SICCI doors always open for Indian industry & business
'Singapore will continue to champion India’s case in ASEAN' 

SINGAPORE has always championed India’s case in ASEAN and this will continue to be the position. With its branding, Singapore can be used as the platform from which Indian products and services can be launched to the ASEAN and the rest of the world, says Mr. M. Rajaram, Chairman of the Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SICCI) in an interview with Amitabha Sen. Replying to a question how SICCI can help Indian IT firms, particularly those in the SME segment, enter the ASEAN markets, he said SICCI is more than prepared to assist, within its resources, Indian businesses seeking its assistance to gain entry into the ASEAN markets. 

AS: India is a major part of Asian story.  Singapore is a natural gateway connecting India to ASEAN and East Asia, as well as a launch pad for products and services. These were key messages that the Hon’ble Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Hsien Loong, then Deputy PM, sought to convey at the Standard Chartered Bank’s Singapore Conference in Mumbai last year. You being at the helm of affairs of country’s apex chamber, SICCI, how do you find the government of India, rather Indian business and industry grabbing this opportunity stated by Mr. Loong? 

MR: The CECA which is a FTA ‘plus’ agreement will facilitate both Indian and Singapore businesses to maximize this opportunity. India’s potential is well known. Its prowess in the IT industry has been established. What has not been exploited to the fullest is its potential in the manufacturing and services.  Singapore, with its branding can be used as the platform from which Indian products and services can be launched to the ASEAN and the rest of the world. It is hoped that the CECA will be concluded soon to act as an impetus to this opportunity. 

AS: You too have asserted in your speech after becoming the SICCI chairman that “India is experiencing great growth and has tremendous potentials….The Chamber is well poised to realize this potential and must make full use of this opportunity.”.  Could you tell how SICCI is helping the business and industry in both the countries? 

MR: The Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry ahs just celebrated its 80th Anniversary last year. The membership of the Chamber is varied and includes manufacturers, service providers, financial institutions and professional service providers. It is pertinent to note that we have many non Indian Companies in our membership, all of whom have a keen interest in the development of India and who are interested in participating in the development.  

The Chamber acts as a dissemination agency for information on investment opportunities in India and as a networking source for Indian and Singapore businesses. We also organize seminars on investment opportunities in India in addition to organizing trade missions to India. Many states undertake their own visit to India and the Chamber assists by organizing luncheons and seminars for the visiting delegations. The Chamber is a founding member and an integral part of the Singapore Business Federation in which I serve as one of the Vice-Chairman and for all activities related to the Indian sub continent, the Chamber is charged with coordinating and organising them. The Chamber has strong connection with various regional chambers in India and is in a good position to provide references to Singapore businessmen. 

The Chamber is also well poised to act as a ‘match-maker’ for businessmen in both countries.  

AS: Both India and ASEAN are opening up, reforming their economies and pursuing their path of globalization. The rapidly changing and highly competitive environment calls for countries to make many changes in their policies and strategies. Singapore, being India’s largest trading partner in the ASEAN region, assumes a significant role. As SICCI chief what changes in the policies and strategies you feel both the countries should take care to strengthen the bilateral relations? 

MR: Singapore has always championed India’s case in ASEAN and this will continue to be the position. Singapore values its relationship with India. The conclusion of CECA with Singapore and the early adoption of the open skies policy by India will bring the relationship to new heights. 

AS: Back to bilateral relations what would be your expectation from the Indian government and also from the government of Singapore to strengthen  this relationship further besides what these two government have already initiated? 

MR: As above. A visit by the Prime Minister of India to Singapore will help to further increase the level of cooperation. 

AS: Closely linked to this is Indo-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement which Mr. Lee feels will strategically anchor India’s position in Southeast Asia. How do you look at the future of Indo-Singapore FTA? 

MR: The opportunities are excellent. It has been negotiated at length. In so far as the business community is concerned, it is hoped that the implementation of the terms of the CECA will be smooth and there is a political will on both sides to overcome any implementation difficulties. 

AS: While talking about the scope of bilateral cooperation in various fields like highways, ports, healthcare, tourism etc, Information Technology needs a special mention in this respect. India has emerged as a global power in software to reckon with. Could you please tell us something about the probable areas of IT cooperation between these two countries and areas where the SMEs (of both the countries), in particular, could get involved?  

MR: As stated earlier, India’s strength and dominance in the field of IT is well known. However, all observers agree that much more can be done. In areas of hardware, India is lacking and the numbers in terms of Internet users and PC users are well below that of many countries. Disaster recovery operations are another area where the two countries can cooperate further. There are some rules in India that are presently acting as obstacles in attracting investments into these fields. The CECA will in all probability smoothen some of these problems but a more proactive approach to attracting investments into much needed IT infrastructure can be adopted. 

AS: Many an Indian IT companies, specially those in the SME segment, may look to SICCI for its guidance to make entry into the ASEAN region. To what extent SICCI can help them fulfill their dream?  

MR: The Chamber’s doors are open. We could provide the initial contacts and counseling but as it is a membership organisation, more can be done if they become SICCI members. The Chamber is more than prepared to assist , within its resources, Indian businesses seeking its assistance to gain entry into the ASEAN markets. 

AS: India, as you know, is emerging as a leading destination for BPO. Corporate entities in many a developed, industrialized countries like the US, the UK are more and more outsourcing their jobs to India to cut costs and improve their bottom lines. To what extent industry and business in Singapore consider India as a “outsourcing’” destination? You are interacting with other business and industry leaders in the ASEAN countries. How do you find the prospect of India as a BPO destination?  

MR: This is not an area where there is much scope, from my view point. There have been some amount of outsourcing but Singapore as a destination of investment, does not attract labour intensive industries and hence the limited scope for outsourcing. Back office work, with a high value addition cold possibly be a better option for increased prospects.  

AS: Besides IT, yet another crucial deciding factor to strengthen bilateral cooperation is intellectual property laws. It is strongly felt by many that for start-ups, Singapore serves as an ideal incubator to prototype innovative ideas and technologies. This is a promising way of marrying India’s large talent pool with Singapore’s emphasis on such industries and with the country’s framework of intellectual property protection. Your views please. 

MR: Singapore is an attractive destination for start-ups and incubation. There are various financial schemes and there is also an abundant pool of private equity investors who are interested in start ups. The IP regime also acts as a magnet for start-ups and international investors have found the IP protection in Singapore to be excellent. The IP laws will give much protection to Indian companies wishing to have their projects started or incubated in Singapore. 

AS: Last but not least, what would be your message to Indian business and industry to strengthen bilateral ties with their counterparts in Singapore? 

MR: The government-to- government relationship between Singapore and India is excellent and has never been better. The governments can only lay the framework for greater co-operation. The lifeblood of international commerce is the business community, not the governments. It is for the businesses to leverage on the framework and foundation laid by the government to increase trade and investment flows. No amount of FTA or co-operation agreements can increase businesses. I would urge all businesses from both the countries to uses the CECA to increase trade and investment flows and to provide feedbacks, through their respective business associations and chambers, on difficulties faced by them. The two governments have shown a willingness to solve difficult problems but the feedback from the business community must be forthcoming and business chambers must play a proactive role in this regard. The governments should also carve a role for the business chambers in increasing bilateral trade and investments.

May 21, 2005