Singapore hopes to work with new India government: PM Lee

SINGAPORE - Singapore hopes to work with India in the areas of urban and port development, water and sewage projects, as well as education and training, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Friday night.

He noted that newly-elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi "came in with a thumping mandate", and has a majority in the Lok Sabha, India's lower house of Parliament, which is "something that has not happened for a very, very long time".

He was speaking at the gala dinner of the Indian Institutes of Management (IIM) alumni conference, where he spent an hour answering questions from the audience on developments in the region and in Singapore. Over 1,000 alumni from the IIM network of publicly-run, prestigious business schools in India are here as leaders in multinational and major Indian companies.

"There are great hopes for India to take the next step forward. India is a massive country so you do not expect transformation within 100 days. But we do hope that it will be going in a positive upward and accelerated direction, connecting to the world, fulfilling its potential, attracting investments, engaging with the global trading system, and playing a role, also strategically, in the wider region," said Mr Lee.

"Between Singapore and India, we have (a) very good base to work upon. We have a closed economic cooperation agreement, which was in fact the first such bilateral agreement India had signed with any country in the world. And we hope that on that basis we can move forward. Our ministers have been visiting India, your ministers have been visiting Singapore," he said, adding that he hoped to meet Mr Modi before the year is over.

He also encouraged India to play a bigger regional role by joining more free trade agreements: "We'd like to see that India is able to spare the bandwidth and focus to extend their reach, influence and engage with the region and benefit from it."

On Indonesia, he said Singapore looked forward to working with Indonesia's incoming president Joko Widodo, who he said had a strong psychological mandate from the voters:

"Numerically, it was a few percentage points of a majority, but I think with a strong psychological mandate from his people to take the country another step forward, building on what President Yudhoyono has done over the last 10 years. And we're happy that all the challenges and electoral processes are now practically completed, and we look forward to working with him. Indonesia is our biggest neighbour, and we depend on and enormously value a constructive relationship where we can prosper together."

Turning to China, he said China was undergoing very rapid economic and social change, and this was impacting the region.

"The power balance is shifting, their economic influence is shifting, the way regional interdependency and cooperation is developing. So many countries in the region, in the world, now have China as their biggest trading partner, including Singapore since about three years ago. So that's a very big fact in the world which we are adjusting to (and) which we are cautiously optimistic will be a positive change in the global scene."

Mr Lee also responded to questions on developments in Singapore and was asked by DBS Group Holdings chief executive Piyush Gupta, who chaired the question-and-answer session between the audience and Mr Lee, about societal changes, its effect on the nature of politics and governing the country in this new age of social media.

Responding, Mr Lee said: "For a start, I now have a Facebook account. Ten years ago, Facebook did not even exist. So, I would say in a fundamental way, politics has not changed. It is about power. And it's about how you do things for the people. It is always about power, and it should always be (about) how you do things for the people... But how it's conducted has changed."

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