To India, with love

Years before he became an esteemed lawyer, professor and diplomat, a young Tommy Koh found himself enamoured with India – the heroic struggles of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru caught his imagination, while Indian music, dance and literature formed part of his upbringing. Years later, Professor Koh would be asked – to his great delight – to co-chair the annual strategic dialogue between Singapore and India, which he did for ten years.

Prof Koh’s penchant for India, along with Singapore’s affinity for and relationship with it, has been captured in a new book, India on our Minds, which was launched on 7 Dec by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the NUS University Cultural Centre Theatre.

India on our Minds offers candid reflections on India and India-Singapore relations, grouped according to the past, present and future, through 50 essays by thought leaders in Singapore including Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Yale-NUS College President Professor Tan Tai Yong, and Ambassador Karen Tan.

It also features a foreword by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who had helped Singapore and India build ties which are strong, substantive and broad-based.

“This is a very positive book about India, and about Singapore’s relations with India. It would not be wrong to say that the book contains 50 love letters to India,” said Prof Koh.

At the same time, the book has not shied away from sensitive subjects including the Amaravati project and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), said Prof Koh, who had co-edited it with Mr Hernaikh Singh, Senior Associate Director at the Institute of South Asian Studies at NUS.

The Amaravati project was a development tie-up, terminated last year, between Singapore and the state of Andhra Pradesh, while India pulled out last year from negotiations over the RCEP, the world’s largest trade bloc.

A valued friend and partner

At the launch, PM Lee spoke about the longstanding relationship between Singapore and India.

“India has been our natural partner. We have an instinctive familiarity and comfort with each other; even Singapore’s constitution traces its origins to the Indian Federal Constitution of 1950,” said PM Lee, who recounted that his first visit to India was in 1992 as Deputy Prime Minister.

Singapore, he said, had been an early believer in India’s potential, as well as a significant element in India’s “Look East” policy. There has been a steady deepening of economic ties between Singapore and India, such as with Singapore investments in India quintupling in the space of 5 years between 1995 and 2000, and with the signing of the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) in 2005.

Further, a strategic partnership was established in 2015, on the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Singapore and India. This, PM Lee said, reflects the two countries’ deep cooperation in defence, finance, culture and other domains.

Speaking about India on our Minds, PM Lee said, “This collection of essays offers readers insights into India’s history, culture, and future from the lens of a small country that has a vested interest in India’s success.”

Similarly, NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye spoke, in his welcome address, of how the bonds and relationships between nations can shape the course of history and impact lives.

“We are inextricably bound to each other,” said Prof Tan, who has contributed an essay on higher education and opportunities of development.

Noting that it is not possible for nations to isolate themselves in the face of challenges such as COVID-19, climate change, and the increased rate of technological disruption, he said, “Global challenges are complex in nature and cannot be reduced to one-dimensional solutions… (A) spirit of exchange and collaboration will be vital as we move with urgency to tackle the most pressing issues facing the world.”

Bright days ahead for bilateral ties

With Singapore commencing its term as coordinator of ASEAN-India dialogue relations next year, and India Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s intention to pursue greater openness and integration with the region through his “Act East” policy, PM Lee shared that he is looking forward to working with PM Modi and his government to keep the countries’ relationship “forward-looking, enterprising and substantial.”

“This volume is a timely reminder that to Singapore, India will always be a valued friend and partner. I know these sentiments are reciprocated by our Indian friends too,” he said.

View the recording of the book launch here.