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Editorial: Singapore Prime Minister visits India

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-07-12

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's three-day visit to India last week was one of the most productive in recent years by a foreign leader in terms what was accomplished in the economic, political and cultural fields. It was a case study in bilateral friendship strengthening. It highlighted how a skilful retail politician can apply charm and sincerity in public, and a firm bargaining position in private, for promoting his national interest without overreaching. Mr Goh's visit also underscored the need to quicken the pace of the negotiations over the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, on which India has inexplicably spent far more time than necessary on relatively minor details such as the origin of goods re-exported from Singapore to India. A new Singapore-India Partnership Foundation was established to promote business and cultural exchanges - with Mr Goh donating to it the US$500,000 he received as part of the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding. New joint defence exercises were announced, as well as enhanced cooperation on combating terrorism, organized crime, and extremist violence. Characterized by the head of the influential Confederation of Indian Industries, Mr N. Srinivasan, as "India's truly great friend," Mr Goh made even more friends on this, his fifth visit - and possibly last - as Prime Minister to the Subcontinent, particularly in India's vibrant business and industrial communities. The Singaporean reiterated his pledge to engage India more closely with Asean and an incipient regional economic market. With his very tall presence and ever-ready smile, the Prime Minister brought to New Delhi what one prominent local activist, Mrs Shanta Bhalla, described as "a star quality to a dreary Indian scene of mostly scowling pols."

The visit firmly reinforced the bilateral relationship between two of Asia's most dynamic economies. The new Congress-led, 14-party coalition government of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is seeking to reassure foreign investors that their capital will find a hospitable and profitable environment in his country of 1.1 billion people. Notwithstanding the economic liberalisation that Dr Singh himself initiated more than a decade ago in an earlier administration in which he served as Finance Minister, the India that Mr Goh visited is still burdened by dire poverty, an unwieldy bureaucracy, die-hard socialist dogma, inadequate infrastructure, and endemic corruption. With US$1.27 billion already invested in Indian telecom companies and port and other projects, Singapore is Asia's biggest investor in India, and the third biggest overall after the United States and Mauritius. Mr Goh brought good news for Dr Singh: Singapore, he said, would most likely double its investment in forthcoming months. There is also the likelihood that Singaporean investors will acquire more stakes in India's securities market, which currently is valued at US$330 billion, almost half of the country's gross domestic product.

Singapore, in other words, is betting on the durability of Dr Singh's government and on its capacity to sustain economic reforms. Long known in international circles as a hardnosed assessor of geopolitics and investment potential, Singapore's incipient investment will be a major gift for India not only in financial terms but also on account of the vote of confidence in India that Singapore is conveying to the global community. At present, India receives a paltry US$3 billion annually in foreign direct investment (FDI), compared to US$53 billion for neighbouring China. Mr Goh arrived in New Delhi on the evening of the unveiling of the Singh Government's first budget. The Singapore delegation -which included Trade and Industry Minister George Yeo - privately declared itself pleased with the pro-growth policies sketched out in the US$105 billion budget. One aspect of the budget that was particularly pleasing to the Singaporeans was the fact that foreign investment in the telecom and civil aviation industries will be allowed to increase significantly. All in all, India did well by Mr Goh's visit. "Come again," Prime Minister Singh said to him - and not without reason.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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