DPM Teo Chee Hean at the Gala Dinner of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas

SM Teo Chee Hean | 7 January 2018

Speech by DPM and Coordinating Minister for National Security, Teo Chee Hean, at the Gala Dinner of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas on 7 January 2018.


“Strengthening ASEAN-India Partnership”

Minister Sushma Swaraj, 
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good evening to all of you. I have been following the discussions at this year’s Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, held here in Singapore over the past two days.

This conference reflects the growth in the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas since it was first held in 2003.  The importance of this conference is underscored by the participation of Union ministers and Chief Ministers from India, several of my Cabinet colleagues and distinguished political personalities, captains of industry, strategic thinkers and academics from around the region. 

My congratulations to the Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of India and the Indian High Commission in Singapore on a successful conference.

This year’s focus on ASEAN-India relations has been particularly apt. As we celebrated 25 years of ASEAN-India relations in 2017, this Conference has provided a timely occasion for us to reflect on our achievements and raise many useful ideas which we can take away and put into action to chart a common future.

ASEAN-India Relations: Achievements

Indeed, India has played a major role in our region. The foundations for India’s engagement with our region go back many centuries. Trade brought cultural exchanges and migrants, and has left their mark on language, food and religion.

In the current era, India’s relations with ASEAN have broadened and deepened considerably since the 1990s with India’s ‘Look East’ Policy.

Singapore actively facilitated India’s inclusion in the ASEAN community. Then-Prime Minister Mr Goh Chok Tong proposed granting India full Dialogue Partner status during an informal meeting of the 1994 ASEAN Summit. And India became ASEAN’s fifth Dialogue Partner the following year in 1995.

Over the years, the cooperation between ASEAN and India has expanded to include security, trade, tourism, education, and culture.

We have established as many as 30 platforms for cooperation, including an annual leaders Summit and seven Ministerial Dialogues.

In addition, India has participated actively in ASEAN-led cooperation platforms, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus, or ADMM+, and the East Asia Summit.

Our trade relations have been enhanced by the ASEAN-India free trade agreement which came into effect from 2010. Trade between ASEAN and India has risen steadily from US$2.9 billion in 1993 to US$58.4 billion in 2016.

Five years ago, when we celebrated 20 years of relations, ASEAN and India took another big step with a strategic partnership.

Under the able stewardship of Minister Swaraj, India’s Ministry of External Affairs has been active in re-invigorating relations with ASEAN. In particular, India and ASEAN have worked hard in the past year on many activities to commemorate 25 years of relations. Both sides will also participate in a Leaders-level ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit later this month.

India, which is located strategically along important sea-lanes from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, is integral to the security of our region.

ASEAN and India share a common interest to keep these vital conduits of trade and economic exchange open.

It is crucial that we continue to uphold our shared principles of the freedom of navigation and respect for the rule of law.

I am heartened that defence cooperation between India and ASEAN has intensified.

India has made meaningful contributions to the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus mechanisms. In 2016, India hosted the Force 18 combined Field Training Exercise on Humanitarian Mine Action and Peace Keeping Operations in Pune. India has also taken on the co-chairmanship of the third cycle of Experts’ Working Group on Military Medicine along with Myanmar for the period 2017 to 2020.

In September last year, two Indian naval ships, INS Satpura and INS Kadmatt, were on a 3-month deployment in the region and visited 12 ports, including eight ASEAN countries, to commemorate 25 years of ASEAN-India relations.

Singapore also enjoys long-standing defence relations with India.

The Defence Cooperation Agreement provided a framework for various joint activities, which has expanded to include regular bilateral exercises between our two Armies, Navies and Air Forces, service-level staff talks, intelligence exchanges, cross attendance of courses and defence policy dialogues.

In 2003, I made the first official visit by a Singapore Defence Minister to India.

During the visit, then-Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes and I signed the Defence Cooperation Agreement. As part of the visit, I also spent a very interesting day in Port Blair in the Andaman Islands – the gateway between the Malacca Straits and the Indian Ocean. I had a meaningful stopover at the Cellular Jail, which now serves as a national monument commemorating the sacrifices of those who had struggled for India’s independence against colonial rule.

We welcome India, as well as ASEAN’s other dialogue partners, to continue to contribute to the peace and security which underpin the growth of our region.

Future Cooperation between ASEAN and India

Over the past two days, you have had intense discussions on a wide range of aspects of ASEAN India relations, and from these discussions, one can only conclude that there is huge potential for further cooperation between India and ASEAN.

Allow me to recap the key points.

  1. Southeast Asia and India represent a quarter of the world’s population - 1.8 billion people, and a combined GDP of more than US$4.5 trillion.

  2. India’s consumer market is expected to become the fifth largest in the world by 2025.

  3. Similarly, the consumer market in Southeast Asia is expected to grow considerably by 2025, supported by a doubling of middle-class households to 163 million.

  4. Against this backdrop, we are starting from a modest base.  For example, ASEAN-India trade accounted for only 2.6% of ASEAN’s external trade in 2016. There is much scope to strengthen our linkages and trade ties.

Tonight, I would like to suggest three areas where we can strengthen the ASEAN-India partnership.

First, we should press on with economic integration. At a time when anti-globalisation and nationalist sentiments are rising, it is important that we continue to support an open environment that is conducive to trade and investment. This sends a strong signal to all investors that we are committed to shared progress and prosperity for all countries.

For instance, regional trade agreements such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or “RCEP”, are building blocks to integrate the Asia-Pacific as a common market and production base.

Through the RCEP, India and ASEAN can leverage our young populations and rising consumption to boost manufacturing, exports and growth. This will help us reach our target of US$200 billion in total trade by 2022.

As ASEAN Chair this year, Singapore will do what we can to secure the support of India and all the other RCEP countries to advance the RCEP negotiations.

Second, we should expand connectivity between India and ASEAN.

Good progress has been made in land connectivity through projects such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway.

With India’s strategic geographical location, we can expand maritime and air connectivity to bring India closer to the rest of ASEAN.

For instance, greater maritime connectivity with ASEAN would open considerable avenues and opportunities for trade.

  1. Sectors which stand to benefit include port development, shipping and logistics services, and cruise tourism.

  2. Singapore’s PSA has major investments in India’s ports, including a US$1.32 billion container port in Mumbai to be completed by 2021.

Perhaps one of the more immediate ways to expand interactions between India and ASEAN is to expand air connectivity.

  1. With more flights and more affordable air tickets, people-to-people and business links can be strengthened.

  2. Our participants in this conference have also benefited from the increased connectivity and convenience of travel afforded by these extensive links. We can strengthen these further. These are the highways of the sky that can increase two way flows of visitors, business people and trade in high-value goods carried by air freight.

  3. India has many airports ready and available to connect to many more points in ASEAN. The key to unlocking this potential is to further liberalise air services as Singapore has done. We welcomed 60 million passengers to Changi Airport last year.

  4. For a start, India could pilot one or two key metropolis to have open skies to cities in ASEAN, and then assess the benefits of this liberalisation to the economy before extending it to other cities.

Third, as the sessions at this year’s conference have shown, India and ASEAN can co-operate in digital technologies. This can form a new frontier in our relationship.

Southeast Asia and India are fast-changing markets with a healthy appetite for innovative solutions.

In fact, we have seen quite remarkable progress in e-commerce and fintech, and the rapid adoption of digital technologies in these fields.

It is thus no surprise that market leaders such as Amazon, Alibaba and many others are planning to make significant investments in India and ASEAN.

Whether it is public initiatives such as Aadhaar – India’s national digital identification system and UPI – the United Payments Interface, or private ventures such as PayTM, there are significant opportunities for these platforms to be harmonised with those in our region. These will create the cyber-highways that e-commerce and e-services depend on. These initiatives will also fit in well with the aim to develop an ASEAN Smart Cities Network to drive regional smart cities development.

Singapore’s Role in ASEAN-India Relations

Ladies and gentlemen, Singapore is a firm believer that ASEAN and India, and the region as a whole, have much to gain from further strengthening ASEAN-India relations.

Singapore has played a key role in catalysing India’s engagement with ASEAN in the past 25 years, and we are uniquely-positioned to facilitate even closer ASEAN-India relations.

As a civil aviation, trading and financial hub, we are a good base for Indian companies to work from in order to expand to Southeast Asia and beyond.

Many multinational companies have their regional and global headquarters in Singapore.

The number of Indian companies in Singapore has doubled from some 4,000 in 2009 to more than 8,000 today, forming the largest contingent of foreign companies here. They range from large conglomerates such as Tata Group, to IT services companies such as Wipro and Infosys, to engineering companies to schools.

Singapore can also play a role to connect the many companies from a wide range of countries who have found Singapore to be a useful operational base. Among these are more than 7,500 Chinese companies which are registered here in Singapore, almost double from just five years ago.1

  1. One example of the potential for the cross-pollination of ideas was in 2016, when participants at the Institute of South Asian Studies’ South Asian Diaspora Convention, joined hands to hold a joint India-China Business Dialogue with participants from the Future China Global Forum organised by Business China Singapore, both of which were being held at the same time here. The session saw Indian and Chinese business leaders using Singapore as a platform to discuss potential for collaboration in infrastructure, education, environment and the economy.

All these Singapore-based companies from many countries form a vibrant community, and can work together to tap on our business infrastructure, and comprehensive network of 20 implemented Free Trade Agreements with 31 trading partners to facilitate their expansion abroad.

Indeed, the strong turnout from both Indian and Singapore businesses at this year’s conference is very encouraging. Many of them operate not just in Singapore and India, but across the region and around the world.

Governments at the national and state levels should facilitate the ease of doing business and enact policies to attract greater investments and cross-border partnerships. Businesses can play an important role by encouraging governments, both at national and state levels, to be more competitive, responsive and plugged into global value chains.

As ASEAN Chair this year, Singapore is committed to deepening ASEAN’s relations with its key partners, including India.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong looks forward to visiting India later this month for the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit, which will be our Prime Minister’s first ASEAN-related Summit as 2018 Chair.

And we also look forward to the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Singapore later this year to deliver the keynote address at the Shangri-la Dialogue. This will be the first time the Shangri-La Dialogue will be addressed by an Indian Prime Minister, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s keynote speech is most timely, and will be highly anticipated.


Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, the future of ASEAN and India lies in greater engagement and integration in our region, where the global centre of economic dynamism is shifting. Expanding our connectivity and growing a new frontier in the digital space can further enhance our collaboration and maximise our strong fundamentals.

The Indian diaspora, all of you, has played an important role to integrate India into our regional network, and can be counted on to do so in the future as well.

The strong, centuries-old socio-cultural links fostered by the diaspora have made it easier for Indian companies to strengthen their regional presence. Similarly, the diaspora acts as a catalyst to forge greater business links from our region into India.

This diaspora is continually being re-energised and rejuvenated with new waves of Indian businessmen and professionals, who are themselves making waves in our region and the world.

I hope that from this conference, our participants will take away with you fond memories and lasting friendships from Singapore and great partnerships, as well as many good ideas to bring India and ASEAN closer. Thank you very much.


1 Singapore Department of Statistics, companies (including foreign branches) incorporated/registered with Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority, Jun 2016.