Tribune India

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s remarks on February 18 that in “Nehru’s India…almost half the MPs in the Lok Sabha have criminal charges pending against them, including charges of rape and murder,” touched a raw nerve in New Delhi. The result was a litany of protests about something that is common knowledge. In fact, he was critical of Israel as well on the same count.

Considering that Singapore views India and Israel as close friends, Lee’s remarks, made in a speech to the Singapore Parliament, were actually more in sorrow than in anger. But for India, it was a red rag, especially since he contrasted the current period with the era of Jawaharlal Nehru.

As for facts, they are quite clear. Based on declarations made by candidates at the time of filing their nomination, the NGOs Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) had noted in May 2019 that 43 per cent of the new MPs had criminal charges against them, a 26 per cent increase over the 2014 figure, and yes, nearly 29 per cent cases related to rape, murder and attempt to murder.

But this was not the true burden of Lee’s speech. Though the remarks were in the context of some local developments, what the Singapore PM obliquely did was to express his deep disappointment with India. For long, the tiny island republic has seen India as the key to maintaining the balance of power in Asia.

Well before China emerged as a global power in the early 1980s, Lee’s father, the legendary Lee Kuan Yew, had had high hopes of India and had seen that at some point in the future, stability and peace in Asia would be served by India balancing China.

As Prof V Suryanarayan once pointed out, within hours of becoming independent from Malaysia in August 1965, Lee Kuan Yew summoned the Indian representative in the island and requested New Delhi’s help to establish its armed forces. But New Delhi was lukewarm and Singapore turned to Israel. In the 1965 India-Pakistan war, Singapore was one of the first countries to back India, but later as the Cold War intensified, the two countries drifted apart and only began a rapprochement in the 1980s.

In the 1990s, when India initiated its “Look East” policy, Singapore was one of the first ASEAN nations to welcome it. Today, though ASEAN is India’s fourth largest trading partner, a lot of this relates to Singapore which accounts for 90 per cent of India’s inbound and outbound investment from the region. Indeed, 29 per cent of the $81.72 billion FDI that India got in 2020-21 came from the country. Over 8,000 Indian companies are registered in the city-state, making it the largest foreign corporate contingent there. India’s trade is an anaemic $21 billion or so but its outward FDI to Singapore is over $63 billion, making it one of the top destinations for Indian investments.

China, of course, looms larger in terms of trading and investment, as well as political issues, taking into account the South China Sea dispute. Singapore investments in China are nearly $200 billion.

China is Singapore’s largest trading partner with trade worth $136 billion. The difference in the economic imprint of the two in the region is best brought out by India’s decision to stay out of the Regional Economic Comprehensive Partnership (RCEP).

But India has developed important security ties with Singapore. These began in 1994 as an adjunct of the Look East policy which culminated in the signing of a Defence Cooperation Agreement between the two countries in 2003. Since 1994, India and Singapore have been conducting the annual bilateral naval exercise, SIMBEX, which have become increasingly sophisticated over the years. It was only the next year in 1995 that India reached out to other ASEAN navies through Exercise Milan in the Andaman Sea.

In recent years, there have been annual ministerial and official level dialogues on security issues, as well as staff level talks between the three wings of the armed forces. Since the mid-2000s, Singapore has used the IAF base at Kalaikunda in West Bengal for training and exercises using its own F-16 aircraft. More recently, the Singapore Army has used training and firing facilities at Babina for its tanks. In November 2017, the two sides agreed to bilateral naval cooperation which would involve maritime security, port visits and mutual logistics support.

As the Chinese expanded into the South China Sea, greater congruence has emerged between the two sides on security issues. Both have stressed the need for a pacific settlement of disputes and the importance of the freedom of navigation of the seas.

In the current churn in the Indo-Pacific, Singapore would like India to play a more robust role in the South-east Asian region, both economically and from the security point of view. It has so far depended on the US for its security, though it is not a treaty ally. But the US is an extra-regional power which can pack up and go home, depending on the vagaries of its politics.

India, a regional country that shares maritime borders with four of the 10 ASEAN states, is a surer bet to offset China’s growing power and assertion. But for that, New Delhi needs to get its act together. Divisive domestic policies are distracting from the strength India could have brought to bear in the region. Further, an indifferent economic performance affects its ability to field a military which is capable of a larger regional role.

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