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My Days in Singapore – Looking East and Loving It

Ambassador Prabhat P. Shukla

contribution to collection of reminiscences by former Heads of Mission in Singapore published by the Singapore Government



Image: Indian High Commission, Singapore


I had spent some seven years in Delhi – unusually long for a diplomat on home posting – when I decided that it was time to seek a foreign posting as Head of Mission. After considering the various options available, I settled on Singapore. I had had the good fortune to contribute to the development of our “Look East” policy, and I felt it was time to go east and see how it was working. Besides, my daughter was planning to study for her MBA in Singapore, and I relished the idea of getting to spend a few more years with her. She was noticeably less enthusiastic about a few more years of my breathing down her neck, but in the end I persuaded her that there were more pluses than minuses in the erratic pleasure of my company.

And so it was that i approached my political masters for being posted out. I was in the fortunate position of being able to get the posting of my choice, though Singapore was, until then, reserved for more senior diplomats than I was at that time. It was decided that I was to take up the post of High Commissioner towards the middle of 2000. With a little bit of the inevitable delay that occurs in any administrative chain, I found myself in Singapore in mid-October. President KR Narayanan, himself a former member of the Foreign Service, was due shortly afterwards, and the Singapore President, Mr SR Nathan, agreed to receive my credentials in short order so that I was accredited in time for my President’s visit.

For the first time, but not for the last during my stay in the country, I encountered the view, during the presentation of my credentials, that Singapore was a small country, and India was a big country, but that the two needed to develop closer ties. I could honestly reply that I had no feeling that Singapore was a small country – it was relevant to India, and would be increasingly so, as we deepened our commitment to looking east. At the same time, and this was a paradox, there was also a sense among some important members of the Singapore establishment that India was a poor country that did not seem to be able to get its act together, and that Singapore did not really need to invest too much attention on it.

It is always a good way to begin one’s assignment with a high level visit because it gives the necessary exposure at the top in the host country and President Narayanan was generous in the introductions he gave about me to his interlocutors. Nonetheless, I was left with a clear sense at the end of the visit that many among the Singaporeans were a little condescending towards India. This was particularly noticeable in the press, where the anonymity of press and editorial comment allowed such views to be aired without there being any official tinge to such attitudes.

I realised that this was the result of a lack of knowledge of how much India was changing – had changed – and therefore we needed to project the new reality of the country before the Singaporeans. We therefore decided to launch what we called “Celebrating India”, the aim of which was to showcase the cultural and economic achievements of the post-Cold War India. I had the quiet but solid support of Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who inaugurated the event, at which we presented the culture and economy of the new India. We also did a number of business seminars at which some of the captains of Indian business attended and showed how much India Inc. had changed in a short span of time, and how ambitious but realistic were our future plans.

The responses to the week-long event were entirely flattering, not least from the Indian community, which is frequently quite critical of the home Government and its representatives abroad. Attitudes, of course, do not change in a hurry, and it would be wrong to suggest that all was well thereafter. Nevertheless, there was a change in some important sectors, in Government and the media, though pockets of old thinking persisted. We saw nothing negative or unexpected in this; but it opened some doors and we began to engage seriously in efforts to build a new quality of relations with Singapore.

Two ideas had been suggested to me soon after I took up my assignment – one was that of a bilateral free trade agreement, the other was to raise the level of the Indo-ASEAN dialogue. On the first, there was little attraction in India; our people argued that Singapore was a free port – so there was nothing to be gained in a free trade agreement with it. In one of my early meetings with then Prime Minister Goh, and then Trade Minister George Yeo, I suggested that we should widen the scope to work for a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement. This was not a new or original idea: while I was still in Delhi, we had launched a similar initiative with Japan, whose Prime Minister Mori, had just been to India and promoted such an agreement. It was pleasant to see how quickly the Singapore system worked, and ere long, it was decided that we would indeed work for a CECA. We did make fairly rapid progress, but I had to leave Singapore before we were able to wrap it up. I had moved to Australia when I read the good news that the CECA had been signed. And shortly after, I got a hand-written note from George Yeo, saying that I was the unsung hero of the CECA - a gesture that deeply touched me. And encourages me to try and sing about my own role in the agreement even at this late stage. Never too late to blow one’s own trumpet!

On the other proposal, of upgrading the Indo-ASEAN dialogue, I was fortunate to be able to get results more quickly. We were already full dialogue partners, and there seemed to be no easy way forward, given the divergent views within ASEAN. At one of our high-level interactions, I had suggested to Mr Goh that I had been part of the team that had begun the Indo-EU Summit dialogue, and there was no reason why we could not do the same with ASEAN. Again, with the quiet decisiveness that marks so much of Singaporean policy-making, they went to work on this and soon enough we had established the Summit dialogue.

Singapore is a favourite transit point for most of India’s leaders travelling east, and I had occasion to deal with many of them. We usually persuaded them to stay for a bit and meet their Singaporean counterparts, adding to the depth and frequency of senior-level exchanges. Of course, the highlight was the visit of Prime Minister Vajpayee, the first Prime Ministerial visit for almost a decade. As one would expect, he was well-received, and talks with the Singapore leaders provided the needed impetus to tie down the loose ends of the many negotiating issues that were pending resolution, or at least clear direction.

In between all these high-level exchanges, we continued the routine work that all Diplomatic Missions have to do. We spent a good bit of time dealing with the business leaders in Singapore. The business sector was organised on ethnic lines – Indian, Chinese and Malay. The first were in a sense the natural partners, exuding personal warmth, though, as shrewd businesspersons, they did not allow emotions to get in the way of their business decisions. However, we were able to establish equations with all three segments that allowed both sides to speak frankly and tell each other what issues held us back, and how we could change that. This was helpful to me in conveying honest assessments to our political and business leaders at home. The best part was, coming from Singapore, a country respected for being up-front and yet without mala fide intent, all these ideas found ready receptivity in Delhi.

Press relations were more tricky. Despite several rounds of discussions with some of the editors of the leading newspapers, I was troubled by a continuing focus on items that held India up to ridicule in a few papers. The TV channels were a lot better, and this was some comfort. In the end, we did have some sharp public exchanges with some of the papers where I thought they were being egregiously offensive, and it seemed to help. But I had also worked out a formula that went over well with most audiences – I would tell them that if they did not believe what was said about India in a particular paper, I would disregard what was said about Singapore in the Wall Street Journal! Humour was a good way to defuse the issue, and yet audiences got the message.

Singapore was also a good place to understand the wider world of the Asia-Pacific region, and the main players in it. It gave me a chance to meet the best of the diplomatic representatives of these countries, and to get focussed on them. It started me on trying to understand the dynamics of the region, and particularly to focussing on two countries – Japan and China – that are so important to India.

All too soon, the allotted time of three years was up, and it was time to move on. Like Faust - albeit without the same stakes, mercifully! - I had decided early in life that I would never say to the passing moment, “Stay, thou art so fair”. Much as I had enjoyed my time in the country, I was ready to take up the next assignment.

I realised I had learned a lot from my time in Singapore. The need for quiet solid work, and the importance of a realistic assessment of one’s situation were the most important among them. I was particularly struck after we did one of our cultural shows, Mr Goh said to me that the items were most impressive, and of a class no worse than any in the world, but India needed to be strong and successful in order for its culture to become more attractive around the world. As a well-meaning friend, it was advice that I certainly took seriously.

One of the questions that i had had in mind since the start of my assignment was, how did Singapore, with practically no natural endowment, become such an economic success? The answer, of course, was in the growth model that it adopted, with its open economy, and its honest, efficient system of administration. Not all of this is relevant for India, but I did realise that efficiency in public services is the necessary condition for sustainable success.

Happily, Indo-Singapore relations have gone from strength to strength in the years since my time there. It is always satisfying to see positive results from the early efforts to which one has had the good fortune to contribute. This is not only true of our relations today with Singapore, but with our entire “Look East” policy. And one can say with confidence that these relations will only grow stronger in times to come.

New Delhi,

March 2014




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