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Ups and downs in India-Singapore relations ; By Prof. V Suryanarayan

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Article Courtesy: New Indian Express

Article 46/2021


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When Singapore was part of Malaysia (16 September 1963 – 8 August 1965), it made the recital of the song, Malaysia for Ever, compulsory in all schools. “Let’s get together, sing a happy song, Malaysia forever, 10 million strong, land of the free, marching as one.” When Singapore became a separate state on 9 August 1965, the students made a small change: instead of 10 million strong, they sang 10 minutes long.

From 1954, when the People’s Action Party (PAP) was formed, Lee Kuan Yew maintained that Singapore was not, could not and did not want to be a nation and its destiny was intertwined with Malaya. The first essay of Singapore’s independence was in the context of Malaysia, but when Singapore, not without reason, was separated, its leaders had to make a sudden volte-face and proclaim “we are a nation and we would continue to be a nation”.

Within three hours of the independence proclamation, Lee summoned Thomas Abraham (then Commissioner of India) and requested him that India should assist in the building up of its armed forces. Had Lee’s request been accepted, the first Chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force would have been Indians. New Delhi was lukewarm and Lee turned to Israel for help.

New Delhi’s reluctance could be explained in the context of separation. The main reason for the failure of the new federation was Lee’s impatience to come to power in Malaysia. As relations began to get strained, Lee challenged the very basis of Malaysia, where Malays had special rights and privileges and political power vested in their hands. His utter disregard of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) led to racial riots in July and September 1964. Lee and his advisers, especially journalist Alex Josey (popularly known as Rasputin), criticised the policies of the inter-communal Alliance, which was in power since 1955; carried on a mischievous campaign in England, Australia and New Zealand against Malay leaders, including Tunku Abdul Rahman; hinted at alternate arrangements (Singapore with Penang and Malacca); and finally questioned that Malays could not claim to be bumiputras (indigenous people). Communal tensions rose high, Lee’s political brinkmanship failed and Tunku Abdul Rahman decided to separate Singapore from Malaysia. Lee met his Canossa on August 7. He was faced with a fait accompli; his desperate plea for loose arrangements was turned down; the British High Commissioner could not help his protégé and what is more, Tunku insisted that the separation agreement must be signed by all members of the Singapore cabinet. Thus Lee became the first “reluctant” prime minister of independent Singapore.

India-Singapore relations had undergone many twists and turns. Sunanda Datta-Ray has summed it up: “The journey from the sunlit peaks of hope into valleys of deep despair and now, towards the radiance of a new dawn.” The first phase could be termed as “missed opportunities”. Within a few days of independence, the India-Pakistan war in 1965 took place. Singapore was the first country to extend spontaneous support to India. When Singapore Airlines started, it wanted to have technical cooperation with Air India, but New Delhi did not respond. When the British decided to withdraw from their bases, Lee visited New Delhi and requested Indira Gandhi to utilise the facilities for shipbuilding and ship repair. She ignored the suggestion.

The second phase began when triangular relations among Moscow, Beijing, and Hanoi began to deteriorate. ASEAN, in general, and Singapore in particular, began to criticise New Delhi as the “surrogate of Soviet Union”. ASEAN made a common cause with Beijing and the US, provided legitimacy to the Pol Pot regime, and rallied behind Thailand, the “frontline state”. From Hanoi’s point of view, Pol Pot by himself was only a nuisance, but Pol Pot backed by China was a threat to Vietnam’s security. It, therefore, militarily intervened in Cambodia in December 1978 and put its puppet Heng Samrin in power. New Delhi viewed the developments from a different perspective. Given deep anti-China sentiments throughout Vietnamese history, India considered Hanoi to be the bulwark against Chinese expansionism. As K R Narayanan succinctly summarised: “While driving the wolf (US) from the front door and warding off the tiger (Soviet Union) through the back door, ASEAN should not allow the dragon to step in or force its way through the side door.” Narayanan’s warning has come true, the dragon today is the pre-eminent power in the region.

During the 1970s, I used to argue that China was one country that had used force to buttress its territorial claims—against India in 1962, against the Soviet Union in 1968 and Vietnam in 1979. There was much appreciation for my point of view, but today all Southeast Asian countries have joined the Belt and Road initiative. China has embraced a hybrid system of capitalism, it has integrated into the world economy and the CCP is firing all shots. But with increasing strains in the US-China relations, questions are being asked as to how countries like Singapore would respond as they are located at the intersection of major powers.

What caused Singapore-India differences was basic disagreement about the role of major powers. Lee pleaded for intensification of the American bombing of Vietnam to compel Hanoi to come to the negotiating table. It was music to the ears of American hawks like Henry Kissinger. But behind the exhortation was the plain truth that war would give a boost to Singapore’s economy. A nation of shopkeepers, Singapore is prepared to sacrifice principles for money. Two illustrations are in order. Tunku Abdul Rahman was spearheading the campaign for the expulsion of South Africa from the Commonwealth. To his embarrassment, he found that Singapore, then a part of Malaysia, was carrying on trade with the apartheid regime. Tunku immediately put an end to the trade. Lee was very unhappy, but could not do anything. Second, despite the most hawkish statements against Hanoi, Singapore carried on prosperous trade with Vietnam.

The current phase began with the ascendancy of Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. He created a mild “India fever” in Singapore and pushed New Delhi’s case as a dialogue partner in ASEAN, much to China’s chagrin. Defence relations have been expanded and the Singapore Air Force is getting training in Barrackpore Air Base. Trade and investment are forging ahead. Singapore has also played a commendable role in the setting up of Nalanda University.

It must be underlined that Singapore has surplus capital and entrepreneurial skill. What is more, it wants to diversify investments. All parts of India, especially Tamil Nadu, could gain if we modernise our infrastructure, develop skilled manpower and create a congenial atmosphere for foreign direct investment.

The political systems in the two countries are very different. Any attempt to replicate the Singapore model in India would be disastrous. It is worth narrating what took place in the famous lecture that Narasimha Rao gave in October 1994. Lee presided and, in a magnanimous gesture, compared Rao with Deng Xiaoping. There was a question-answer session. There was a remark, obviously planted: “What India requires is not democracy, but discipline.” Rao paused for 10 seconds. Then he said, “The antidote for the evils of democracy is not less democracy, but more democracy.” There was thunderous applause, in which many members of the Singapore cabinet joined. The only person, who was found profusely sweating, was Lee.

(V Suryanarayan is the Founding Director and Senior Professor (Retd), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras & President of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. The views expressed are personal.)

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