New Indian High Commissioner takes charge

V.K. SANTOSH KUMAR

Covid-19 has made it difficult for embassies to function smoothly. New Indian High Commissioner to Singapore Periasamy Kumaran admits his office too is facing challenges brought on by the pandemic.

But he pointed out that "India-Singapore relations are one of the smoothest" and so the Indian High Commission (IHC) has few issues dealing with the current crisis.

"There is no contest, no competition, no strain, nothing," he told tabla! during an interview on Monday. "It is one of the smoothest bilateral relationships India has with any country.

"There are issues like people wanting to return to India. But these are peculiar challenges thrown up by Covid-19."

According to the career diplomat, who joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1992, "it is so easy to have a discussion with Singaporean leaders because of the long-standing warmth of the relationship and the close people-to-people links".

He said: "India is not a stranger here. It is a well-understood entity. Developments are followed up on almost a daily basis. So, no introduction is required. You just jump into a conversation straight away."

Like Mr Kumaran did when he presented his credentials to President Halimah Yacob at the Istana on Aug 25. "We had a very good conversation," he said. "She has extremely warm feelings towards India and was very kind.

"The warmth of the India-Singapore ties is extremely clear. At every opportunity, I have witnessed that."

Mr Kumaran also interacted with Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan recently when Dr Balakrishan went to the IHC to sign the condolence register following the death of former Indian President Pranab Mukherjee.

"We had a brief but pleasant conversation where the minister fondly recalled his interactions with Mr Mukherjee," said Mr Kumaran, 51, who in his previous posting was India's Ambassador to Qatar.

As he eases into his new assignment in Singapore, the High Commissioner said his biggest problem is "the inability to work in the usual way".

"We are trying to manage wherever possible with virtual meetings," he said. "But it is challenging to start in a place where you can't engage with the community in a large way."

In recent weeks, he and the IHC staff have been engaged in repatriating Indian nationals stranded in Singapore.

"We have sent over 17,000 people home (from Singapore since the Vande Bharat repatriation flights started in May)," said Mr Kumaran.

"But there are 11,000 more who are registered to go back. It's tough because some of them change their minds or want to go a month later. They want to wait and watch."

There is also a scramble for tickets to Tamil Nadu, especially to Tiruchirappalli. "The numbers to other states are much smaller," he said. "What we normally do is to try and do hopping flights to multiple cities so that the flights can get filled up."

The IHC is also facing other challenges, such as making arrangements for institutional quarantine at various destinations in India.

"The fact that people need to quarantine at the point of arrival and not at their final destination is a big challenge," said Mr Kumaran.

Last week, the Tamil Nadu government also came out with a new guideline that all passengers must undergo the Covid-19 RT-PCR (reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction) test before they board flights to cities in the state.

"Singapore still does not allow Covid-19 testing as an elective," said Mr Kumaran. "It can only be done on the recommendations of a doctor on the basis of symptoms. So, we told the Tamil Nadu government that we need more time to make arrangements.

"September 7 was the deadline but we managed to get a week's extension. I am happy that Singapore readily agreed to our request and has just announced the opening of a number of pre-departure test (PDT) centres for Indian nationals."

The vast majority of people who want to go to India are Indian nationals working or staying in Singapore. The other group is Singapore nationals who are OCI (Overseas Citizen Of India) card holders.

Recently the HCI began to accommodate business visa holders too.

"Our immediate response has been to get people home - to a place where they feel safe and have families," said Mr Kumaran. "We are also providing basic survival assistance to Indian nationals who are stranded here."

The IHC is also trying its best to help migrant Indian workers who have been affected by Covid-19.

"It is difficult for the workers as they often do not have significant savings to help them tide over the crisis," said Mr Kumaran. "They are dependent on monthly earnings.

"I am happy that the Ministry of Manpower's Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC) is helping them. Our own community organisations and joint organisations such as SICCI and SINDA are raising money to support workers who have lost jobs."

In recent weeks, Singapore has also seen the issue of competition from foreign workers return to the public spotlight. Many have claimed that foreign professionals take away jobs from locals and that deals like the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) give preferential treatment to Indian nationals.

Mr Kumaran feels this is clearly an emotional issue, as it is in other places in the world.

"The challenge for the Singapore Government is to address these sentiments in a substantive way and, at the same time, act on the basis of evidence and not perceptions," he said.

"Singapore clearly is a great beneficiary of an open system through which it has managed to stay ahead of the curve and maintain its status as an open economy and financial centre. As a services hub, it has also managed to attract high-quality talent from many other markets over the years.

"To keep its competitiveness, past processes and policies have to continue. The need of the hour is balancing in a way that substantially addresses the concerns. I'm sure the Singapore Government will find a way to deal with both sides."

In the coming months, Mr Kumaran expects the India-Singapore ties to be further strengthened.

"As part of our Act East Policy, we continue to engage the Asean region very strongly," he said. "We consider Singapore the gateway.

"The political engagement with Singapore has been growing from strength to strength. We had two visits by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2018 and we are looking to having a meeting of the Joint Commission, which is headed by the foreign ministers of both countries, in the next few months.

"We also have the annual defence ministers' dialogue scheduled. Hopefully, it will happen before the end of the year."

The High Commissioner added that the Indian side has also identified a number of areas for cooperation, such as new and emerging technologies, manufacturing, trade and investment and cultural exchange.

On a personal level, Mr Kumaran wants to listen, get feedback from the ground and engage with as many people as possible.

"My basic approach will be to listen to the community and the interlocutors from the host government, develop agendas and systematically go after them in the three years available," he said.

"I'm also looking forward to trying things Singapore is known for."

Mr Kumaran, who grew up in Madurai, studied in Chennai and went to work in New Delhi, is especially keen to meet the Indian community in Singapore, "which is extremely respected and highly qualified".

"The kind of concentration of Indian professionals here is amazing," said the High Commissioner, who is married to homemaker Ritu, 47 (the couple have two sons - Aditya, 18, and Mayank, 16). "You don't see this in any large city. It is one of the most impressive collections of Indian professionals anywhere in the world."

santosh@sph.com.sg

"High Commissioner Kumaran is a great human being and an asset to the Indian diaspora. His smart work and people-connect initiatives in his previous roles as Ambassador to Qatar and Deputy High Commissioner to Sri Lanka were much appreciated. It's our privilege that he is the new Indian High Commissioner to Singapore."

- Mr Raghavendra Shastry, adviser (2009 to 2012) to India's former foreign minister S.M. Krishna, who has known Mr Kumaran for the past 10 years

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