Mr Kumaran Periasamy, High Commissioner of India to Singapore, is optimistic about enhancing India – Singapore relations, as he says both countries are well-connected and there are many areas that have abundant opportunities for mutual benefit. To know his ideas on this, read his interview….
- Could you please tell our readers about your childhood days …
I was born and brought up in Madurai, a medium sized city in central Tamil Nadu, and did my schooling at the Central School (Kendriya Vidyalaya) there. I have two sisters. My parents were government employees and we had a modest, middle-class upbringing. They constantly emphasised the importance of hard work and a good education. I went to Chennai to do my Engineering at IIT, Madras (Chennai). I then moved to New Delhi to join the Indian Foreign Service.
2. What was the inspiration for you to take on to the Foreign Service?
To be frank, there was no particular inspiration. The Civil Services have always been an attractive career option, given the vast range of experiences they offer. My parents were keen that one of their children join the Civil Services. They were able to persuade me to give it a try. They were very happy that I was able to get into the Foreign Service. To add to their happiness, my first sister got into the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) two years later.
3. To enter IIT one needs high calibre. So you should have been a very good student in school and college…
Yes, I was a promising student at school and I got good support from my parents and teachers. I also had the good fortune of having friends whom I could consult and get advice from, during the course of my preparation. In India, competitive exams such as the IIT-JEE and the Civil Services Examination attract a large number of aspirants and you can never be sure how well you will perform. I was fortunate to get into the Foreign Service.
4.How was your training experience in the Foreign Service?
I had no clear idea of the kind of work the Foreign Service was involved in, until I joined Service in 1992. I had never travelled abroad earlier, nor had any of my family members. When I was asked to travel to Egypt for my first posting in 1994, it was an entirely new experience. I was fortunate to have had my training and initial years under extremely capable and supportive Ambassadors. Thanks to them, I was able to get a good foundation and do well in subsequent years. Looking back at the last 28 years, I would consider myself extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to join the Foreign Service. Incidentally, the IFS was created as a result of a cabinet decision in 1946 and we now celebrate IFS Day on 9 October every year.
5. Please share about your initial experiences as a diplomat…
As I mentioned earlier, my first posting was at our Embassy in Cairo (Egypt). It is a large Embassy which gets several young IFS officers for training every year. A supportive environment with good bosses and like-minded peers gave me an enjoyable and productive start. I spent three and a half years in Egypt. We are confirmed in the Foreign Service only after we learn the allotted foreign language and clear the designated examination, which is of a particular standard. I was allotted Arabic, a language that is considered difficult for most Indian diplomats. After a two-year course at the American University in Cairo, I could speak, read and write Arabic. My next posting was Libya, where I continued to use my Arabic skills for the next three years. I got married during the course of this posting and my wife joined me in Tripoli. We have warm memories of our stay there and it pains us to see the turmoil in that country today.
6. What are the other countries that you have been posted to?
After Egypt and Libya, I served in Brussels (Belgium). After that, we went back to India for four years, out of which two years were at the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi and the other two were as the Regional Passport Officer in Bangalore. Our next three postings were Islamabad (Pakistan), Washington DC (USA), Colombo (Sri Lanka). I was then posted to New Delhi, where we stayed for three years. Following this, I was posted to Qatar as India’s Ambassador and we were at Doha for nearly four years. We arrived in Singapore in mid-July 2020.
7. What were your impressions about Singapore before you came here?
I have visited Singapore earlier as part of delegations for official dialogues during my posting in Delhi. Although these were short visits, it was clear that Singapore is a well-organised country and a well-connected regional hub with all systems delivering efficiently for the people. Singapore has indeed been an amazing success story – a small country with virtually no natural resources, and the per-capita income and the economic and social success it has been able to achieve is awesome. We are still cautious about going out to crowded places, although Singapore’s success in containing the Covid-19 pandemic has been impressive. We hope to be able to visit more places and explore the country, and the broader ASEAN region, in the coming months.
8. How do you think Singapore and India can be connected?
Singapore and India have had a remarkable historical connection and continue to be closely linked in many areas. Our political leadership is closely aligned in its thinking, as we strongly believe in a rules-based international order. We believe in stability and security for all in the region, with due emphasis on maritime security and unimpeded trade flows through international waterways. We see Singapore as a springboard for our ASEAN strategy and work closely to enhance our trade and investment partnership. A number of emerging areas such as start-ups, fintech, data science, artificial intelligence and machine-learning offer exciting opportunities for cooperation. We also have a growing defence partnership underpinned by regular dialogue at high levels, covering a number of areas including training, joint exercises, ship visits etc. As you know, cultural and people-to-people links are one of our biggest strengths, but we have to develop these further and engage the younger generation on both sides in the coming years.
9. What are your plans to further the strong Singapore-India cultural relations?
There is an active cultural agenda in my mind. We celebrated the India-Qatar Year of Culture in 2019 in Doha, where I was posted before coming to Singapore. The Embassy worked closely with the Indian community there and were able to organise over 40 events during the course of the year. Based on the ideas and experience gained from our work in Qatar, I hope to work with the Indian community in Singapore and create opportunities to host quality cultural events here. I visited the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society (SIFAS) a few days ago and met the members of the Management Committee. I am also meeting representatives from a number of other Indian community associations to explore various options. I am sure that, once the Covid-19 pandemic recedes, we will be able to put together a busy cultural calendar.
10. You have assumed office during a pandemic situation, with limited movement between Singapore and India. Do you have any plans to enhance the current situation?
India and Singapore have enjoyed excellent connectivity in pre-Covid times, with 16 Indian cities having direct flights to Singapore and over 225 flights in each direction. It is indeed a difficult situation for the whole world now. The situation in India is challenging, given the large number of daily new cases. But the recovery rate and the mortality rate are much better compared to most other countries with a large number of cases. We are also seeing some early signs of economic revival. So I do see a silver lining. Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, our focus has been on taking care of the needs of our migrant workers and to organise repatriation flights for those interested in returning to India. We work closely with the Ministry of Manpower (MoM) and other agencies in the Government of Singapore and appreciate the support we receive from them. As on date, about 22,000 people have gone to India. The reasons for their return range from visiting ailing relatives, attending funerals of loved ones, loss of jobs etc. We still have over 12,000 registrations with the High Commission for people wishing to travel to India. So we will continue to direct a significant portion of the resources of the High Commission towards repatriation work. In addition, there are people who wish to return to Singapore from India and are unable to do get entry permits. We take up deserving cases with the Government of Singapore and request them to consider such cases on humanitarian grounds. As Singapore looks at restarting limited numbers of flights to various destinations and reclaim its status as a travel hub, we are hopeful that some flights from India can also be included, of course, with the necessary safeguards and testing protocols.
11. Apart from these what are your other plans?
There are a number of areas that offer opportunities for India and Singapore to work together. We had a meeting a few days ago at the Singapore Manufacturing Federation and discussed the potential for a manufacturing partnership. Singapore’s financial hub status, high levels of success in developing vocational skills and knowledge of the ASEAN market, combined with India’s long term-term growth prospects, land availability, and a large and young workforce willing to work at affordable wages offers complementarity that can be exploited for mutual benefit. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, there are a number of areas such as research and innovation, start-ups, fintech, artificial intelligence, logistics, pharmaceuticals and vaccines, etc. that offer huge opportunities for partnership. I recall a comment by Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Foreign Minister, that the world is moving from a ‘just in time’ logistics model to a ‘just in case’ logistics model that increasingly emphasises reliability and resilience to unexpected disturbances. India, as a country with shared values and a significant land area and geographical spread, can be a useful partner in this regard. So, overall I see a lot of opportunities for cooperation between India and Singapore. We hope to pursue as many of these as possible in the coming months and years.