India-Singapore Relations: Constructing a "New" Bilateral Relationship

By Singh, Sinderpal; Rahman, Syeda Sana | Contemporary Southeast Asia, April 2010 | Go to article overview

India-Singapore Relations: Constructing a "New" Bilateral Relationship


Singh, Sinderpal, Rahman, Syeda Sana, Contemporary Southeast Asia


Post-independence, relations between Singapore and India have gone through various stages, reflecting different degrees of engagement. Over the last fifteen years, however, Singapore-India relations have experienced an upswing, characterized by closer collaboration across a range of areas. This paper aims to provide an assessment of the more recent trends in relations between the two countries, looking at both traditional issue areas such as economic and defence-strategic ties as well as areas that are deemed relatively "non-traditional" in nature, namely, education-knowledge transfer and building societal-level links between the two countries. This assessment will also explore future possibilities and potential pitfalls attendant on this bilateral relationship.

There are five main sections to this paper. The first section looks at the relationships India fostered with Southeast Asian countries in the first three to four decades after its independence to serve as a context in which to locate more recent developments. The second section scrutinizes economic relations between Singapore and India, symbolized by the signing of the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) in 2005. The third section examines defence and strategic relations, focusing on both concrete bilateral developments as well as specific shared visions of regional order within the Asia-Pacific region. The focus of the fourth section is on cooperation in education as well as specific forms of knowledge transfer. The fifth section examines more intangible factors centred on societal and cultural ties. The paper concludes by briefly recapping the main points as well as offering certain reflections on the future complexion of Singapore-India relations.

Background: India's Relations with Southeast Asia, 1940s-80s

In the immediate aftermath of India's independence, Indonesia--with its legacy of struggle against the Dutch colonial authorities--became India's "natural" partner in Southeast Asia. Under the leadership of President Sukarno, India and Indonesia were the leading states within the Afro-Asian group and later the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). (1) This joint commitment to non-alignment and anti-colonialism resulted in close political ties between the two countries in the late 1940s and for much of the 1950s. However, relations with Indonesia started to deteriorate in the early 1960s over the issue of the Malaysian Federation, the formation of which Indonesia opposed. In contrast, India's relations with Malaysia blossomed during this period: India lent Malaysia diplomatic support during the Malaysian-Indonesian confrontation episode (popularly known as Konfrontasi) and the latter similarly backed India during the 1962 border war with China. (2)

By the 1970s, however, India's relationship with Malaysia, though still cordial, became less important. The beginnings of political and strategic collaboration between China and the United States in the early 1970s--against the backdrop of India's strong ties with the Soviet Union--necessitated a shift in Indian foreign policy towards Southeast Asia.

Vietnam's 1978 invasion of Cambodia, and the resulting ten year "Kampuchean Crisis", brought such a shift to the fore. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members, together with China and the United States, strongly condemned the Vietnamese-installed regime in the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) and put their full diplomatic weight behind the former government of the Khmer Rouge. (3) The PRK regime was, in turn, propped up by Vietnam and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). At the time of the Vietnamese invasion, India was initially eager to remain even-handed, as the Janata Party government sought to project an image of India being truly non-aligned in this conflict between the two superpower blocs. However, with the return to power of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1980, India moved to recognize the PRK government in July that year.

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