Mamata Banerjee can sometimes seem endearingly like a deprived child let loose in an expensive toy shop. One moment she craves London, the next, it’s Switzerland. In a trice, her seemingly fickle attention has flickered off to Singapore. There, she first demands the Jurong bird park, then the night safari, then, perhaps both. That is not said in any spirit of mockery. On the contrary, the chief minister’s ebullience invites respect on two counts. First, high office hasn’t dimmed her capacity to be impressed. Second, she doesn’t seem to have any yearnings for herself. Whatever she wants is for West Bengal.
Having said that, let me quickly add that Singapore is impressive by any standards. Veteran Londoners are bowled over by its gleaming underground railway which is fast and punctual. I have also known hard-bitten New Yorkers refusing to leave because nowhere else in the world could their growing children thrive in such comfortable security. An Australian with the urge to sample Asia never ceased to lament Singapore wasn’t Asian. “Everything works!” he complained. Given these responses, it is especially easy for someone from Calcutta to be awestruck. He or she won’t even notice the reasons that provoked one of Lee Kuan Yew’s many uninvited biographers, an Australian historian called Michael D. Barr, recently to dismiss the city-state as “a sterile, soulless, racist society that has little respect for ordinary human values, let alone human rights.” Life in Calcutta is far too flawed for its citizens to affect fastidiousness.
The late Bidyut Ganguly, commerce and industry minister in the Left Front government until his tragic end in May 2000, proved the point. Everything about Singapore charmed him. Pulling out a fistful of business cards from his panjabi pocket, he told me proudly of all the memoranda of association he had signed with Singaporean businessmen. Their help would realize his dream of transforming Calcutta into an “intelligence city” he said, and then, after the accompanying Writers Buildings official had whispered in his ear, changed it to “intelligent city”. He was prouder still of plans to persuade Singapore’s Comfort cabs to run a fleet of similar streamlined blue taxis in Calcutta. According to India’s high commissioner, all Indians were dazzled by Singapore’s taxi service. Then run by the National Trades Union Congress (I think), it presented a glorious contrast to the battered black and yellow Ambassadors lumbering along our potholed roads.
It’s in the chief minister’s favour, as Singapore’s high commissioner, Lim Thuan Kuan, reminded Indians on the occasion of Singapore’s 49th national day (August 9), that in 2005 the two countries signed a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement. The “pre-establishment” clause in India’s very first CECA encourages additional foreign investment by treating companies from third countries that have a registered office in Singapore at par with Indian enterprises. A research paper by Jayan Jose Thomas predicted that the agreement heralded “a larger process of Asian integration” and that it would revitalize India’s economy with a flood of funds from abroad while guaranteeing Singapore permanent middleman’s fees.
It would be idle to pretend those hopes have been fully realized. The expectation in 2005 was that CECA would push up bilateral trade to more than $50 billion by 2010. It was $25 billion in 2012. Singapore’s investment in India was predicted to stand at $10 billion by 2015. As Lim disclosed, the 2013-14 figure was $6 billion though this was still the highest from any country. The lesson of every account at the national level showing a shortfall should not be lost on West Bengal.
A story I have told before highlights the difference between Singapore and India. Happy when J.R.D. Tata went to see him with an investment proposal, Goh Keng Swee, a former deputy prime minister whom many Singaporeans revere as the real architect of modernization, astonished the caller by saying he wanted Tata to make as much money as possible in Singapore. “No, I’m not joking,” he explained. “I am serious. We are starting from zero at Jurong. The place is a swamp. The more profit you make, the more the government’s share, and the more the workers get as bonus.” Tata had earlier submitted his plan to the Indian government which had lost it. Then, when another copy was resurrected and presented, Jagjivan Ram added insult to injury by asking Tata why he wanted to make so much money. “India’s loss was Singapore’s gain,” Goh confided in a friend. Syamal Gupta, Tata’s man on the spot, recalls sceptics called Jurong in west Singapore “Goh’s Folly” until it developed into a booming industrial hub when it became “Goh’s Glory”.
If some older Singaporeans still remember Gupta, it’s only because he and the Tatas performed. Promises alone make no impact. As Mamata Banerjee talks of a “nodal” office, she should be reminded that no one could be more forgotten than Kerala’s industries minister, P.K. Kunhalikutty, who also promised to make history. Visiting Singapore in November 1993 with a brochure that proclaimed “Setting up business in Kerala is an old European custom. Ask Vasco da Gama...”, he announced after talks with a range of local officials that Kerala would be the first Indian state to station an official in Singapore “to woo investors throughout the Asean (Association of South-east Asian Nations) region.” Nothing happened. Perhaps New Delhi scotched the plan, recalling Sir C.P. Ramaswami Iyer’s ambitions for the old Travancore state when he was dewan and fearing Trivandrum was getting above itself.
Another failure must be mentioned. At the end of 2008, Qin Guangrong, then governor of China’s Yunnan province, visited Calcutta on an aggressive trade and tourism mission. One reason why the proposed Kunming-Calcutta link has not developed could be that businessmen in the two places have not been sufficiently motivated. As Goh Chok Tong, probably the first Singapore prime minister to visit Calcutta (Lee Kuan Yew had come privately in 1959), told the Confederation of Indian Industry’s centenary meeting in January 1995, he expected contacts and opportunities arising out of his visit to forge a close partnership between the Indian and Singapore business communities. “This partnership is essential because ultimately it is the private sector and businessmen like you who cement the bilateral economic cooperation which our two governments desire.”
That’s for the record. Becoming quite huffy when I suggested Singapore didn’t have a private sector (in the laissez-faire sense), Lee Kuan Yew retorted that various companies were quoted on the stock exchange. That is so — but in practice, devices like “management shares”, government directors and general guidance ensure that the private sector in Asia’s booming free market economies works closely with governments that guarantee all the factors of production, distribution facilities and an ambience that is conducive to peaceful productivity.
Lim wrote, “It was from Calcutta that the founder of modern Singapore, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, sailed to Singapore in 1818, and from Calcutta that Singapore was governed between 1823 and 1867.” When I first went there in 1976 one could still see Calcutta’s imprint in heavy cast iron manhole covers, Usha fans with chunky regulators, and unimaginative public works department architecture. Chan Heng Wing, the foreign office diplomat who came with Goh Chok Tong, claimed to discern the blueprint for Singapore’s layout in the juxtaposition of the Maidan, Raj Bhavan, legislative assembly and high court. But all that means absolutely nothing to contemporary Singaporeans. It’s in our interest that Mamata Banerjee’s hopes fructify, but basking in the glory of the British connection won’t help. The past is no guide to the future. Whether or not Singapore invests in West Bengal will depend on this state’s ability to guarantee returns on capital that, say, Indonesia or China cannot match.