Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan gave a keynote address on Asean-India ties at the Asean-India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas conference at Marina Bay Sands yesterday. Here is an edited excerpt.
Records document that Indian contact with our part of the world goes as far back as the early 4th century BC. Archaeologists have discovered artefacts such as glass beads and semi-precious stones from Southern India on the Malay Peninsula and in our part of the world.
Early Indian traders established links with South-east Asia. They also brought with them religion, culture, ideas of governance and political systems. All this has become woven into the tapestry of our region.
If you go back to the 13th century, Singapore was part of the Majapahit Empire, one of the Indianised kingdoms in South-east Asia. Even the old names of Singapore, "Temasek", or in fact, "Singapura" itself, have Sanskrit roots. We are another 'pur', just like Jaipur, or Nagpur.
The legacy of ancient Hindu-Buddhist influences is evident in the traditions and landscape of our region. Look no further than Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, the Hindu Prambanan temple in Yogyakarta, the Buddhist temple in Borobudur, or ancient Hindu-Buddhist candis in Kedah.
In Singapore's early history, sepoys, merchants, labourers and administrators arrived during the the 19th and 20th centuries. Many stayed to help build a new nation.
Indian migrants constructed national icons in Singapore, such as the Istana, the Commercial Square (known today as Raffles Place) and Sri Mariamman Temple. We may not remember their names, but their legacy is all around us.
We also remember outstanding individuals such as the late President SR Nathan. Our founding Foreign Minister was Mr S. Rajaratnam, who penned our National Pledge, which enshrines the commitment that we will be "one united people, regardless of race, language or religion".
The stories of the Indian diaspora's contributions are not unique to Singapore. There are 6.1 million members of the Indian diaspora in South-east Asia, all of whom have contributed positively to strong Asean-India relations.
Singapore and India have come a long way today, from the time we first became independent.
In 2017, we marked the 25th anniversary of our relations, and this year, Singapore assumed the Asean chairmanship.
As we look forward to the next chapter, it is important for Asean and India to continue to reinforce this message of building connections with each other.
We live in a time of uncertainty and volatility. Over the past 70 years, there was an emerging consensus that we needed a rules-based global order. But the assumptions of this global order are being questioned. Globalisation has become an easy target for populist politicians. Even the consensus in favour of free trade and economic integration has also frayed.
We need to take stock of why the world is so anxious. What are the new opportunities and what are the changes we need to make?
India and Asean can benefit greatly from greater economic integration and greater openness. We need to build more bridges, not walls between us.
Asean is poised for strong growth, driven by increasing consumption by an emerging middle class, and the fact that the Asean population of 628 million is young. South-east Asia and India represent one quarter of the world's population, and a combined GDP of more than US$4.5 trillion (S$6 trillion).
The Indian consumer market is expected to become the fifth-largest in the world by 2025. By 2025, India would be the most populous county in the world, with a population exceeding China's.
Yet today, India only accounts for 2.6 per cent of Asean's total trade, and only 3 per cent of the tourist arrivals to the Asean region. There is huge potential for growth.
First, we need to press on with economic integration.
Singapore is working with all partners towards unlocking potential through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which offers a historic opportunity to establish the world's largest trade bloc.
If we add India to Asean and Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea, this group potentially covers almost half the world's population, a third of global GDP, and 40 per cent of global trade flows.
Second, we need to enhance connectivity. One way is to expand air links, to have more affordable air tickets that will facilitate the movement of businessmen, tourists and students.
Today, there is a new road: digital connectivity. We should seize this opportunity to digitally connect Asean and India in areas including FinTech, e-payments and others.
Third, we will work on linking cities into a Smart City network between Asean and India. We will exchange best practices in terms of technology, urban governance and sustainable development. We will share, learn and network. This will drive economic growth and provide many opportunities for our young people in Asean and in India.
India is also poised to face massive urban challenges, because by 2050, some 60 per cent of its population will live in cities. In Asean, we surpassed the 50 per cent mark in 2012. This ongoing urbanisation, this need for infrastructure and investments will provide huge opportunities. We have a lot to gain from cooperation.
The choice confronting the world as we undergo a twin revolution of technology and change in the geostrategic balance is what vision will underpin the future world.
Will it be a world with a zero sum game, where might is right, big swallows small, and we compete and form rival blocs? Or will it be the alternative vision of a multipolar world, characterised by interdependence, cooperation, integration, mutual respect, rule of law with access to peaceful resolution of dispute?
If we recognise that we are now in a multipolar world, and India as one of the key poles - if India and other superpowers of the future agree to construct an interdependent world, a world with more bridges, then a new golden age awaits us.
That is the strategic choice that confronts all of us. My hope, my dream, is that we will make the right choice.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 08, 2018, with the headline 'Asean, India need to keep building connections with each other'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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