PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Book Launch of "India On Our Minds"

SM Lee Hsien Loong | 7 December 2020

Speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong at the launch of the book "India On Our Minds" by Prof Tommy Koh and Mr Hernaikh Singh on 7 December 2020. 


Professor Tommy Koh

Distinguished guests

Ladies and gentlemen

I am delighted to be here to witness the launch of India on Our Minds – Tommy’s latest book, edited by him and Hernaikh. I would like to congratulate Professor Tommy Koh, Mr Hernaikh Singh, and all the contributing authors who made up the book. This anthology features a rich collection of 50 chapters, contributed by 51 Singaporeans. It is a labour of love, put together by people who have encountered India in diverse and unique ways.

Tommy’s affinity for India was cultivated at an early age. He attributes this to a Bengali girlfriend he had in his youth! Jokes aside, Tommy has long had a well-documented interest in India. As he wrote in his essay in the book, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were two of his teenage heroes. Indian music, dance and literature – the Ramayana and Mahabharata – were part of his upbringing.

So, it is not surprising that as a diplomat, Tommy championed Singapore-India relations. For more than a decade, he co-chaired the semi-official annual strategic dialogue between India and Singapore, as he told you just now. This forum brought  academics, business owners, and policy makers together to strengthen bilateral relations. For his efforts, Tommy was presented the Padma Shri award, one of India’s highest civilian honours, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2018.

Tommy did this on top of his many other achievements, in a long and distinguished foreign service career. He became our Permanent Representative to the UN in 1968, at the young age of 30. This was just three years after separation, when Singapore was starting to stake out our place in the world. Many of his UN colleagues were more than twice his age. But Tommy held his own, flew our flag high and established Singapore’s reputation as a constructive and responsible member of the UN.

In fact, one person Tommy has credited as his “guru” is India’s then Permanent Representative to the UN, Mr Brajesh Mishra, who subsequently became India’s first National Security Advisor. As UN Ambassador, Tommy had several significant accomplishments, in fact many, but I will just name a few. He was Chairman of the Main Committee at the UN Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Earth Summit. But perhaps his most important contribution was to midwife the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). For an island state like Singapore, it is impossible to overstate the importance of UNCLOS. Tommy deployed masterly diplomatic skills to secure the consensus of both coastal and non-coastal states, and saw the negotiations through. He later went on to serve as our Ambassador to the US, in Washington, and as Chief Negotiator for the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement.

Of course, Tommy’s contributions to Singapore extend far beyond the diplomatic sphere. They encompass the arts, culture and education, including stints as Director of the Institute of Policy Studies at NUS, Chairman of the National Arts Council, and Chairman of the National Heritage Board. So, when he personally asked me to launch this book, just like all the other authors who obliged him, I could hardly turn him down. Thank you for asking me.

Co-editor Mr Hernaikh Singh has also been a long-time advocate for closer ties between Singapore and India. Hernaikh was a pioneer staff member of the Institute of South Asian Studies, and later CEO of the Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce & Industry. He has pushed for greater appreciation and understanding of India amongst Singaporeans, and India on Our Minds is his latest effort.

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.

I first visited India in 1992 when I was Deputy Prime Minister. The Indian Prime Minister then was P V Narasimha Rao. The Finance Minister was Dr Manmohan Singh, who was also my host. India was just starting to open up its economy, beginning its journey of economic restructuring and liberalisation that would unshackle its growth. Dr Singh was the architect of these reforms, but parties across the political spectrum supported this massive effort.

Since then, India has travelled on the path of reform, not always in a straight line, but generally in a forward and progressive direction, as is to be expected in a complex society of 1.4 billion people. Singapore was an early believer in India’s immense potential. Some will remember the 1990s, as Tommy reminded us, was the start of “India fever”, sparked by my predecessor Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. Singapore was also a significant element in India’s “Look East” policy, first put forward by PM Rao in his Singapore Lecture in 1994. Our economic ties deepened steadily. In just five years between 1995 and 2000, Singapore’s investments in India quintupled, or increased fivefold. Later we signed the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), which I witnessed together with Dr Manmohan Singh, who had by them become Prime Minister. In 2015, to mark the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations, we established a Strategic Partnership, reflecting our deep cooperation in defence, finance, culture and other domains.

In all these areas, India has been a 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. Today, India has become a much bigger player on the global stage. It wields significant influence at multilateral fora. Debates on the major strategic issues of the day – climate change, WTO reform, security in the Indo-Pacific – are not complete without India at the table and playing a constructive role. The term Indo-Pacific, popularised in recent years in different flavours, is itself a nod to India’s importance to the region and its deepening relationships with partners around the world. Like many other countries, India is now suffering the onslaught of COVID-19 and the resulting economic turbulence. But the country’s long-term future remains bright and promising.

PM Modi’s “Act East” policy expresses his intention to unlock India’s full potential through greater openness and integration with the region. In 2018, he invited all ASEAN leaders to New Delhi as chief guests for the Republic Day parade, 24 years after he had invited Mr Goh Chok Tong, who was then Prime Minister, for the same honour, to India’s Republic Day, which would have been in 1994. We held the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit in 2018, and adopted the Delhi Declaration.

As Singapore commences our term as coordinator of ASEAN-India dialogue relations next year, we look forward to deepening the partnership between ASEAN and India. We have a broad agenda, but one step we hope India will take at some time in the future, is to revisit the merits of joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). In fact, India was on the minds of all the negotiators throughout the RCEP process, right till its very completion, and the door will always be open to India.

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. I look forward to working with Prime Minister Modi and his government to keep our relationship forward-looking, enterprising, and substantial.

Sincere congratulations again to Tommy, Hernaikh and their team for putting together this excellent anthology. I wish the book every success.

Thank you very much.