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

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


ISAS-ESI Joint Seminar: 31 August 2018

Topic : India’s Global Energy Engagements: Ambitions and Outcomes

Speaker(s) : Mr Vikram Mehta


The session discussed India’s energy crisis and global engagements. The speaker attributed India’s energy crisis to three broad factors – (1) its increasing demand for energy, stemming from its rising population, increasing urbanisation and cumulative impact of policies such as subsidised pricing, inefficiency in usage of energy, and lack of coordination among different governmental agencies – which have encouraged the wasteful consumption of energy in the country; (2) inability of energy supply to keep in pace with demands due to resource constraints, absence of infrastructure to access energy and bring to consumers, pricing mechanism and policies that discourage in investment in domestic productions, and (3) inadequate investment in cleaner energy and obliviousness to environmental concerns.
He highlighted how India is dependent on other nations for its energy supplies. Although India is aggressively increasing its solar generation capacity, the dependence on fossil fuels for transportation and coal for generation is likely to continue in the foreseeable future, he asserted. He shared that India imports 82% of its oil, mainly from Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Its gas is mostly imported from Qatar, Australia, the USA and Russia. India’s coal imports are also increasing although it has the 5th largest deposits of coal in the world – its major suppliers include Australia, USA, Indonesia and South Africa. He noted that most of India’s relationships with the countries have been transactional and unembedded on strategic relationship. As such, India has been unable to establish how it would protect its assets in these countries in the event of geo-political upheaval or domestic strife. He made particular mention of the possible effects of ongoing conflicts and issues in the Middle-East (e.g. US sanctions on Iran, Saudi Arabian relations with Iran and Qatar) on India given the latter’s heavy reliance on energy imports from the region. He also addressed the lack of an agency in India that can take a holistic overview of how India can deploy its “balance sheet” in regards to its energy sector, despite being heavily invested in global markets. To enhance the competitiveness of power overtures or initiatives and ensure India’s investments are protected, he suggested creating coordinating mechanisms in the PM office.

ISAS Panel Discussion & Art Exhibition: 30 August 2018

Topic : The Evolving Status of Women in Pakistan

Speaker(s) : Multiple Speakers


ISAS organised a panel discussion and art exhibition titled ‘The Evolving Status of Women in Pakistan’ on 30 August 2018. The session was chaired by Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, Principal Research Fellow at ISAS. Dr Chowdhury introduced the topic and shared that women’s role in Pakistan has changed significantly over the years. Four panellists from the academic, arts and corporate sectors then shared their expertise and knowledge on the issue. The first speaker, Dr Emma Jane Flatt, Visiting Research Fellow at ISAS, said that social media is a double edge sword. She gave a highly detailed presentation on the various cases of sexual violence in Pakistan, and how social media has been both a bane and a boon. The second speaker, Ms Samina Islam, Multidisciplinary Artist and Educator, shared about the curation of art in Pakistan. She also said that artists in Pakistan do not make sculphures since physical representation is forbidden in Islam. The third speaker, Associate Professor Iqbal Singh, Visiting Research Associate Professor at ISAS, spoke about the legal representation of women in Pakistan. He also said that there are institutional hurdles that prevent women from reaching the topic. The final speaker, Mr Imran Nasrullah, Chief Executive Officer and President Director, Cargill Pakistan; and Director, Cargill Asia Pacific Singapore, shared the business side of the issue. He said that there has been a rise in the number of female entrepreneurs in Pakistan. After the panel discussion, the opening of the art exhibition was inaugurated by Professor C Raja Mohan, Director of ISAS.

ISAS Roundtable: 29 August 2018

Topic : IIM-Nagpur Singapore Immersion Programme

Speaker(s) : Multiple Speakers


ISAS-MEI Joint Seminar: 28 August 2018

Topic : Secular States, Religious Politics: India, Turkey and Future Secularism

Speaker(s) : Prof Sumantra Bose


11th ISSD Public Forum: 28 August 2018

Topic : ASEAN-India: Commerce, Connectivity and Culture

Speaker(s) : Multiple Speakers


ISAS Public Symposium: 28 August 2018

Topic : ASEAN-India: Commerce, Connectivity and Culture

Speaker(s) : Multiple Speakers


ISAS Panel Discussion: 27 August 2018

Topic : India-Singapore Strategic Dialogue 2018

Speaker(s) : Multiple Speakers


ISAS Panel Discussion: 23 August 2018

Topic : Pakistan under Imran Khan: A New Dawn?

Speaker(s) : Multiple Speakers


Ambassador Gopinath Pillai gave the opening remark speech by introducing briefly the speakers and their expertise. He then commented that while popular opinion seems to put Mr Imran Khan, Pakistan’s new Prime Minister in the same league as Pakistan’s military due to their support for him, Ambassador Pillai reckoned that Mr Khan has and would eventually show to his people that he has independent thinking and influence on the country’s future foreign policy and domestic reformations. This is also in view that Pakistan’s expansion of its allies, from the U.S. to China at present, has changed the dynamics of collaboration between these foreign allies and the Pakistan military.

Following, Associate Professor Iqbal Singh (Visiting Research Associate Professor) highlighted on the recent election in Pakistan in relation to emerging parties focusing on religion. For instance, he mentioned a small but emerging party known as Tehreek e Islami, which pushes for Pakistan to be governed by Sharia Law and is opposed against strong capitalism. This party won two seats which is not significant, nonetheless suggest a changing dynamics of intertwining religion and politics in the minds of Pakistan voters in recent years. Professor Riaz Hassan also weighed in on the strength of existing stakeholders within Pakistan. Illustrating by the sociological measuring of trust, Professor Hassan highlighted that among various public institutions, the Pakistan military still yields the greatest share of trust Pakistan’s population at large, followed by religious scholars and education institutions. At the other spectrum, the police and parliament yields the lowest trust. Whether this structure would face adjustments, would depend on Mr Khan’s new administration. Mr Shahid Javed Burki, however, proposed a visible transformation in Pakistan’s politics through Mr Khan’s victory. Mr Burki held that Mr Khan’s appeal to the urban youth population in Pakistan, is something that has not happened before in the past. This essentially shifts political support from the rural to urban, and this could likely give Mr Khan another term after this as social contracts with urban youths are being strengthened. Finally, on foreign policy stances, Professor Raja Mohan shared Pakistan’s likelihood of being non-revisionist in terms of adhering to existing Western-led institutions, under Mr Khan’s government. This means working more closely with the IMF, World Bank and its western ally, the United States, rather than solely relying on bilateral ties with China alone. The session then ended off with the question and answer session, in which some prominent themes, such as the strengthening Pakistan’s governing institutions were raised and answered by the panellists in a succinct manner.

ISAS-CII Closed Door Session: 21 August 2018

Topic : The Future of Singapore-India Relations

Speaker(s) : Multiple Speakers


On 21 August 2018 ISAS researchers and delegates from the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) met to discuss the future of India-Singapore relations. The 2-hours interactive session was moderated by Prof Raja Mohan, Director of ISAS. Amb Gopinath Pillai, Chairman of the Institute, and Mr Rakesh Bharti Mittal, President of the CII and Vice Chairman of Bharti Enterprises, delivered the opening remarks.

ISAS research staff and CII delegates exchanged views on current economic issues, India’s potential as a destination for Singaporean investments, and the state of RCEP negotiations. Chairman Pillai proposed to enhance ISAS-CII collaboration with a joint workshop to be held annually, as a platform for the two country to discuss each other’s realities and further strengthen ties. The proposal was welcomed by Mr Mittal and his fellow CII representatives, who praised ISAS’ commitment to produce policy-relevant work, and highlighted the importance reserved by CII not only to Business-to-Business interactions, but also to Business-to-Government and Business-to-Academia linkages.

The conversation highlighted a number of relevant points. At the moment, the circumstances result favourable for Singapore-India partnership to step forward. It was agreed that the trade wars developing between China and the United States provide an excellent opportunity for investments to be diverted towards India. It was recognized that Singapore investors often struggle to see India as a comfortable and reliable destination for investments due to a “cultural shock”. Enhanced infrastructure and governance, soft-skills training as well as people-to-people contact will certainly be beneficial to improve the perception of India and bring the two countries closer. ISAS looks at CII as an important channel for Singaporean SMEs willing to find business partners in India.

In addition to this, as stated by Mr Bharti Mittal, CII will soon release a code of conduct for SMEs and the banking sector. Innovation, education and the entertainment industry were mentioned as some of the sectors with highest potential for promoting economic cooperation between the two countries. With regard to the RCEP, it was highlighted how perceptions played a role in the evolving negotiations. ASEAN countries are concerned about RCEP developing outside the ASEAN framework, being often projected by India as an FTA with China. A change in India’s negotiating stance would certainly result beneficial to this regard.

ISAS-MEI Workshop: 15 August 2018

Topic : Reflections on the Partition of India and Palestine after 70 years

Speaker(s) : Multiple Speakers


The “Reflections on the Partition of India and Palestine after 70 Years” workshop was a jointly organized by the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), NUS and Middle East Institute (MEI), NUS. It brought together speakers from different parts of the world to analyse the partitions of British India and Mandate Palestine holistically and examine the tapestries such as the political leaderships, ideologies, laws, and institutions that connect them.

Mr Bilahari Kausikan, Chairman, MEI-NUS delivered the Welcome Remarks where he spoke about the intrinsic importance and significance of the topic to understand contemporary issues. He mentioned how “partition” is a harsh and loaded term compared to “separation”, and cited Singapore-Malaya as a successful case of “separation” whereby the two counties are not unweighted by emotional and historical baggage and complications. They get along fairly better than India-Pakistan or Israel-Palestine.
In his introductory remarks, Professor C Raja Mohan, Director, ISAS-NUS highlighted the salience of partition in not only contemporary domestic politics in the Indian subcontinent but also in the inter-state relations. . He mentioned how the consequences of both India-Pakistan and Palestine-Israel partitions were so terrible and cataclysmic for the respective regions that the involved states still has not been able to come to terms and transcend their differences. He expressed the necessity for academic enterprises to make fresh enquiries into the multiple dimensions of the two partitions, and renew efforts to transcend its negativities.

Next, in the Introductory Lecture titled “What is Partition?” Dr Victor Kattan defined partition as a form of statecraft that has been employed by different actors, in different contexts, at different moments, for different reasons. It is essentially a policy that leads to the division of territory to preserve order amongst great powers, often with the invocation of law in its practice. Therefore, it is not a strictly bilateral arrangement. In contrast, it is a hegemonic act of imposition by which territory is divided by a colonial, neighbouring, regional, or superpower or by a group of states acting in concert, perhaps through an international organization. He argued that while India and Palestine are the paradigm cases of partition, they were a part of a broader phenomenon
Following the Introductory Lecture, the first panel discussion was on “The Partition of British India (August 1947)”. It was chaired by Dr Gyanesh Kudaisya. The first speaker was Professor Ian Talbot who re-examined the Lord Mountbatten’s Viceroyalty to address the question if the British were ‘reluctant partitionists’ and reasons that impelled them to pursue the Partition of British India.

His presentation was followed by Professor Ayesha Jalal who drew on Saadat Hasan Manto’s literacies to present an intimate history of partition and its devastating consequences. She re-assessed the role and legacy of Jinnah in the partition of British India and contended that religion’s role in the partition has been overplayed by the scholars. She stressed that partition was the result of the failure to share-power between the political groups. The Question and Answer session that followed discussed the concept of multi-layered sovereignty and how partition continues to influence the people and inter-state relationships in postcolonial South Asia.
The second panel was chaired by Dr Victor Kattan. It examined the Partition of Mandate Palestine (November 1947). The first panellist, Dr Penny Sinanoglou discussed how the 1937 Peel Commission report shaped conceptions of British plans to partition Palestine. The second presentation was by Dr Laura Robson on the role of the 1947 United Nations Special Committee on Palestine. The Question and Answer session that followed studied the different issues such as the domestic situation in Britain and lack of leadership in Palestine that influenced the Palestinian partition. It also addressed America’s role in the Zionist movement.

The third panel discussion of the day was on “The Partitions of India and Palestine Compared”. It was chaired by Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury and consisted of Dr Amrita Shodhan and Professor P R Kumaraswamy. While Dr Amrita Shodhan’s paper examined whether and/or how we can make sense of the connections between the two places of Mandate Palestine and British India, Professor P R Kumaraswamy expounded on India’s dilemma of pragmatism vs. principles i.e. Nehru’s preference for a partitioned India but a federal Palestine. The Question and Answer session delved into how the differences between communities were politicised and constructed as irreconcilable. It also noted that processes and outcomes of different partitions are contingent on their respective contexts and contingencies.
The last panel explored the consequences of Partition for South Asia, the Middle East and beyond. The panellists for the session were Dr Iqbal Singh Sevea and Dr Mohamed-Ali Adraoui. It was chaired by Dr James M Dorsey. Dr Iqbal discussed how social identities in South Asia, particularly in Punjab, was impacted by the Partition. He explored the two rebellious figures of Punjabi folklore-Maula Jatt and Dulla Bhatti- and related them with the history and politics of Pakistan. Dr Mohamed-Ali explored the impact of the Palestinian partition on Islamist movements, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. The Question and Answer session discussed why the Palestinian cause as a mobilising factor is so salient in transnational Islamist movements. It also raised the concept of “caste” in non-Hindu religions in the Indian sub-continent and the how colonial labelling and categorisation of different communities also moulded the latter’s identities.

ISAS-MEI Joint Seminar: 14 August 2018

Topic : India and the Gulf: Modi turns West

Speaker(s) : Prof P R Kumaraswamy


The Joint ISAS-MEI Seminar: "India and the Gulf: Modi turns West" by Prof P R Kumaraswamy was held on 14 August 2018. The session discussed how India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been trying to enhance Indo-Gulf relations through an economy-development centric approach. The speaker shared that India has generally neglected the Gulf even though the region is its largest trading partner, remittance contributor and home to the largest population of its migrants in the world. He attributed India’s lack of a regional policy towards the Middle-East to its view of the region through the Pakistani prism and the absence of expertise on the region in India. He posited that the Modi government is abandoning India’s traditional transactional attitude and forging closer strategic partnership with Gulf countries, especially with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). He made particular mention of the potential of UAE to be a regional power and how Indian could utilise this and anchor its engagements with the small nation in shared interests. Additionally, he touched on existing intra-regional tensions and differences i.e. the Arab-Iran rivalry, India-Pak tensions, China’s increasing footprint in the region and so forth, and mentioned how it’s important to carefully circumvent problematic issues and work on mutually beneficial matters. He also highlighted the necessity for India to build capacity to actualise Modi’s imagination of the relationship he wants to forge with the Gulf.

ISAS Seminar: 07 August 2018

Topic : Sino-Indian Relations after the Wuhan Summit

Speaker(s) : Dr Manoj Joshi


During the Wuhan Summit, both the Chinese and Indian Press releases emphasized on the respective countries’ maturity and wisdom to handle differences to peaceful discussions.

An informal meeting, the Wuhan Summit had two key purposes. Firstly, the Summit served to put strategic communication or high level interaction between the two countries on a new platform. Despite bilateral meetings taken place regularly on a routine basis between different ministers hailing from both sides, the summit have done differently by creating a new era of diplomacy where the two top leaders meet more frequently – in a much greater detail where they are free from the constraints of protocol. Secondly, the summit served to create a higher level of intensity of talks between India and China, one that covers a great deal of ground while implementing a better understanding of different perspectives of development.

The Wuhan Summit had produced several results. On the surface level, both India and China were able to present to the world their maturity to understand their pessimistic bilateral relations, yet possess the political will to do something about it. Next, it signifies a turning point and the beginning of a new process of a bilateral relationship, just as the ones established by Rajiv Ghandi in 1988 and Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003. On the practical level, it presents the commitment by both sides to build a common understanding on overarching issues of bilateral and global importance, while they are also independent of third parties’ influence on their respective foreign policies. Immediate results could be seen from the setting up of an India-China military operational hotline to facilitate communication. The Indian army was also instructed to avoid any form of excessively aggressive patrolling tactics on the border as well. Both countries highlight the importance of special representatives, as the two countries seeks a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement to the border question.

Prior to the Wuhan Summit, Sino-India relations were both progressing and deteriorating. Both Prime Minister Modi and President Xi, after coming into office, focused on economic issues. The developmental partnership between the two countries in 2014 is an example of that focus, building upon an earlier strategic partnership established by Wen Jiabao in 2005. However, signs of a troubled relationship was long present, as the two countries get entangled in an actual faceoff over China’s audacious move to build a road in Arunachal Pradesh. Further Chinese involvement in distressing its relationship with India includes the establishment of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in April 2015; China blocking off Indian efforts to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group in May 2016 – despite Modi personally requesting support from China; and again China blocking Indian efforts to the United Nations to place Pakistani terrorist Masood Azhar on the 1267 sanctions list. India was as guilty as the Chinese, with the Tibet issue often coming into picture and creating a displeased China. The Doklam issue on June 2017 was the most significant and recent case study prior to the Summit. Yet the crisis was diffused due to the increased in Modi-Xi level meetings. Side-lined meetings were held by top officials from both sides during the G20 summit and BRICS Summit in July 7 and 27 respectively, as it creates a breakthrough in Sino-India relations, with both Modi and Xi giving special instructions to their special representatives to come up with the idea of an informal summit – the subsequent Wuhan Summit. As the build-up to the Summit continues, India had committed to, firstly, “stop playing the Tibet card”, and secondly to not get militarily involved in Maldives. Despite the fierce confrontation between the respective armies in Doklam, Sino-India cooperation was seen to have taken on another step forward just months after the crisis.

The Wuhan Summit, however, showcases the failure of the existing confidence building measures regime established by both countries. Existing examples such as the Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement signed in 1993; Protocols on Modalities for Implementation on Confidence-Building Measures in 1996 and 2005; Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination in the Indo-China border affairs in 2012; and the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement in 2013 were all seen to have failed upon the Doklam Crisis. These agreements lacked of substance, and the crisis highlighted this fact. Looking ahead, even though most observers viewed this Summit as a tactical move, rather than a strategic one, there is no reason to assume that there will not be any lasting results with regards to strategic gains. Despite the odd nature of Sino-India relations that has pushed forth this Summit, the essence of the meeting was not meant to be of any strategic value. Yet, some lasting strategic gains could be achieved, beyond the tactical issues of keeping peace in the Line of Control, as both leaders are seen to be responding to the rapidly changing geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region. Also, with the failures of previous agreements resulting to the Wuhan Summit, a stronger summit-level interaction would be construction from both sides. Fortunately, the leaders and top ministers from both sides have initiated such regime, with the Indian Defence and External Affairs ministers preparing to depart for Beijing while the Chinese Defence minister is expected in India this year. President Xi has mentioned in the BRICS Summit that he will be meeting Prime Minister Modi again this year, and visits of military delegation has resumed after a two year gap.

Regarding India’s future, there is a need for the country to maintain a balance in the competitive and cooperative relationship with China. This is where the United States come into play, as India look to deepen its ties with the U.S. in order to maintain the balance of power with China. India is ready to sign a communication and security agreement with the U.S. – which will step up their military cooperation, and the first India-U.S. 2+2 dialogue will be held in New Delhi later this September.

In conclusion, engaging China enables India to prevent zero-sum outcomes relating to China in the immediate neighbourhood in the South Asian region. While there is no doubt that China will continue to involve itself in the region, engagement can make sure these processes will not undermine India’s security interests. With India already doing its part to improve bilateral relations with China with regards to Tibet and Maldives, India had also further prove its commitment to the Chinese by not inviting Australia in the latest Malabar exercise. Consequently, concessions from the Chinese will be created as well. While diplomacy should not be conducted in the public stage, the coined term Megaphone Diplomacy, appears to prove otherwise. The Wuhan Summit, has however, returned the diplomatic discretion of any engagement between the two sides. Consequently, future decisions made and cooperation will be done without any external influences that could exacerbate existing problems. More joint projects with other countries along with India and China could also be realised.

During the Q&A, a total of 17 questions were asked. Questions ranged from whether India is seen to have “sold out” its own interests to China, and whether the current situation in the aftermath of the Summit is more of a process and rather than of substance. One questioned whether India is trying to do too much despite China not giving a lot in return. Also, another questioned whether the Doval Doctrine is mutually exclusive to the strategic interests of India today.

Last modified on 23 January 2018