South Asia in the spotlight

After his speech, Mr Ong (left) engaged in a lively question-and-answer session moderated by Mr Pillai

The Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) at NUS held its 12th ISAS Conference themed “Emerging South Asia: Politics, Economy and International Relations” on 6 April at Orchard Hotel Singapore. Some 240 diplomats, policymakers, scholars and students attended the full-day conference, which covered key issues relating to the region's domestic priorities, economy, security and global aspirations.

Mr Gopinath Pillai, ISAS Chairman and Ambassador-at-Large at Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted in his welcome remarks that South Asia has been demonstrating progress in the areas of politics and the economy but faces constraints within the region. “In my view, one of the greatest constraints facing South Asia is the lack of regional integration...Intra-regional trade accounts for only 5 per cent of South Asia’s total trade, compared to 25 per cent in ASEAN,” he said.

Delivering the keynote address, Guest-of-Honour Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) offered four areas for strengthening Singapore-South Asia cooperation, namely infrastructure development; bridging the skills development gap; technology innovation and entrepreneurship; and in the building of smart cities. He expressed optimism in the region, saying, “So long as India and China, East Asia and South Asia remain stable and continue to grow, the entire thoroughfare of Southeast Asia, including Singapore, will stand to benefit. But we need to work hard, be of service to others, be innovative, add value wherever we can.”

NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye touched on the University’s role in serving as “a bridge between South Asia, Singapore and the Southeast Asian region at large, through our many programmes, academic work and research”. He cited as examples the South Asian Studies Programme at NUS Arts and Social Sciences, the only such programme in Southeast Asia; as well as programmes at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS, which this year alone saw close to 200 South Asian students who are currently working in the government.


Prof Tan said that NUS served as a bridge between Singapore and its neighbours, through the University’s programmes, academic work and research

Prof Tan shared that the opportunities for exchange have brought about rich multifaceted interactions and promoted ties between young people in Singapore and South Asia. “South Asia is an important region, and NUS is actively involved in the region whether it be in education, social aspects, people or research networks. NUS brings South Asia to Singapore, and we bring Singapore to South Asia,” he said.

Further expounding the importance of education was Mr Syed Raza Ali Gillani, Minister for Higher Education in Pakistan, who spoke of politics in South Asia as well as the significance of Punjab, Pakistan in the region. “Our government foresees a future where education linkages, student faculty exchange programmes and joint research ventures will enable and empower the coming generations to create a discourse of human centricity, corporation progress, wholeheartedly embracing mutual differences and potentially reaching a win-win solution,” he said.


Mr Gillani sharing his views during a question-and-answer segment, moderated by Visiting Research Professor Subrata Kumar Mitra, ISAS Director

The first panel session of the day, chaired by Professor Robin Jeffrey, Visiting Research Professor at ISAS, covered politics, society and governance. Panellist Professor Riaz Hassan, Visiting Research Professor at ISAS, provided an overview of Pakistan’s demographics and shared how a Gallup survey showed that the Pakistan Army is the most trusted institution in the country, when compared with other institutions such as religious entities, educational institutions, the courts and the media. The question-and-answer segment that followed saw members of the audience raising issues on democracy in South Asia, how fake news is being addressed, and the prevalence of instability in Nepali politics.

Other panel sessions throughout the day discussed trade and economics, as well as security and international relations; chaired respectively by Mr Vinod Rai, ISAS Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow and India’s 11th Comptroller and Auditor-General and Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, ISAS Principal Research Fellow and Former Foreign Minister of Bangladesh.