Singapore a major partner for us: Indian minister

SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/ANN) - Republic acts as a bridge to S-E Asia and an important gateway to the world for his country, he says

Singapore is a major partner for India in every area of priority - smart cities, aviation, skills development and others - in the second term of the Modi government, a visiting Indian minister said yesterday.

"As we embark on the next phase of this government, we look to the future with higher ambitions and new opportunities for India and the world to work together. Singapore will be among our foremost partners," said Mr Hardeep Singh Puri, India's Minister of State for Housing, Urban Affairs, Civil Aviation and Commerce and Industry.

He was speaking at the India Singapore Business Summit organised by the Indian High Commission to mark 100 days of Mr Narendra Modi's second stint as Prime Minister after his re-election in May.

Linkages between the two nations are mushrooming. Singapore became India's top foreign investor in 2018-2019 while around 20 per cent of outbound investment from India comes to Singapore. Nearly 9,000 Indian firms have a presence here. India is the third-largest source of tourists to Singapore. Some 18 Indian cities are connected to Singapore through over 500 weekly flights.

"For India, Singapore has been, over the past three decades, the political, economic and intellectual bridge to South-east Asia. And it remains an important gateway to the world for a globalising India," Mr Puri said.

Of late, the economy has slowed, with growth slumping to 5 per cent in the April-to-June quarter, the lowest in six years. But Mr Puri said concerns were overblown. Financial-sector reforms and an improvement in the ease of doing business make India, which is looking to double its economy to US$5 trillion (S$6.9 trillion) by 2024, an attractive place for investors, he said. Mr Modi's emphasis on digitisation has opened up more opportunities in what is today the land of "a billion bank accounts, a billion mobile connections and more than a billion digital identities".

"In every area of our development priority - urban solutions, smart cities, infrastructure, skills development, aviation, to name a few - Singapore is a major partner," he said.

In his speech at the summit, Singapore's Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry and Education, Mr Chee Hong Tat, noted the two nations worked well together because they had complementary strengths.

But with globalisation under retreat, he said: "We cannot assume our economic ties will remain the same as before if we simply continue business as usual.

"It is like rowing a boat in rapid waters; if we do not row harder and move forward, we will be swept back by the fast currents."

Weighing in on the discussion about India's hesitation in joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), he said opening up had paid off for India in the past and might lend wings to its next phase of growth.

The proposed mega trade deal under negotiation between Asean and its six trading partners - India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand - will cover 40 per cent of the world's trade flows. Indian policymakers, however, appear unconvinced about its merits. On Monday, Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar outlined India's reservations about the deal, flagging local manufacturers' concerns that the country would be flooded with cheaper Chinese goods once it lowers trade barriers.

Mr Chee said fears about the impact on companies and workers were also in the air when India undertook extensive economic reforms under former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1991. But it was a right decision to open up and connect with the world, he said. India's gross domestic product grew almost nine times from 1991 to 2016, lifting many millions out of poverty.

"I think it is timely for India to take further steps now to open up further and integrate more closely with other economies in the region," Mr Chee added. "This will be essential for the next phase of India's growth and development."

Mr Chee said: "We want India to be part of RCEP. Besides the economic benefits, we believe this will further strengthen the links between India and Asean, which is important for having a balance of power that promotes peace and stability in this region."

Describing RCEP as the most important trade deal on the horizon, Mr Chee said: "We hope that it can be concluded soon... There is a window to do so within the next few months, and we should strike when the iron is hot."