Question: How would you characterise Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Malaysia?
Answer: There is no doubt that this visit was extremely significant. In many ways, it was also path-breaking.
Firstly, I think the two leaders established a close rapport with each other.
They had met each other in Naypyidaw (last year), but this was the first meeting — over three days, where they met at least thrice — so, I think it was a good meeting between the two of them. In fact, after the bilateral meeting in Putrajaya, they rode in the same car to Brickfields to inaugurate the Torana Gate. So, I am happy that both of them found in each other someone they could work with.
As you know, in 2010, we forged a strategic partnership. There was a lot of potential in it, but we couldn’t take it as high as we would have liked.
That is why both leaders felt we should delineate the steps for taking the strategic partnership to the next level. That is why the joint statement for enhanced strategic partnership was adopted.
On areas we are already collaborating, we want to intensify them, while starting cooperation in new areas.
We attended the Asean-India Summit, then the East Asia Summit. The next day was the bilateral visit. So, we were able to look at Malaysia as an important fulcrum in Asean.
We looked at issues relating to defence, as well as commercial, economic and investment (cooperation). We also looked at areas that we are already cooperating in, like public administration. In health, education, tourism and even human resource development, and culture, of course.
Both leaders inaugurated the Torana Gate. And, as both of them pointed out in their speeches, the gate is a symbol of close civilisational, historical and cultural links.
Question: Could you elaborate on the India’s keenness to cooperate in public administration?
Answer: A memorandum of understanding was signed between Pemandu (Performance Management and Delivery Unit) and Niti Aayog (National Institution for Transforming India Aayog). This is for project implementation monitoring. One of the things my prime minister identified was that in many cases, project implementation was slow in India. And he is very keen to speed it up. In fact, during his discussion with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, he pointed out that when he took over, India was building 2km of roads a day. Now, we are building almost 18km a day. That is the type of acceleration he is looking at.
The MoU with Pemandu is important because there will be an India-Malaysia collaboration on how to speed up implementation (of projects).
Secondly, and importantly, at least two Indian states — Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh — are keen to engage with Pemandu.
In public administration, we have a very active collaboration. We have a JWG (joint working group) meeting every year, and India is happy to learn from the Malaysian experience, like in e-governance. While Malaysia is keen to train its civil servants in English (to boost their proficiency in the language).
Question: Modi expressed his wish for a Malaysian company to build an international convention centre in New Delhi. Why is that?
Answer: One of the most important areas of India-Malaysia cooperation is the economy and investment. This is something both prime ministers discussed during the visit. Modi was keen on Malaysian companies and investors coming into India again because we have more than US$7 billion (RM30 billion) worth of Malaysian investments in India. In addition to this, Malaysian companies have undertaken at least US$6 billion to US$7 billion worth of projects in India. CIDB Malaysia (Construction Industry Development Board) and its companies have undertaken at least US$5.5 billion (worth of projects). We want this sort of engagement to be kick-started.
Malaysian companies are still implementing projects, but in the last couple of years, I think there has been a slight slowdown because there were some bottlenecks on the Indian side and some constraints on the Malaysian side.
This time, Modi gave a reassurance that the initiatives he is undertaking — like the initiative to build 100 smart cities, the initiative to build expressways and the digital link and skill development — would be of interest to Malaysia.
Modi had told Najib that Malaysia had built excellent infrastructure, like the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre, so (Malaysian investors) should come to Delhi and build our convention centre. I think this is a big step forward because having a Malaysian-built convention centre in Delhi would be a strong symbol of our friendship.
Apart from that, there are also other projects that Malaysian firms are interested in, like expressways, housing and railway station development.
India is also looking at railway projects in Malaysia. Ircon International ltd (a rail engineering firm owned by the government of India) has been in Malaysia since 1988,
and it has just finished the Seremban-Gemas (double-tracked) line. And they are looking at another line, Serendah-Port Klang-Seremban.
The way the discussions went, I feel, will unlock this whole area
of investments between the two countries.
There is a big (Indian investment) presence here — about US$2.2 billion to US$2.3 billion, I think.
Question: Defence and security cooperation is rising. Could you elaborate on that?
Answer: Defence ties got a huge boost when Najib was defence minister.
He had visited India (in 2006) and engaged us, and that was when our defence relations took off. So, Najib played a vital role in where our ties are right now.
Indian air force pilots trained Malaysian pilots to fly the Sukhoi SU-30 jet fighters between 2008 and 2010.
This time, we agreed to upgrade our joint exercises, the Harimau Shakti, to a company level and, later, to a tri-services level.
We have also agreed to set up a SU-30 forum. The forum is to see how we can work together on issues like safety, maintenance and repairs. It is good to exchange information because we have the same equipment. So, the cooperation will not stop at the training of pilots.
Malaysia and India have a synergy in types of (military) equipment.
You have Mikoyan MiG-29s, we have MiG29s. You have SU-30s, we have Su-30s. You have Lockheed C-130s, we have C-130s.
And then, there are the submarines. You have the Scorpenes, and we will get the Scorpenes next year. When we have synergy in equipment, it is good for us to discuss them with each other and collaborate.
One of the things Modi emphasised during the talks was the “Make in India” initiative. The initiative will include defence.
We have the capacity to absorb technology. Our engineers can handle it. Making things (like military equipment) in India will incur low costs, and that is a huge advantage that we enjoy.
When we launched our Mars orbiter, it was at a tenth of the cost of what Nasa (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) could do.
So, I am optimistic that when India and Malaysia start collaborating in defence, and we open our economy to allow investment in the defence industry, not only will we have good equipment, it will also be at a low cost.
Question: What about people-to-people relations? There is a large Indian community in Malaysia; does India hope to leverage this to boost ties between the two countries?
Answer: The community in Malaysia has preserved its culture for more than 100 years. This is remarkable; it is not everywhere that we have this preservation of culture.
The other aspect is that many Malaysian Indians continue to have ties in India, which is good.
Engaging with the Indian community here is an important part of our relationship with Malaysia.
It was unprecedented that Indian community associations came together — you have Malayalees, Telugus, Gujaratis, Bengalis and Sikhs — to organise an event at the Mines Convention Centre (to welcome Modi). About 15,000 people attended, and Modi spoke to them for about 45 minutes.
Modi also met members of parliament and MIC leaders, including Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam. And the message he got was that they were keen to engage with India.
Predominantly, the community here comes from South India. But India is much larger, and we invite Malaysians to engage not just with South India, but other parts, too, like our government in New Delhi.
Opportunities are huge, and it is important that the community does not focus only on South India. They should look at India in its totality.
Some people think everyone in India eats tosai and idli, not realising that wheat and roti are also available (in the north).
So, that’s the challenge. People should look at India in totality. Once people realise that, tremendous opportunities will open up.
One area I would like to mention is healthcare.
We have good engagement with Malaysia in traditional healthcare. We have an MoU on this.
Early last year, under the Itec (Indian Technical Economic Cooperation) programme, we sent an Ayurvedic doctor, who is attached to the Cheras Rehabilitation Hospital and Port Dickson Hospital. We also sent two Ayurveda therapists to these two hospitals.
We have also gifted a Shirodhara machine.
At Malaysia’s request, we have also agreed to send a Siddha doctor. Siddha is also a stream of medicine, like Ayurveda, but it is popular here because it is from South India.
Question: What about conventional medicine? A lot of Malaysian doctors are trained in India; what is the cooperation there?
Answer: About 1,300 Malaysians go to India every year to study medicine. A few universities have courses only for Malaysians, and a few, like Manipal, have set up campuses in Malaysia. I am told a large portion of doctors in Malaysia trained in Indian universities.
But a matter related to that is education. During Modi's visit, he raised with Najib the matter of, while Indian medical degrees are recognised, most non-medical ones are not.
Now is the time to look at mutual recognition of degrees, for example in engineering and IT, and both prime ministers agreed it should be looked into.
The world knows India’s prowess in engineering and IT. Even the United States recognises our engineering degrees, but Malaysia, as well a few other countries, do not.
Naturally, Malaysians hesitate to study in India, and this is something we want to overcome.
If you look at it, Malaysia will benefit a lot from this. And your prime minister was receptive to this idea, and mandated the Malaysian Qualifications Agency to look into this.
Coming back to medicine, a lot of Indian pharmaceutical companies are looking at Asean. Affordable medicine for the people is important to us, and I am sure you have the same sentiments here also. Everybody wants inexpensive medicine, especially generic medicine. So we have a synergy of views there.
Question: People are viewing India as the other Asian superpower after China. How does India view itself in the Asean region? Does it view China as a rival?
Answer: There is space in Southeast Asia for China and India. We do not see China as a rival.
When Modi took over, one of the first foreign ministers to visit was China’s, and we have exchanged visit to each other’s countries. But we are trying to bridge some issues.
Our problem has been at the border areas. But we are trying to go beyond that — to have tranquility at the border while moving forward in other areas. Trade and engagement are increasing with China.
When we look at Asean, it is a large region with a diverse population. So we want peace and stability in this part of the world.
Our view on the South China
Sea issue has been articulated by Modi and other ministers — on the code of conduct, on the declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea and on the importance of adhering to international law.
That said, the fact that India was included in the East Asia Summit (10 years ago) showed Asean felt it was important to engage with India. Now, the logic is even more because our economy is growing at 7.4 per cent. Maybe we could have done more in the last 10 years, but there is no doubt that Asean will benefit from engaging with India.
When we come to the table with Asean, we bring not just investments, but also tradition, a value system, our strength of democracy and rule of law, and our cultural links.
Look at Cambodia, Indonesia and, of course, Malaysia. We have cultural links that are phenomenal. So, our relationship with Asean will be multidimensional.