I went to the ASEAN India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas here in Singapore on Jan 6 -7. I would like for the readers to have a high level visibility to what exactly happens in this event. Back when I lived in India, I used to wonder what type of outreach Indian government does to non-resident Indians.
I am intentionally using a bullet point format so it is easy for readers to read it while dealing with wide variety of topics.
- Nitin Gadkari (Minister for Road Transport & Highways, Shipping and Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation, Government of India) before getting on stage to deliver his talk was leafing through a stack of papers for few minutes. He then gets on stage and reels off complex numbers and statistics on topics like expressway length, rural connectivity, cruise tourism, Bharat Mala, financing of the infra projects, river linking etc. without looking at any papers. He is promising clean Ganga by 2019 and a host of other projects in the pipeline. The quiet confidence Mr. Gadkari demonstrated is only possible when one knows his work inside out and is immersed in it day and night. In short, politicians give speeches but Mr. Gadkari set the stage on fire!
- Quite a lot of chatter around Make in India, improving India as a place to do business further removing regulatory bottlenecks etc.
- India's Public Private Partnership (PPP) space is very mature and attractive for Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF) investments. Singapore has plenty of investments in India and they are performing well. Singapore invested in Whitefield, Bangalore with Tatas (Govt to Govt. model) G2G in late 1990s.
- Singapore works predominantly with southern Indian states/cities. Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Pune & Amaravati etc. All long term investments.
- Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) is heavily invested in southern Indian ports (Chennai & Tuticorin). Also, Kandla port in Gujarat. It is very crystal clear northern India is not of interest to Singapore as of now. I believe they should explore smaller port building opportunities which will come with the river linking projects.
- India should aim to break into top 30 in Ease of Doing Business Index. The govt. is willing to listen.
- Blackstone has invested about US$ 2bn in India and that investment is delivering good returns.
- Piyush Gupta, CEO of DBS Bank: One day India and ASEAN countries can explore trade finance through block chain technology. Fintech, smart cities, e-payments, urban infra, very high on Singapore's radar for partnership with India.
- Most countries target India's outbound tourist by first allowing/inviting Bollywood to shoot movies in their country. Singapore is no different. India has sent plenty of tourists to Singapore in 2017.
- Felicia Tan, Singaporean, Full time Oncologist. Loves India and has started a travel company by the name Ravishing India Holidays. (http://www.ravishingindiaholidays.com/ ). She made plenty of insightful points that India can do to attract more travelers.
- Incredible India campaign has been around a long time. Need to rebrand it for the millennials. I agree the branding needs a refresh.
Building expressways is one part but educating the people who use it is equally important.
- India at the moment attracts fewer tourists than Singapore does. Though tourists spend more nights in India.
- India through its partnership with ASEAN countries should aim for 100 mn tourists by 2025. I like this target.
- Bogus e-visa websites should be actively monitored and taken down.
- Plenty of southern Indians here as one would expect. Good to see Vibhooti on their forehead.
- Chief Minister of Assam Sorbananda Sonawal is also here with Sushma Swaraj. I find people annoying. They crowd around Sushma ji and want to take selfies. Security guards around. My take is, she or any politician is a politician. We elected them. And we should never be so full of adulation that we forget to hold them accountable and start taking selfies. Warmth is fine, going overboard is completely silly.
- Sarbananda Sonawal's speech. He is positioning Guwahati as a centre for India's outreach to ASEAN Countries. There is an investor summit that will happen in Assam on Feb 3-4. He is inviting investors to participate in there. Very Assamese. Good energy. He thanked Sushma ji for giving him this opportunity.
- Sushma ji made a good speech. Spoke in English and said because there are people in hall that will not understand Hindi she is speaking in English. For the evening speech before Gala dinner, she promised to she will speak in Hindi and she delivered it in Hindi. YouTube link of evening speech:
- Singapore has taken on ASEAN chairmanship. I expect more 'Act East' policy traction as the months roll by starting from Jan 26. India has invited all of ASEAN country head of states for Republic day.
- ASEAN countries really want Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trading block to come alive. There is perception that India is blocking it. Truth is India can’t lower trade barriers to the level ASEAN countries have. But it is high up on our radar, I hope we launch a few satellites for them and not make tariffs a sticking point. Optimistic me!
- In all speeches India is going to town with the success we have had with Aadhar and banking for the unbanked through mobile banking.
- Preeti Saran Ministry of External Affairs bureaucrat is on stage. Panel discussion about new world order/India ASEAN partnership. Not one word about northern India. Doesn't look like anyone cares about northern India as far as ASEAN/Singapore investors are concerned.
- Malaysian minister is coming out swinging. Indian origin guy. Lot of enthusiasm. Very excited about partnership with India and wanting to pray in places like Tirupati etc. Tirupati last year had 18 tonnes of Malaysian coins donated by pilgrims travelling from Malaysia. Tirupati reached out to Malaysian govt. asking how to return it!
He is saying stuff like “Soul will be lost, but minds can be conquered”.
- Singaporeans are very proper. But Malaysians are so freewheeling. He is inviting Indians to setup /scale up Ayurveda in Malaysia.
- C Raja Mohan on panel discussion: Modi will be in Singapore for Shangri-la dialogue later this year. Good signaling to ASEAN. They want India bad. Good amount of subtle Trump bashing and China bashing. Very strong emphasis on economic integration between India & ASEAN.
- Raja Mohan making a very solid case for India as a Middle power vs. hegemonic powers like British Empire, Americans and USSR in Cold war period and China. Well done! Talking about ISRO and Indo pacific trade routes, maritime partnership etc. India is committed to being the middle power while we invite ASEAN countries to contribute to regional security budget.
- ASEAN is doing a hard sell on being the platform where global powers have always found a platform for a dialogue.
- Question from audience on Act East vs. OBOR and regional implications
Answer: India doesn't see OBOR as a conflict point.
- India needs to be modest and focus on internal transaction governance capacity & trade before thinking of OBOR as a point of conflict.
- Malaysian guy wants India to knock on door more frequently like the Chinese do. He says plenty of room for India's services industry in Malaysia. He wants our brains. He nearly fan-girled on India. I love it!
- Prior to world War 2, Burma had the largest number of Indian Diaspora.
Singapore has had three waves of Indian Diaspora. Historical, Colonial and the new wave like me. Whereas the diaspora in west is after WW2. Diaspora in Caribbean is during the colonial period only.
- A Professor from Malaysia talking about Indian heritage. He is old but so proud. He is not spending anytime demeaning others. He is just so proud and solid he shines and in that our heritage shines.
- Dr. Gauri Krishnan spoke about temple architecture across South East Asia. Incredibly knowledgeable. She was the former director of India Heritage Centre Singapore. She spoke about Stapathis (Traditional temple architects). To give a quick relatable example : Gujarati Stapathis are the architects of Akshardham temple.
- Gala dinner for 2,500 people. There was a live show at the main stage about Ramayana. Please follow the link for pictures-
There were moments during the two days when I missed India real bad and I had to fight back tears. Happy tears. This constant yearning to see India reclaim its rightful place in world order is what makes me get up from bed every morning. There were host of other parallel sessions too which I could not attend.
All in all it seemed like a confident nation branding exercise. I sincerely wish every one of us Indians contribute to the idea of India in our own unique ways.
R. Vinayakan Aiyër @vanderlust
Views presented here are of the Author.