, a few thousand of this diaspora resident in South-east Asia came together to celebrate Asean-India Overseas Indians Day.

Organised by the Indian government under the theme "Ancient Route, New Journey", the event not only showcased India's syncretic culture and ancient connections to the region but much else: How modern India is impacting the Asean states as its economy speeds towards its inevitable destiny as one of the world's leading powers, its sons and daughters increasingly recognised as top flight talent in business, academics, science and media, together raising South-east Asia's game.

Speaking at the opening plenary on Sunday, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan mused that it was a personal reminder of the journey undertaken by his ancestors and great-grandparents more than a century ago. Records indicate, he said, that Indian contact with the region dates back to the 4th century BC.

Senior Indian officials who travelled down for the meeting were at pains to stress that the conference, and its venue, were further evidence of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi putting flesh on the bones of his Act East policy, tweaked from the Look East policy of predecessor governments. Mrs Sushma Swaraj, India's Foreign Minister, described Asean as being at the "core" of that policy.

In many ways, this Act East policy is indeed alive and well, and taking on new forms and shapes. Later this month, Mr Modi will join United States President Donald Trump at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and it is a fair guess that both will present converging visions of a "free and open Indo-Pacific". Alongside the United States, India also is steadily coordinating strategic policies with Japan and Australia.


In the narrower context of Asean too, there has been much to cheer about the developing linkages that one day could add up to the New Journey that India talks about.

Indian foreign direct investment (FDI) into Asean nations accounts for 22 per cent of the nation's total outbound flow, whereas for Japan, that figure is 13 per cent and China, 6 per cent. Flights from Asean destinations to Indian airports number 735 a week, with Singapore taking about a third of that traffic. Singapore Tourism Board's Mr Chang Chee Pey says 2017 was a "breakthrough year" for the Republic in the Indian market, with tourists from there outnumbering Malaysians to take the No. 3 spot behind the Chinese and Indonesians.

Politically, Asean and India have established 30 platforms for cooperation, including an annual leaders' summit and seven ministerial dialogues. Things are moving on the security front as well. In June, Mr Modi will deliver the keynote address at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue of security chiefs in the region, a first for an Indian prime minister. This month, the 10 Asean leaders, led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the current Asean chair, will gather in New Delhi as guests of honour at India's annual Republic Day parade.

Thus, when India looks at Asean, it feels it has substantially walked its talk. Its rise, at least as far as this region is concerned, has truly been a peaceful one. It does not have a single bilateral dispute of significance with an Asean state, and certainly none over the touchy topics of territory or hegemonic behaviour. Indeed, this is what helps its diaspora to avoid being conflicted; patriotic citizens of their country of orientation while retaining strong roots in the land of their origin.


The issue is when the South-east Asian region looks at India.

It takes only a child with a calculator to assess that impressive as much of this is, India's Asean journey has only half begun. There are more than 700 flights a week, true, but they are skewed heavily towards Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. No direct flight connects India to Jakarta, capital of Asean's biggest nation and economy, or to Manila, capital of the No. 3 Asean economy by size.

While it does send a fifth of its outbound FDI to Asean, the actual numbers pale before the massive investments into the region from the US, Japan and the European Union.

Indian tourists to the region, at 5.5 million last year, account for just about 5 per cent of the total tourist count. The reverse flow is dismal: A mere half-million Asean citizens travelled to India. This is why it makes sense for India to seriously consider Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean's call that it offer Asean an open skies policy to one, or two of its metropolitan cities, as a test bed for a larger liberalisation of its air services.

Given the roughly similar size of Asean and Indian economies and the parallel development paths being taken by India and large parts of South-east Asia, there is much that could be done together in a variety of areas, from the digital economy to connectivity, and even sharing tourist traffic. And indeed, more will take place over the years.

But it is in the area of trade that India truly needs to move faster if it is at all serious about Asean being at the core of its Act East policy, or even the policy itself. At about US$60 billion (S$80 billion), India, Asia's No. 3 economy after China and Japan, accounts for only 2.6 per cent of Asean's trade. Indeed, it is only 40 per cent of the region's trade with South Korea, the fourth-biggest Asian economy. And it needs no saying that China and Japan outpace India by miles on the trade front. At its current pace, there is no chance that bilateral trade will reach the targeted US$200 billion by 2022.

This is why it is important for India to not stand in the way of the Asean-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade agreement, where it is a foot-dragger in the negotiations. New Delhi's position is that because it is a latecomer to the manufacturing revolution, for economic cooperation to be truly "comprehensive", Asean must yield on areas where India is competitive, which is services.

While there is some merit to the argument, many observers believe the real reason for India's laggardness appears to be fear that its vast market will be overrun by Chinese goods.

Without question, every nation needs to act in its interests, and lending strength to industry and agriculture is indeed a national duty. But, if South-east Asia is deemed a region that is vital to India's interests, it also is incumbent for New Delhi to judge how to best pursue that interest. When it comes to Asean, trade is strategy. India must not miss the big picture.

At the weekend conference, Mrs Swaraj drew the loudest cheers when she detailed her ministry's unstinting efforts to be of timely assistance to the diaspora, whether to help a distressed citizen robbed of his passport, or to evacuate thousands of people stranded in war-torn Yemen.

If she wishes the 6.1 million overseas Indians in South-east Asia to walk tall, Mrs Swaraj will need to prod her government to swiftly endorse the RCEP as a strategic decision. The children of Gowri would be truly grateful.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2018, with the headline 'Asean and the children of Gowri'. Print Edition | Subscribe