Speaking Of Asia

The merlion and the elephant

Last week, Singapore and Malaysia were treated to a bit of the Narendra Modi phenomenon. The crowded calendar, the energy and sharp dressing more fitting of a 40-year-old and, for those who understand his Hindi and steadily improving English accent, a glimpse of the oratorical skills that propelled him last year to the prime minister's office in India by a landslide.

The last time a politician so captured Indian - and global - attention was when Mr Rajiv Gandhi was voted to power in December 1984, on the crest of a sympathy wave for his slain mother, Mrs Indira Gandhi.

Mr Modi, 65 years old, is no Gandhi, any way you look at it. He avoids mentioning the Nehru-Gandhi family, but does often pay tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, who was not related to either Pandit Nehru or his daughter, Indira Gandhi, despite the similarity in names.

As for the Mahatma, Mr Modi somehow seems not the sort to threaten a fast unto death in order to promote Hindu-Muslim unity; nor does he have much patience with cottage industry or the village life so eulogised by the Mahatma.

It is not as though he is uncaring of rural folk or their problems. He can, for instance, expertly discuss sickle-cell disease, a common illness among villagers. Indeed, on a trip to Japan, Mr Modi sought out a leading stem-cell researcher to see if he could collaborate with Indian scientists to develop a cure. But Mr Modi's vision is clear, and it is very different from that of his fellow Gujarati.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

To start with, he wants 100 "smart cities" across India. There is his Make in India scheme - a drive to see big urban factories provide jobs to the teeming unemployed pouring in from the hinterland and, in the process, turn the country into a manufacturing power. If he has anything at all in common with the Mahatma, it is that he stresses cleanliness and personal hygiene. Thus, his emphasis on Clean India.

Contemporary Indian leaders have been content to project the lumbering Indian elephant as breaking into a trot. Mr Modi visualises India, which now lays claim to being the fastest-growing major economy, as no less than the last abode of the Asiatic lion. It happens that the animal is found only in Gujarat, his home state.

How should the Singapore Merlion, and its Asean peers, respond to this complex, leonine character? A vegetarian who can savage his opponents with his barbed tongue, yet raise issues of great sensitivity such as providing toilets for girls in school - issues that escaped the attention of leaders with big families, but not this man who lives a bachelor existence. A person who tweets several times a day and whips out his cellphone for wefies, yet is oddly tongue-tied when it comes to the lynching by Hindu fanatics of a Muslim villager falsely accused of storing beef in a nation that worships the cow. Mr Modi is a remarkable political animal whose personal popularity seems undiminished, even though his party got a drubbing at recent polls in Bihar state despite the Prime Minister's frenetic campaigning.

First, it is essential to acknowledge that he not only looks durable - the Pew Research Centre survey published in September shows 87 per cent of Indians view him favourably -but he is also the most promising of Indian leaders in terms of his ability to follow through on commitments. There is no serious challenge to either his government or his control over his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Second, India's market of 1.2 billion is still largely virgin territory, and its hunger for goods and services is expanding exponentially. Thus, at a time when money is fleeing emerging markets, including China, the flow to India is steady, even rising. The Financial Times newspaper says India drew US$31 billion (S$44 billion) in foreign direct investment in the first six months of the year, against US$28 billion for China and US$27 billion for the United States.

And, as with China, its urbanisation process has a long way to go, offering endless opportunities in everything from real estate to infrastructure and healthcare.

Third, the strategic stars are aligning in India's favour - it is courted by all, from the US to Japan and Australia, even China. Indeed, the new buzzword among foreign policy and military experts is of an "Indo-Pacific" region. For the next two decades, India is poised to affect Asia in the same way that China did over the previous two.

Mr Modi has given short shrift to the traditional Nehruvian-era policy of non-alignment in favour of a US-tilted, multi-aligned framework that has seen India take a surprisingly robust position on keeping sea lanes open, including in the South China Sea. He began his whirlwind visit here with a Singapore Lecture that reiterated India's commitment to ensuring freedom of navigation in regional waters, even as he spoke glowingly about the promise of a development partnership with China.

Besides, India is one of the biggest importers of arms. Like his friend Shinzo Abe in Japan, Mr Modi is developing a military industrial complex, and eyeing arms exports. India's application to enter the Missile Technology Control Regime - an informal political grouping that seeks to limit missile proliferation - is a prelude to meeting requests from the Philippines and Vietnam for India-made weapons, in particular, the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile co-developed with Russia. Last week, Israel Aerospace Industries and India's Defence Research & Development Organisation tested the long-range surface-to-air missile they had jointly built.

In every direction, the keel is being laid for an Indian resurgence, even if the vast and complex nation will inevitably have its stutters. It makes sense to get a slice of the action, and to make full use of the goodwill for Singapore that permeates every layer of Indian society.

This is where the elevation of Singapore-India ties to a "strategic partnership" level becomes interesting. It is not a nomenclature Singapore uses lightly, and the vision, as laid out in the 15-item joint declaration, is vast. The two nations will also regularly consult at the levels of their foreign and defence ministers.

The road ahead is long, and it is time to put past stumbles in the relationship behind. Ten years ago, Singapore unwisely withdrew from the consortium bidding to build New Delhi's new international airport, thereby losing an opportunity to plant a significant red dot on India's forehead. Malaysia seized the opportunity.

Four years later, India blacklisted Singapore's ST Kinetics on unproven suspicion of using bribes - even though the Indian army had told the government that the firm's Pegasus howitzers were the only cannon that fitted its requirements.

These things do happen, but countries can recover from such setbacks.

The stress laid in the strategic partnership on defence, and co-production, is therefore of much interest. Japan is the only other Asian country with which India has a matching strategic embrace at the dual levels of foreign affairs and defence ministers. Future months and years could reveal an unfurling of the India-Japan defence partnership where, conceivably, India's software skills could be married to Japanese advances in robotics. Who knows - future collaboration patterns could involve all three nations.

As for airports, India has now offered Singapore two - at Jaipur in Rajasthan state and at Ahmedabad, the capital of adjoining Gujarat. At first glance, it would seem odd that two major facilities are being planned next to each other but, at the pace at which India is projected to grow, scale and scaling up will be be important. What's more, the distance between Ahmedabad and Jaipur, two of India's 29 state capitals, is about the same as that between Penang and Singapore - that's how large India is.

Rajasthan, also run by Mr Modi's BJP, wants Singapore to help upgrade two of its other main cities and tourist spots - Jodhpur and Udaipur.

This is all in addition to Amaravati, the greenfield capital of Andhra Pradesh state in southern India that Singapore is helping to plan and develop. Soon, another BJP chief minister - Shivraj Singh Chouhan of sprawling Madhya Pradesh state - will be in Singapore with his own agenda.

Beyond lies more opportunity - as geoeconomics guru Sanjaya Baru pointed out at this year's Straits Times Global Outlook Forum, Singapore and the Gulf emirate of Dubai were the only two outside governments invited to participate in the Africa-India summit that was hosted recently by New Delhi. The red dots are poised to multiply.

Close as ties are, the biggest learning Singapore can offer India, and Mr Modi, is this nation's bedrock commitment to a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. India has few enemies outside itself and, today, there is no bigger threat to its polity than majority communalism tempting a sullen minority - India has more than 160 million Muslims alone - to go down a dangerous path. In his toast remarks at the official lunch for Mr Modi, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong dwelt at length and proudly on the contribution Indians had made to Singapore's religious harmony and multiculturalism. As a sensitive friend, he could not have said more.

Mr Modi is too smart a person not to have picked up on the message. It might well be that some of his previous silences on issues of religous bigotry could have been strategic - as with Aung San Suu Kyi and the Rohingya issue in Myanmar, he senses a political trap is being laid whereby he could be forced to express himself on an issue about which the majority think differently.

India's well-wishers will pray that it is in Mr Modi's genius to free himself of the flintier elements of the Hindu right that has gained voice in the past 18 months and use his massive connect with his nation to show them a different path.

Mr Barack Obama said as much this January, as he left India after a rare second visit as US president.

"The peace we seek in the world begins in human hearts; it finds its glorious expression when we look beyond any differences in religion or tribe and rejoice in the beauty of every soul," said Mr Obama, as he namechecked prominent Indian Muslims, Sikhs and sportswomen.

Mr Modi should not mind such advice. After all, as the Buddha, who Mr Modi is fond of quoting, once said: Noble friends and companions are the whole of the holy life.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 04, 2015, with the headline 'The merlion and the elephant'. Print Edition | Subscribe