Event Reports – NUS Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS)
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Event Reports

ISAS Closed Door Session: 01 March 2019

Topic : War and Peace in South Asia: New Developments in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan

Speaker(s) : Dr S Jaishankar


ISAS-RSIS Joint Workshop: 28 February 2019

Topic : India – Rising Power in an Age of Uncertainty

Speaker(s) : Multiple Speakers


ISAS-ORF Panel Discussion: 27 February 2019

Topic : Reconnecting South and Southeast Asia: Return of the Bay of Bengal Region

Speaker(s) : Multiple Speakers


Inaugurating the panel discussion on the historical and contemporary significance of the Bay of Bengal for connecting South and Southeast Asia in an ORF-ISAS Panel at ORF, Kolkata on 27 February, Professor Tan Tai Yong, President and Professor of Humanities (History) of the Yale-NUS College, National University of Singapore, recounted the importance of the Bay of Bengal region in connecting India and Southeast Asia. He said, historically the Bay of Bengal has been the point of connection between India and Southeast Asia and that, trade, ideas and people freely moved back and forth. But after the rise of nation-states in the Bay of Bengal, the states, became inward looking producing a gulf instead of a bridge between them.

Today, the powers in the region, including China, India and the ASEAN, want to re-connect; hence, it is important to see how the Bay can be reconstituted as a zone bringing together the two geo-political areas. Apart from traditional security issues, environmental challenges and refugee concerns are shared problems inviting cooperation in the Bay.

Professor Rakhahari Chatterji, Advisor, ORF Kolkata, chairing the Panel, said that the words ‘Reconnect’ and ‘Return’ assume that there was a past we want to resurrect without of course trying to repeat it. The past needs to be recollected to serve as a guiding light for the present and for reimagining the future. Based on such a constructive engagement with the past we need to examine the appropriateness of the trade, connectivity and strategic architecture we are building at present.

Dr. Ronojoy Sen, Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore (ISAS-NUS), discussed the history of connectivity that existed in pre-colonial and colonial era. The history of the Bay of Bengal region can be viewed through the prism of three significant broad-based themes, he suggested.

First, trade has historically facilitated deep and continuous interaction amongst people across the Bay of Bengal region. Since, the 6th century A.D., the records of trade in spices and textiles between Southeast Asia and Bengal can be found. Robust trade relations also enabled dissemination of religious beliefs and customs in the region.

Second, imperial ambitions have had a pivotal impact in fostering greater integration of the Bay of Bengal region. The Pallava and Chola dynasties of Southern India and subsequently, the Portuguese and the British imperial power established their economic suzerainty in the region by initiating vibrant trade activities.

Thirdly, the movement of people across the Bay gave considerable impetus to the integration of the Bay of Bengal region. The massive flow of people in the region can be traced from the 19th Century that coincides with the introduction of steam ships and the emergence of steam navigation companies.

Studies of interaction in the region are now once again being revived through renewed strategic and economic relations.

Dr. Nilanjan Ghosh, Director, Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata argued that a holistic approach in assessing the impacts of Free Trade Agreements (FTA), especially from the point-of-view of global value chains, needs to be adopted for boosting fair trade. India signed FTA’s assuming that such arrangements would open new areas for innovation, employment and investment. However, as Indian official databases have gone on to show, these trade agreements have largely benefitted India’s trade partners with an increase in India’s trade deficit.

Dr. Ghosh suggested that mere trade balance figures must not guide India’s trade agreements with her Southeast Asian neighbours. As a result of cheaper imports, consumers have largely gained, known in economic terms as ‘consumer surplus.’ Producers, on the other hand, have suffered due to these FTAs. Inflow of better quality and cheaper goods has reduced the competitiveness of the domestic producers and they have expressed their ire against such agreements.

Complementarities between trading partners play a key role and emphasis should be laid on exploiting them. Only then will trade make everyone ‘better off’. Unlike the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is fraught with its own complexities, the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Motor Vehicles Agreement (BBIN-MVA) represents a better arena where regional integration can enjoy some success. It has a higher probability of achieving fiscal and monetary integration with a common market and a common currency. This will lead to development of the entire region by way of ensuring food security, employment opportunities and a larger market among other benefits.

Dr. Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury, Senior Fellow, ORF discussed the significance of the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) corridor as a hinterland of the Bay of Bengal and its potential for harnessing the dynamic economic prospects of the region. According to Dr. Basu Ray Chaudhury, the Bay of Bengal appears to be the most feasible and congenial option of connecting the nations that surround it, through mutually shared interests of growth and development. Three important ideas have been forwarded in this regard. First, the proper utilization of the land routes through roadways and highways, second identifying the vitality of the inland waterways and third, making proper use of the sea ports. Such transport corridors hold within themselves the immense potential of nurturing the true essence of the Bay.

Although many efforts have been seen in this regard, there is still a lot that remains undone, Dr. Basu Ray Chaudhury, said. She called for the need of developing proper infrastructure and protocol routes and efficiency of the actions.

Dr. C. Raja Mohan, Director, ISAS-NUS argued that physical or geographical proximity neither guarantees trade, nor strategic partnership. South Asia is a glaring example of this phenomenon. Instead of physical proximity, the political situation of the countries in question matters. For example, closing the market by Chairman Mao Zedong in China and Jawaharlal Nehru in India and their negative effects on the trade situation of both countries are results of the political environment and resultant decisions taken by the respective leaders.

According to Dr. Raja Mohan, India has missed the opportunity when it had the scope to build a robust trade and strategic partnership with littorals in the Bay of Bengal after the latter’s independence. Only after liberalization of her economy in1991 has India engaged strategically by undertaking joint military exercises with Bay littorals making her presence felt in the region. Discussing the rise of China in the Bay of Bengal, Dr. Raja Mohan said that China has been following the colonial example of creating exclusive trading posts at strategic locations around the Bay like Sitwe, Kaladan etc. They have also been investing in pipelines for oil and gas supply and in other communication pathways as well. This is working as a back bone for China’s rapidly growing military presence in the region.

Secondly, the retreat of US military from the region will create a vacuum that China seems very eager to fill in and Japan seems to take an interest as well. Realignment of strategic relations between USA and her allies like Thailand and Philippines is further encouraging the latter to drift towards China.

The situation in the Bay presents new strategic opportunities for India as well and India seems to be on track with the Bay littorals as expressed through her settling border issues with Bangladesh and organizing joint naval exercises with Thailand. However, she needs more meaningful presence in the Bay. Given the transformation in the once strategically tranquil Bay of Bengal region into a contested zone, India, must retain some strong allies with her if she wants to be up front in the contest.

The report is compiled by Mihir Bhonsale with inputs from Dr. Jaya Thakur, Sohini Bose, Sohini Nayak, Ambar Kumar Ghosh and Roshan SahaI

Victoria Memorial Hall-ISAS Public Lecture : A Tale of Two Cities – Singapore and Calcutta, Past and Present: 26 February 2019

Topic : Victoria Memorial Hall-ISAS Public Lecture

Speaker(s) : Professor Tan Tai Yong, President Yale-NUS College; Deputy Chairman ISAS


ISAS Closed Door Roundtable: 20 February 2019

Topic : Between South and Southeast Asia: Bangladesh, Myanmar and the Case for a New Regional Framework

Speaker(s) : Dr Michael Vatikiotis


Liberalisation Sans Liberalism: The Dilemmas of Higher Education in India: 31 January 2019

Topic : ISAS-SASP Seminar

Speaker(s) : Dr Devesh Kapur


ISAS Seminar: 28 January 2019

Topic : The Dragon and the Elephant: Sino-Indian Relations in the Era of Modi and Xi

Speaker(s) : Professor Yuan Jingdong, Visiting Research Fellow, East Asian Institute, NUS


ISAS Seminar: 24 January 2019

Topic : The Domestic Implications of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor for Pakistan

Speaker(s) : Professor Katharine Adeney, University of Nottingham


ISAS Panel Discussion: 21 January 2019

Topic : Sri Lanka at Crossroads: Geopolitical Challenges and National Interests

Speaker(s) : Mr Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, Director General, INSSSL Sri Lanka, Dr Chulanee Attanayake, Dr Amitendu Palit


Joint SASP-ISAS Seminar: 10 January 2019

Topic : Nationalism as a Democratic and Authoritarian Resource: Lessons from India, Myanmar and Malaysia

Speaker(s) : Dr Maya Tudor, Fellow, Stanford University


ISAS Closed Door Session: 08 January 2019

Topic : The India Economic Strategy 2035

Speaker(s) : Ambassador Peter N Varghese AO


ISAS Closed Door Roundtable: 28 December 2018

Topic : Redesigning Policy Making in the 4th Industrial Revolution through Agile Governance

Speaker(s) : Mr Nara Lokesh, Minister for Information Technology, Panchayati Raj and Rural Development, Andhra Pradesh, India


The Fourth Industrial Revolution is characterised by rapid, simultaneous and systemic transformations driven by unprecedented impacts from the pace, scale and scope of emerging technologies. In addition, global challenges of climate change, demographic changes and declining trust in institutions are together challenging established governance models and mind-sets. New principles, protocols, rules and policies are needed to accelerate the positive and inclusive impacts of innovation and technologies, while minimizing or eliminating negative consequences and risks. There is an urgent need for a faster, more agile approach to governing emerging technologies and the business models and social interaction structures they enable. Minister Lokesh shall present the platforms used for Realtime Governance in the state of Andhra Pradesh and use of agile government tools for better governance.

ISAS Roundtable: 05 December 2018

Topic : Digital Politics: Emerging Trends in South and Southeast Asia

Speaker(s) : Multiple Speakers


ISAS organised a roundtable on ‘Digital Politics: Emerging Trends in South and Southeast Asia’ on 5 December 2018 at the NUSS Guild House. The roundtable saw 21 distinguished guests share their views about recent events and key topics in the field of digital politics. The opening address was given by Philip Chua, Global Lead for Government and Elections at Twitter. He said that any mistruths circulated online would beg the question on citizen media literacy. He also highlighted the importance of focussing less on the content being circulated online. Rather, he suggested looking into how information is disseminated and how individuals behave online. This theme of targeting behaviour rather than content underpinned the discussions that followed. Chua concluded with an open-ended statement on the trade-off between having open conversations online and not curbing the freedom of expression. The roundtable began by noting the recent International Grand Committee meeting in the UK on fake news and disinformation, and its implication on Singapore’s deliberations on the issue. Subsequently, the importance of viewing technology as an enabler and as a solution was highlighted. Questions on whether there were any new artificial intelligence or machine learning techniques that could help address content and identify bad actors were raised, as was the issue of how other mediums of social media, such as images, videos and memes, could be regulated. On legislation, the participants emphasised that there could be no single actor serving as an arbiter of truth but rather a multitude of credible actors was necessary. They raised the issue of the impact of legislation on creativity due to the lack of resources to ensure accuracy. This extended to concerns about small media platforms and their future potential. The speakers dwelt on the importance of ensuring democracy despite regulation. There were fears of using regulation for political purposes and apprehensions on the lack of a level playing field for women and marginalised groups to express their opinions. This brought up the question of whether specific or broad laws would be more useful in encouraging self-censorship. The session concluded by reiterating the broader theme of constant evolution in this field and the importance of recognising that regulations operate differently in different ecosystems.

Narendra Modi’s Religious Diplomacy and the Reinvention of Indian Foreign Policy: 03 December 2018

Topic : ISAS Seminar

Speaker(s) : Professor Ian Hall


Professor Ian Hall teaches International Relations at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia, and is the Deputy Director (Research) of the Griffith Asia Institute was invited to ISAS for a Seminar on the topic ‘Narendra Modi’s Religious Diplomacy and the Reinvention of Indian Foreign Policy’ as he is currently publishing an upcoming book on Modi and the Reinvention of Indian Foreign Policy. This session was moderated by Professor C. Raja Mohan, Director of Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS). Director C. Raja Mohan opened the seminar by introducing the topic to the audience and said Modi’s Foreign Policy has been widely discussed but there has been less discussion on the aspect of religious diplomacy. The participants comprised of ISAS research staff and members of the public. Prof Ian Hall began his talk with a picture from World Cultural Festival organised by the spiritual/religious organisation Art of Living inaugurated by PM Modi last year. He stated that the event such as this, with over 750 key politicians across the world present, promotes India’s soft power under the theme “One World Family”. Prof Ian then outlined the five pillars of PM Modi’s foreign policy strategy according to Ram Madhav, who drafted the BJP’s 2015 policy document. These are samriddhi (economic prosperity), suraksha (national security), samman (upholding the dignity and honour of Indian citizens and expats), samvad (dialogue and engagement), and sanskriti (culture and civilizational links). He observed the fifth pillar sanskriti is used extensively in PM Modi’s foreign policy. He observed that PM Modi made the cultural references on global stage such as the Shangri-La Dialogue. This means the approach of viewing the world is based on culture-culture than society-society. On the topic of public diplomacy, Professor Ian Hall observed there has been a rise in campaigns to engage more deeply with the public under the Modi government. While the last three governments have all engaged in public diplomacy and soft power campaigns such as Incredible India, the Modi government went one step further by using other means to engage in public diplomacy such as PM Modi himself promoting yoga, using Twitter effectively and holding radio shows to engage with the public. Prof Hall noted PM Modi’s increasing emphasis on cultural and religious ties. PM Modi’s visits to religious sites in Sri Lanka, Buddhist temples in Nepal and mosques in the Arab countries are to emphasise past cultural, intellectual and religious ties. This is part of the Modi government’s emphasis on civil-society diplomatic activities, mostly using India’s diaspora as a quasi-diplomatic tool. The constant cultural engagement is to protect diaspora interests. Prof Hall concluded with Modi’s reinvention of foreign policy outlined in two aspects: a) dropping the Nehruvian idea of foreign policy, b) foreign policy sought through Hindu ideology with religious diplomacy at the centre. Although foreign policy may not help PM Modi win domestic elections, it will certainly create a perception of global leadership among the Indian citizens. Prof Hall’s remarks were followed by a Question and Answer session with the audience. Prof Hall fielded questions on soft power, the concept of religion and state being merged and instrumentalising religion for the purpose of foreign policy and diplomacy.

ISAS Workshop: 28 November 2018

Topic : Maritime Sri Lanka: Reclaiming Indian Ocean Security

Speaker(s) : Multiple Speakers


A full day workshop titled ‘Maritime Sri Lanka: Reclaiming Indian Ocean Identity’ was held on 28 November 2018. Organised by ISAS, the workshop saw a range of speakers discussing the historical, strategic and economic aspects of Sri Lanka’s Indian Ocean identity. ISAS Director Professor C Raja Mohan made the opening remarks where he said that Sri Lanka is in the focus and is going to be an important part of the world. There has been much discussion lately on how Sri Lanka is an Indian Ocean rather than a South Asian state. The keynote address was given by Professor Mohan Munasinghe via a video recording where he shared that Sri Lanka is reclaiming instead of transforming its Indian Ocean identity. He then explored how Sri Lanka is one the first countries to embark on the Balanced Inclusive Green Growth (BIGG) Path. Colombo wants to be a dynamic and thriving Indian Ocean hub by 2030. After the keynote address, was the first panel titled ‘Historical and Contemporary Perspectives’ which discussed the paradigm shifts, strategic realities and shifting of power in Sri Lanka. This panel also explored how Colombo has been developing its maritime identity after the civil war. The sea is seen as integral to its national consciousness. The end of the civil war opened new political avenues for Sri Lanka to rebuild its image. The second panel titled ‘Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean: Geopolitical Imperatives’ saw discussions on the strategic placement of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. Post-independent Sri Lanka helped it to have a clear stand in its foreign policy initiatives. However, a rules-based order is important for small states like Sri Lanka. There was a general consensus that Sri Lanka will become a significant player in the ocean. The third panel titled ‘Sri Lanka as an Economic Hub: Issues and Prospects’ saw conversations on the Indian Ocean economy, policy challenges, diplomacy initiatives and the country’s domestic and regional performance.

ISAS Closed Door Session: 23 November 2018

Topic : Accountability of Institutions in India: The Case of the RBI and the CBI

Speaker(s) : Dr S Narayan, Dr Duvurri Subbarao, Mr Vinod Rai


Atlantic Council-ISAS Symposium: 20 November 2018

Topic : Analysing the United States’ Vision for the Indo-Pacific

Speaker(s) : Multiple Speakers


ISAS organised a symposium on ‘Analysing the United States’ Vision for the Indo-Pacific’ in partnership with the Atlantic Council on 20 November 2018. The panellists for the symposium were Professor C Raja Mohan, Director, ISAS; Dr Bharath Gopalaswamy, Director of the Atlantic Council’s South Centre; Dr Matthew Kroenig, Deputy Director for Strategy at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security; and Dr Rani Mullen, Visiting Research Fellow, ISAS.The symposium began with welcome remarks by Dr Gopalaswamy and Professor Mohan. Dr Kroenig presented a brief history of the Council. He then spoke about the America’s ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) vision, how this vision is different from before, and the specifics of the vision. Following Dr Kroenig’s presentation, Dr Gopalaswamy’s remarks focused on the US American pivot to Asia, the areas of focus such as commerce, infrastructure and energy, and the private sector focus of the vision. In her remarks, Dr Mullen questioned whether the new American vision and investment would be able to meet the challenge of competing in the region with China and ASEAN’s response to the competition. The remarks by the panellists were followed by an interactive discussion with the audience. The points of discussion included the difference between the FOIP and the Washington Consensus, inclusive development as part of the American vision, South Asia’s role in the Indo-Pacific, the sustainability of the Indo-Pacific without India, the pressure and implications of Sino-US competition on ASEAN, the commitment of India to the Indo-Pacific, impact of US disengagement on the federal American structure, and the historical context for Indo-Pacific rivalry.

Atlantic Council-ISAS Roundtable: 19 November 2018

Topic : Emerging Technology, Shifting Power Balances and Nuclear Stability

Speaker(s) : Multiple Speakers


ISAS organised a symposium on ‘Emerging Technologies, Shifting Balances of Power, and Nuclear Stability’ in partnership with the Atlantic Council on 19 November 2018. The roundtable included experts from the United States, China, Russia, India, and Japan. The symposium began with opening remarks by Professor C Raja Mohan, Director, ISAS. Dr Matthew Kroenig, Deputy Director for Strategy at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security presented a brief history of the Council and then presented on the Council’s project on how emerging technology could affect nuclear stability. The presentation listed emerging technologies (including their capabilities and implications), critiques and defences of the conventional wisdom, and they hypothesis that emerging technology’s effect of the broader balance of power is a greater risk to strategic stability.Following Dr Kroenig’s presentation, the participants discussed the topic in the context of four different themes: evaluating the conventional wisdom on emerging technology and strategic stability, the state of play of emerging technologies, the geopolitical context and flashpoints, and policy implications for arms control, non-proliferation and exports control. Three experts presented in each thematic session followed by an interactive discussion between the roundtable on the theme. The discussions on the first theme covered points of discussion such as the stabilising effect of arms races, the ‘layers’ of strategic stability and its nature, and non-rational use of technology. The second thematic session covered points such as new and conventional weapons capabilities and their impact, the challenges and uses of new technologies, and competition in technologies between different countries. In the third session, the experts discussed technologies in the context of geopolitical flashpoints such as South Asia, the ‘grey zone’, and great powers like Russia, China and the US. The final session considered policy implications related to arms control, a ‘cascading’ security dilemma, the possibility of a non-proliferation treaty (NPT) type arrangement for weapons, and codes of conduct.

ISAS Panel Discussion and Book Launch: 30 October 2018

Topic : Do Welfare Policies lead to Development? – The Tamil Nadu Experience

Speaker(s) : Ambassador Gopinath Pillai, Dr S Narayan, Mr N Ravi, Mr R Pooranalingam, Mrs Vanitha Dalta,


Switzerland in Asia: Burgeoning Links with South Asia and ASEAN: 30 October 2018

Topic : ISAS Ambassadors' Lecture Series

Speaker(s) : Ambassador Fabrice Filliez


Dr Iftekhar Chowdhury, principal research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, NUS and former foreign minister of Bangladesh, chaired the session titled, ‘Switzerland in Asia: Burgeoning Links with South Asia and ASEAN’. He opened the session by highlighting the critical role that Switzerland plays as an international actor, contributing to stability, peace and progress in the region and the world. Dr Chowdhury lauded Switzerland for remaining a constructive place for situating international institutions and also the ability of the Swiss to enable dialogue between conflicting parties, as in the Gorbachev-Reagan Dialogue. Ambassador Fabrice Filliez described Switzerland’s relationship with ASEAN followed by Switzerland’s relationship with South Asia. On ASEAN, he mentioned the international cooperation activities that Switzerland has been pursuing in ASEAN, such as improving the living conditions of ASEAN people, reducing development gaps and providing humanitarian engagement. He sectioned Switzerland-ASEAN cooperation into 4 parts: climate change and disaster risk reduction, human security, vocational training and food security. He shared that there have been 26 projects, amounting to 7 million USD in these domains. On India, he celebrated the 70th anniversary since the signing of the Treaty of Friendship between the two countries. He also brought up the salient issue on cooperation with India on tax investigation, allowing automatic information exchange between the two countries. He also shared on the good relationship that Switzerland has had with Pakistan through investment protection, double taxation and disaster relief, with Bangladesh through poverty reduction, direct investment and development cooperation, and with Sri Lanka through reforms, reconciliation, investment protection and humanitarian assistance. Key questions that arose were regarding Switzerland’s view on referendums and tips on how the implementation of vocational institutes vis-à-vis university education was so successful in Switzerland. On the former, he answered that an educated population who are capable of practicing direct democracy was needed. On the latter, he shared the importance of acknowledging positive contribution to society and growth of the sector rather than the company alone.

ISAS-CII Distinguished Lecture 2018: 29 October 2018

Topic : Higher Education in Singapore

Speaker(s) : Professor Tan Eng Chye, Ambassador Gopinath Pillai, Mr N Kumar, Professor Bhaskar Ramamurthi


Power Shift and the Regional Architecture of the Indo-Pacific: 24 October 2018

Topic : ISAS Seminar

Speaker(s) : Professor Amitav Acharya


The ISAS Closed Door Session: Power Shift and the Regional Architecture of the Indo-Pacific was held on 20 October 2018. Organised by ISAS, the speaker Professor Amitav Acharya said that the Indo-Pacific is a work in progress. He discussed three areas during the session. First he shared that Asia-Pacific Regionalism started with a Pan Asian framework. There are different approaches towards the Indo-Pacific concept. While ASEAN wants Indo-Pacific to be renamed to Indo-Asia-Pacific, countries such as Australia are happy with the current terminology. Second, he shared on how ASEAN centrality is an idea goes a long way back. There was a rejection of great power leadership where ASEAN did not want to be dominated by anyone. Third, he discussed on the impact of China’s rise on regionalism where Beijing was the single most catalyst in the 1990s. However, the sentiments towards China have changed over time. There are now divisions within ASEAN on how to deal with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In conclusion, he said that ASEAN centrality is middle power orientation. There are different ideas and concepts of the Indo-Pacific. Japan’s concept of the Indo-Pacific is more in line with the US’s approach on how it should be “free and open”. There are likely to be many challenges when the Indo-Pacific is formalised further.

Modi and the Ganges: Governance in India: 04 October 2018

Topic : ISAS Seminar

Speaker(s) : Mr Victor Mallet


On 4 October 2018 the ISAS Seminar “Modi and the Ganges: Governance in India” discussed the latest book “River of Life, River of Death: The Ganges and India’s Future” (OUP) by Mr Victor Mallet, author, journalist and editor with more than three decades of experience in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The seminar developed around the main themes of the book: an assessment of the failures of Modi’s Swachh Bharat campaign; the nature of the water body of the Ganga, including the issue of anti-biotic resistant super-bugs; questions of religious practice and belief; and the effects that technologies have had on the river. According to Mallet the Ganga/Ganges is one of the main Asian waterways, in fact arguably the world’s most important river, and cradle of the Indic civilization. Despite all environmental issues which characterize its current situation and which did take a toll on its ecosystem, Mallet maintains that the Ganga is still alive, a river of life, as proved by the continuity of its worship as well as by the rich Gangetic wildlife which still inhabits some of the river tracts.

Crucial Issues in Indian Foreign Policy: 04 October 2018

Topic : ISAS Closed Door Session

Speaker(s) : Ambassador Shivshankar Menon


India-Singapore FinTech Cooperation: Opportunities and Challenges: 03 October 2018

Topic : ISAS Roundtable

Speaker(s) : Multiple Speakers


The Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore organised a Roundtable on ‘India-Singapore FinTech Cooperation: Opportunities and Challenges’ on 3 October 2018 to better understand how Singapore and India could leverage their complementary strengths in FinTech and the digital economy, to strengthen collaboration and mutual benefits between the two growing FinTech players. The motivation for the Roundtable arose from a memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed between the Singapore and Indian governments in June 2018 to strengthen cooperation in financial innovation through the establishment of a Joint Working Group. This MoU builds upon a growing level of cooperation between the two countries in business-to-business cooperation, increasing cross-border investment and several initiatives to ease cross-border financial engagement in FinTech. The Roundtable saw a total of 32 selected participants from establishments such as the Monetary Authority of Singapore, OCBC Bank, World Bank, MasterCard, NITI Aayog and Centre for Policy Research (CPR) India.

The Billionaire Raj: Business, Corruption and Growth in India and Beyond: 02 October 2018

Topic : ISAS Panel Discussion

Speaker(s) : Multiple Speakers


The session explored inequality and cronyism in India amidst its rapid economic development which is characterised by extremes of wealth creation and unstable industrial growth. The first panellist, James Crabtree argued that post-1991, as India pursued liberalisation, and as economic growth picked up pace, the proceeds of that growth went disproportionately to the very top. This has resulted in the creation of a super-rich class and a heightened disparity between the rich and the poor. He attributed the rise of billionaires to entrepreneurship embellished in political connections, crony capitalism, and corruption scandals – which he alleged allowed them easy access to large loans from public sector banks. These scandals received strong reactions from the public and resulted in the election of Modi on an anti-corruption platform. However, Crabtree argued cronyism, nepotism and excesses of India’s billionaire class have continued, with newer dynasties joining the ranks of this small and powerful elite. He made particular mention of the weak banking system in India where the Modi government has had the weakest records. Nonetheless, Crabtree concluded with cautious optimism for India’s future and remarked that just as America’s and Singapore’s gilded age preceded the policies to remedy inequality, he foresees India riding into a more just and less corrupt future as it passes this period.

Mr Vinod Rai discussed how cronyism rose in India in recent years. He attributed it to the involvement of corporate entities on electoral campaigns. In return of their support, contracts and licences are given to these entities, irrespective of their domain capabilities. These companies then borrow huge amounts of money from banks who are encouraged to lend for infrastructure projects. The monies are not necessarily put into the projects that are apportioned to them. He also stated that the same phenomenon is true about regional political partners of coalition governments. These parties have their own affiliation to corporate entities that support them. Most regional ministers who were acquitted by the trial court in this regard in recent years indicated that they had informed the PMO about their plans. Furthermore, large number of infrastructure projects which required statutory clearances from the government did not get through clearances, even when they were genuine. So, time over-runs lead to cost-over runs. Today, India has about nine trillion rupees stuck in bank loans. In an attempt to solve this problem, Rai explained that Indian Supreme Court has recently introduced an electoral reform whereby politicians, their spouses and associates have to file affidavits on their assets and sources of income at the time of filing nomination papers. He also stated that there is a growing political vigilantism among Indian citizen, who have started asking the right questions to government – which may also help to curb cronyism in the country.

The Truths of India: Information and Society from Manu to Modi: 27 September 2018

Topic : ISAS-SASP Seminar

Speaker(s) : Professor Sanjoy Chakravorty


Professor Sanjoy Chakravorty, Professor of Geography and Urban Studies, Temple University, and Visiting Fellow, Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania, USA and ISAS Academic Visitor presented a seminar on the topic of ‘The Truths of India: Information and Society from Manu to Modi’. The session was moderated by Dr Ronojoy Sen, Senior Research Fellow and Research Lead (Politics and Governance), ISAS. Dr Ronojoy began the proceeding by introducing Professor Chakravorty to the audience. The audience included ISAS staff members and members of the public. Professor Chakravorty began by speaking about the concept of ‘truth’. He then put forth two ‘existential questions’ for India which are about the identity of the Indian collective and the trajectory of justice. Professor Chakravorty further laid out two primary arguments. The first is that there is a need to understand the ‘politics of truth’ which involved the variables of power over information and the available information technology. The second argument is that complex information must be reduced to its simplest form to provide cognitive unity. The second argument has certain corollaries as follows:
The more complex the information, the greater the need for simple information; The more the quantity of information, the greater the need for simple information; The greater the number of sources, the less relevant thy all are. Professor Chakravorty then expounded on simplification in the age of ‘scrolls’. He explained that in India, the colonizers created Hinduism by aggregating non-Muslims and creating a common law for Hindus. As such, in a sense, there was no history of India before the British came and gave one. The next section of the seminar focused on ‘simplification’ in the age of smartphones, which, according to European/American literature, can take 3 paths as follows, Populism, Communication building and Accelerated pluralism. Professor Chakravorty then brought together his theses and suggested that there were two paths in India: Democratization, which would have positives such as demise of colonial land laws and negatives such translocal organization by hate groups. The second path being the increasing relevance of simple information which involves aspects such as branding, polarizations and the emphasis on the messenger him/herself being the message. The presentation was followed by an interactive session with the audience. Points of discussion included whether ‘simple information’ is a new concept, the meaning and categorization of information itself, the institutionalisation of information, the new age media, and the caste system in India.

BIMSTEC at 20: Priorities and Prospects: 24 September 2018

Topic : ISAS-COSATT-KAS Workshop

Speaker(s) : Multiple Speakers


On 24 September 2018 at the workshop "BIMSTEC at 20: Priorities and Prospects" scholars, policy-makers and dignitaries reflected on the achievements and future challenges of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). The event was the result of joint efforts by the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), the Consortium of South Asian Think Tanks (COSATT), and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung of Singapore (KAS). The event was opened by the representatives of the three partner organizations: Dr Amitendu Palit, Senior Research Fellow and Research Lead for Trade and Economics (ISAS); Dr Nishchal Pandey, Convenor of COSATT, and Mr Christian Echle, Director of the Regional Programme POlitical Dialogue Asia (KAS).
Focused on a variety of fields, including economic integration, connectivity, energy and counter-terrorism, BIMSTEC is the only organization bridging the two regions of South and Southeast Asia. Its aims at boosting multi-sectorial integration among member countries -- Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand. With the latest BIMSTEC Summit concluded just one month ago in Nepal, the proposed reinvigoration of the 20 years-old organization acquires particular significance within the contemporary international context, characterized by the return of nationalist and protectionist policies.
In his Keynote Address Amb M Shahidhul Islam, Secretary of BIMSTEC, said he was optimist with regard to the future prospects of the organization. He highlighted that along the years it progressively expanded its outreach/expertise/focus, while undergoing a process of institutional transformation which led -- among the other things -- to the institution of the Secretariat headquartered in Dhaka (2014).
In his Keynote Address Amb M Shahidhul Islam, Secretary of BIMSTEC, said he was optimist with regard to the future prospects of the organization. He highlighted that along the years it progressively expanded its outreach/expertise/focus, while undergoing a process of institutional transformation which led -- among the other things -- to the institution of the Secretariat headquartered in Dhaka (2014). The 4h BIMSTEC Summit (Kathmandu, 30-31 August 2018) highlighted the need for the organization to improve on implementation and efficiency. The proposal of identifying few core areas of collaboration was advanced by Thailand to this purpose. Amb Islam commented that, while such possibility is being considered, there is no doubt that Trade & Investments and Connectivity will remain at the core of BIMSTEC’s work. He also added that he is confident that the FTA will soon be signed.
While delivering the Special Address, Amb Ong Keng Yong -- Executive Deputy Chairman of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Univeristy of Singapore {add also ASEAN designation?}} -- highlighted that the current will to strenghten the BIMSTEC mechanism provides an opportunity that shall not be missed. It is therefore imperative to act quickly to produce tangible results. He added that enhancing infrastructure and standardize regulations to allow people and goods to travel across borders easily are of fundamental importance to this purpose. In addition to this, equally necessary steps will include digitalization of the local economy and engagement local populations. Rather than further expanding the potential foci of its activity -- AMb Ong said -- BIMSTEC shall target “low hanging fruits” such as business and market development. These will create goodwill and trust in the organization’s potential: a virtuous spillover effect able to open the way to other types of cooperation.
In the following two panels specialists in the field heading from the various BIMSTEC member states offered a country-perspective on the organization and the possible way ahead. The featured panellists were Amb Biren Nanda (Senior Fellow, Delhi Policy Group); Mr Kamal Thapa (Former Deputy Prime Minister and Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Nepal); Mr Asanga Abeyagoonasekera (Director General, Institute of National Security Studies of Sri Lanka); Mr Faiz Sobhan (Senior Research Director, Bangladesh Entreprise Institute); Prof Nu Nu Lwin (Professor, Yangon University of Economics); Dr Sathaporn Opasanon (Associate Professor, Thamassat University). Maj Gen (Retd) ANM Muniruzzaman (President of Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies) and Maj Gen AKM Abdur Rahman (Director of Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies) chaired the two sessions.

In Conversation with Dr S Jaishankar: 14 September 2018

Topic : The United States and South Asia: Assessing the New Dynamics

Speaker(s) : Dr S Jaishankar


ISAS-SASP Joint Seminar: 31 August 2018

Topic : India, Europe and the Indo-Pacific

Speaker(s) : Prof C Raja Mohan, Director



Last modified on 23 January 2018