| Bhattacharjee (right) with Lee in Singapore. (AFP)
Singapore, Aug. 23: This was one engagement here that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was most enthusiastic ' and worried ' about.
“I must have a breakthrough with this,” he said at Bangkok on his way here. And, over lunch this afternoon, he persuaded Singapore’s most important person ' as far as foreign investment is concerned ' to go and look up Bengal.
Ho Ching has accepted his invitation to visit Calcutta for the first time. It is likely to happen later this year or early next year. Before that, she will send a team to explore investment opportunities in Bengal. The Bengal chief minister thought this was more than he had expected at his first meeting with her.
Ho Ching is the wife of Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong. But that description says nothing of her power here. The chief minister met Lee, former Prime Minister and currently senior minister Goh Chok Tong and two other ministers.
Tomorrow, he meets the city-state’s President, S.R. Nathan, and a couple of more ministers. Today, he also met several chief executives of major Singapore companies and will meet some more tomorrow.
Two memoranda of understanding for cooperation between Singapore and Bengal in health and education were also signed. But, in Bhattacharjee’s scheme of things, the meeting with Ho Ching was the most important item in his strategy to sell Bengal to investors from here.
Ho is the chairperson of Temasek Holdings, which is the most important investment arm of the Singapore government. Temasek Holdings and the Government Investment Corporation (GIC) together were given a special status in the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, which came into effect on August 1.
“Wherever Temasek goes,” said a top financial services expert, “the rest of the Singaporean investors follow.”
Local analysts say the agreement is a “revolutionary” one in the sense that its scope goes much beyond any free trade agreement. Singapore does not have an agreement of this type with any other country.
According to them, the Singapore-India agreement reflects a new thinking that was outlined about two years ago by Goh. Singapore needed a “hinterland” with a flying time of four to six hours, the former Prime Minister said.
Singapore’s new interest in India was inspired by its disappointments with both China and the US. In the US, the disillusionment came with the bursting of the dotcom bubble.
In China, Singaporean investors were said to have lost hundreds of billions of dollars they had invested in the showpiece Suzhou industrial park at Guanzhou in southern China. Hence the shift to India, whose economic emergence inspired a new hope.
And, Goh’s hinterland theory suggested Calcutta and Bengal as an ideal destination. It also coincided with the Manmohan Singh government’s “Look East” policy. At all meetings here, Bhattacharjee sought to stress that he was in complete agreement with the Indian Prime Minister’s policy.