By Bhagya Senaratne
The Third South Asian Diaspora Convention (SADC) was convened in Singapore on 18 and 19 July. The convention was organized by the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), a research institute within the National University of Singapore (NUS) and was themed 'Growth through interaction: The South Asian Opportunity.' A large event in scale, the convention brought together approximately 1,000 distinguished delegates and more than 50 of the region's leading policymakers, business leaders, academics and civil society leaders. Distinguished speakers such as the Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe addressed the convention among other eminent personalities.
The speakers discussed and debated critical topics in business, economy and policy that would affect the region's future and its role in global geopolitics in the 21st century. The South Asian region is vibrant with multicultural and over 2,000 multi-ethnic flavours blending together to make it a unique hotspot of human diversity. According to the World Bank, this unique region consisting of eight countries – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – is the fastest growing region in the world. Though India has a substantial share in the region's growth, other countries are also seeing significant GDP growth.
As a region that is vibrant and increasingly developing, it is important that it convenes to address issues pertaining to the geo-economic and geo-political challenges affecting South Asia and the world. And the convention sought to address certain key questions such as what are the key engines of growth in South Asia at a time of global economic slowdown? To what extent is South Asia's growth sustainable and what opportunities are there for both global corporates as well as small and medium enterprises to benefit from the growth? How can the regions' economies further open up to international trade, investment and finance and improve its prospects for the acquisition of modern technology? How will a more integrated and connected South Asian region expand the capacity of individual economies in the region? Will South Asia's future be the world's too? How is China's growing presence in South Asia impacting business and trade in the region? It is important for this diverse region to come together and discuss the salient issues and identify areas of improvement and future collaboration.
The two-day convention was held under 11 sessions namely the inaugural, Investing in Infrastructure, Regional Integration, Captains of Industry: Catalyst for Change, Geopolitics of South Asia, Law and Business in South Asia, Diaspora and Citizenship, Partnership in Education, Entrepreneurship and Start-Ups, India-China Business Dialogue and finally the Book Launch and Reception.
Centrality of Sri Lanka
The inaugural session witnessed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe addressing the delegates as the guest of honour. In his address, the Prime Minister focused on the centrality of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean and how it can catalyse its growth and promote foreign investments in the country. He elaborated on how major powers such as China, India and the United States are focusing their grand strategies towards Sri Lanka and how Sri Lanka as an island that is situated only a few nautical miles away from the busy east-west maritime shipping route can leverage on this potential.
Wickremesinghe further concentrated on Sri Lanka's growth model, investment priorities and shared his aspirations on partnerships with Singapore and South Asia to fulfil Sri Lanka's 'Wonder of Asia' vision. He also spoke about the challenges which Sri Lanka faces in pursuit of the vision and outlined how these challenges may require innovative regional solutions beyond the nation. And it is for purposes such as overcoming these challenges that the region needs to converge.
Titled investing in infrastructure, the second session focused on the scope for diaspora and international investment into South Asia's infrastructure which is lagging behind its regional competitors. According to World Bank statistics, the South Asia region currently spends only 3.5 per cent of its GDP on developing infrastructure whereas the region needs to spend around 7.5 per cent of GDP to maintain the projected economic development trajectory. The region therefore effectively needs to double its infrastructure spending if it wants to fully harness its economic potential.
Today, the commerce, industrial and manufacturing sectors and exports ride on the back of good infrastructure. Therefore, if the region intends to become a hub by attracting logistical supplies, then the region will definitely have to improve and upgrade its infrastructure and internal connectivity. This is especially true for Sri Lanka which is aiming to become an aviation and maritime hub in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
The keynote address of the session was delivered by Singapore's Minister for Trade and Industry S. Iswaran while the principal speaker was the Minister for Development Strategies and International Trade, Malik Samarawickrama. The panel discussion with representatives from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI), International Finance Corporation (IFC), ICBC Bank, IDFC India and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) shared their perspectives on how South Asian countries can optimize on their investment led growth strategy.
The third session centred on regional integration. As is commonly known, South Asia as a region is the least internally integrated of the world's many regions. However, its vast geography ensures South Asia has an array of neighbours that include some of Asia's most economically vibrant as well as politically sensitive regions, ranging from the Far East to Southeast Asia and the Middle East. The perceptions and policies of South Asia's neighbours towards the region influence its strategic dynamics significantly.
The session discussed the potential for the evolution of 'One South Asia' as a contiguous sub-continental economy. Ambassador Ong Keng Yong (Executive Deputy Chairman, RSIS & Ambassador-at-Large, and Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs) delivered the opening address at the plenary, followed by the principal speaker for the session, Senior Adviser to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ali Akbar Velayati. Panellists for the session represented the United States, Iran, Japan and Malaysia on the prospects for regional interaction and integration. The panel further discussed the twin problems of external politics that impede economic integration and the domestic political ramifications of opening up markets to South Asia's neighbours.
Organized parallel to the session on 'Regional Integration', the session titled 'Captains of Industry: Catalyst for Change' raised important questions on the resilience of industries to compete in challenging economic conditions and their ability to absorb new entrants. The experiences also call for the need for corporations to innovate in order to adapt to changing circumstances. Industry leaders at the panel shared their insights and experiences on how entrepreneurship can serve as a catalyst for change, especially for society.
Binod Chaudhary and other principal speakers narrated their experience and demonstrated how the private sector, in collaboration with the South Asian diaspora, can drive profound change in South Asia. The panel consisted of eminent corporate personalities who articulated their personal views on how business in South Asia need not be 'business-as-usual'. The session was chaired by Piyush Gupta, CEO and Director of DBS Group.
A convention on South Asia will not be complete without a discussion on its geopolitical importance. The region continues to search for almost-elusive conditions of peace and stability, with the member-States struggling to contain ethnic strife, religious radicalism and natural disasters. The rise of China is redrawing the entire neighbourhood. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is moving closer to Washington and shifting away from a foreign policy approach of balancing and hedging, instead favouring a global leadership role for India. In Sri Lanka, the presidential election deposed a pro-China government and installed an administration more inclined towards India. China's rise has overshadowed, to a certain extent, the long-standing antagonism between Delhi and Islamabad over Kashmir, but India-Pakistan relations remain tenuous.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, greater Chinese influence is perceived positively. The search for pan-South Asia peace is made even more difficult by the lack of trust among several member-States, which affects progress towards institutional cooperation. The keynote speaker for the session was Singapore's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan. Principal speakers included Minister of Foreign Affairs Mangala Samaraweera and Nepal's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Kamal Thapa. Panellists from the region discussed proposals and suggestions by the principal speakers on building a peaceful and stable South Asian region. The session was chaired by Regional Editor, Time Inc. Zoher Abdoolcarim.
The sixth session of the South Asian Diaspora Convention focused on Law and Business in South Asia. As regions integrate and businesses become global in nature, it is without a doubt that South Asian companies and countries grapple with sophisticated mechanisms to deal with international disputes through consensus. International commercial arbitration, being a consensual means of dispute resolution, has binding effect only by virtue of a complex framework of national and international laws. These include national arbitration laws, international conventions and institutional arbitrations.
In the last two decades, there has been a tremendous proliferation of the number of cases being settled through arbitration and similar mechanisms in South Asia. The session highlighted the lack of effective legal frameworks in some of these countries, which may affect the economic and commercial growth and investment in those States, and show how suitable improvements can be made. Singapore's Senior Minister of State for Finance and Law Indranee Rajah, Sri Lanka's 43rd Chief Justice Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake and Member of the Indian National Congress and India's former Minister of Corporate Affairs Sachin Pilot were the principal speakers for the session.
This was followed by a panel discussion with renowned lawyers and practitioners in the field, moderated by Lim SeokHui, CEO of the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC) and Singapore International Mediation Centre (SIMC). Of interest to the participants will be the expertise that SIAC and SIMC had gained in dealing with a number of cases.
Titled Diaspora and Citizenship, the seventh session of the Convention featured a plenary speech by Dr. BK Modi, Chairman of Smart Global Holdings Pte Ltd and Founder of Global Citizen Forum. The session also featured two recent works by South Asians. Dr. Devesh Kapur from the Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania, USA shared insights from his book, The Other One Percent: Indians in America. Dr. Didar Singh, Secretary General of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) also related his discussion to his recent publication on Politics of Migration: Indian Emigration in a Globalised World. The session's main focus was on issues concerning the South Asian diaspora communities and how citizenship is being redefined by trans-nationalist movements. The session was moderated by Prof. Subrata Kumar Mitra, Director and Visiting Research Professor, ISAS.
While South Asia has made tremendous gains in expanding access to schooling over the past decade, poor quality education still needs to be addressed. Therefore the eighth session of the South Asian Diaspora Convention focused on Partnership in Education. According to the World Bank Report, nearly 13 million children aged eight to 14 years in South Asia do not receive schooling, while the quality of education for those who do attend school is low and fails to equip students with adequate skills to join the workforce in the future.
Education has emerged as a focal point for greater interface between South Asia and Southeast Asia. South Asian youth have found Singapore and several parts of Southeast Asia to be sources of quality higher education. At the same time, institutional educational partnerships between South and Southeast Asia are flourishing. The panellists examined the trends and characteristics of evolving partnerships in their countries and focused on the lessons from the South Asian experiences. Prof. Tan Chorh Chuan, President of the National University of Singapore, spoke on the university's role in economic and societal development. A distinguished panel of speakers from the UK, India and Malaysia further discussed the issues. The session was chaired by Dr. S. Narayan, Visiting Senior Research Fellow, ISAS.
There is a broad consensus among stakeholders on the importance of encouraging start-ups across South Asia. A region as diverse and vibrant as South Asia should encourage and deliver mechanisms that promote such initiatives. Therefore the ninth session was on 'Entrepreneurship and Start-Ups'. Such ventures not only provide avenues for channelling the region's creative entrepreneurial energy but also to create new jobs and expand incomes. On 16 January the 'Start-up India' initiative was launched, with the aim of fostering entrepreneurship and promoting innovation by creating an ecosystem that is conducive for the growth of start-ups.
The objective is one of moulding a nation of job creators rather than mere job seekers. Incubators are also proliferating in Pakistan. The phenomenon is part of the global wave of shared office spaces, incubator programmes, accelerators and university labs which cultivate entrepreneurship and innovation. The hope is to kick-start local tech-ecosystems and create South Asia's 'Silicon Valley'. In Bangladesh, the 'Connecting Start-Ups Bangladesh' initiative has gained ground through the government's investment in Software Technology Parks across the country.
In Sri Lanka, powerful angel networks have emerged. The session led by Mohandas Pai, Chairman, Aarin Capital Partners & Manipal Global Education India discussed how the start-up landscape in the region is evolving, and how entrepreneurs will transform South Asia into an innovation-driven economy. It features a distinguished panel of speakers from India, Singapore and New York. The session was chaired by Venugopal Gupta, CEO of 'Business Parables', India.
The South Asian Diaspora Convention also featured an India-China Business Dialogue which permitted business leaders from both countries to discuss the potential for collaboration and cooperation in infrastructure, education, environment and the economy.
It is a wonderful initiative for the diaspora to engage and interact with policymakers, businessmen and a variety of other professionals from a wide range of fields. It created a unique high impact networking and business opportunity, fostering greater investment in the region. By attending the conference investors were able to learn about investment opportunities in the South Asian region. Policymakers and academics and a wide variety of other professionals were able to network with future partners in the region and establish impactful partnerships.
As a place to network, it permits business, political, cultural and social leaders of South Asia and its diaspora to come together in a single location to iron out issues and learn more of the possibilities the region entails.
Conventions such as this are important for the region which has immense potential in leading the world's economy. For this purpose, there are a few nittygritties the region as a whole needs to iron out such as developing its infrastructure, strengthening its laws for the establishment of businesses and dispute settlement mechanisms.
The convention is equally important for it brings together different segments of the region to simply network and share their ideas and opinions. Therefore, organizing a convention of this nature and magnitude needs to be commended for it encourages the diaspora citizens of the region to look towards their region of origin and recognize areas they can invest or work on.