Forging stronger bonds

Delhi's hot summer had lost its edge, yielding slowly to the annual monsoon rains, when Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his entourage touched down in the Indian capital late on July 10.

A busy two days lay ahead for him and PM Lee kept pace from the word go.

When he visited the magnificent Rashtrapati Bhavan the following morning, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife were there to welcome him. On his Facebook page which carried a photograph of his arrival, PM Lee noted: "Ho Ching and I were warmly welcomed by Indian PM Manmohan Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur."

The two prime ministers were to meet again later in the day and the deep friendship the two countries shared was much in evidence at the meetings.

The Indian PM told the media later: "Singapore is a close friend and valued regional partner for India. Our relations are broad-based and multifaceted. They are underpinned by a confluence of interests spanning political, economic, cultural, defence and security issues. Apart from regular high-level exchanges of visits and an architecture of productive dialogue mechanisms, our friendship is nourished by a vibrant people-to-people relationship."

PM Lee agreed when he said: "Relations between Singapore and India are in excellent shape. I deeply appreciate Prime Minister Singh's personal commitment to our bilateral relationship. Prime Minister Singh and I had an excellent discussion today. We agreed that bilateral cooperation had progressed significantly and that there were many more opportunities to further our relations."

Earlier in the day, addressing a business conference organised by three Indian chambers of industry, PM Lee said that Singapore offers many opportunities for Indian companies and pointed out how Singapore can be a base for these companies as it is a global economy with an international workforce.

However, he added that India needs to improve its business environment for investors. Said Mr Lee: "They want to be sure the terms you go in on are the same for the next 20-30 years. The more these aspects can be strengthened, the better it will be for India."

Allaying his fears, PM Singh assured his Singaporean counterpart that India is an investment-friendly country. Noting that Singapore is not only India's foremost trading partner in ASEAN but also a major source of FDI inflow, PMSingh said at a joint press event: "We agreed to expedite the conclusion of the ongoing second review of the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement that will further facilitate trade in goods and services and investment.

"In this context, I assured Prime Minister Lee of India's commitment to reinforce its status as an investment-friendly country and expressed my hope that Singapore companies would look at India as a valued investment destination in the current scenario."

PM Singh also announced that PM Lee would be back in Delhi in December when India hosts the India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit to celebrate the 20th anniversary of India's Dialogue Partnership with ASEAN. "I am delighted that Prime Minister Lee has agreed to visit us again on that occasion," he told the media.

The Indian PM was talking to the media after the Singapore delegation headed by PM Lee met PM Singh and his team which was followed by the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the two countries.

Referring to the MOU, PM Lee said: "When Prime Minister Singh visited Singapore last November, we agreed to increase cooperation in vocational training and skills development. I am therefore pleased to witness, with Prime Minister Singh, the signing of the MOU on the Cooperation in Vocational Education and Skills Development. This is our first government-to-government MOU with India in vocational education. It paves the way for many concrete initiatives downstream, such as the World Class Skills Centre (WCSC) in Delhi.

"The WCSC is a collaboration between Singapore's Institute of Technical Education and the Delhi State Government's Department of Training and Technical Education. When fully completed, the WCSC is expected to train up to 15,000 students annually in various fields, such as production and manufacturing, retail merchandising, hospitality and tourism. Temasek Foundation, a Singapore philanthropic organisation, is co-sponsoring the first capacity-building programme to support the establishment of the WCSC."

The MOU was signed by Singapore's Minister for Education Heng Swee Kiat and India's minister of Labour and Employment Malikarjun Kharge. The two PMs also witnessed the renewal of the Air Force Bilateral Agreement.

On July 12, the last day of his visit, PM Lee took part in a Dialogue Session at the Singapore Symposium organised by the Institute of South Asian Studies and the Aspen Institute India. He also met the president of India's Congress party Sonia Gandhi and the party's general secretary Rahul Gandhi.

The day also saw India's Speaker of Parliament Meira Kumar and Singapore's Speaker of Parliament Michael Palmer launch the inaugural India-Singapore Parliamentary Friendship Group (ISPFG).

Singapore MPs Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim (the chair of the group), Gan Thiam Poh (deputy chair) and Janil Puthucheary, a member of the group, attended the launch ceremony held at the Indian Parliament building. The ISPFG comprises 20 Singapore MPs and 22 Indian MPs.

At press time PM Lee was holding a wrap-up interaction with the media.

vpalani@sph. com.sg

V. Palanisamy is the news editor of Tamil Murasu

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