South Asia should look east for lessons in model behaviour

India and Pakistan could learn some lessons about Malaysia and Singapore's mutually beneficial relationship to ease tensions.

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The dividing line at Wagah-Attari, India and Pakistan’s only land crossing on its 2,700km long border, has a distinguishing feature like no other. On either side there are rows of seating for spectators, who watch the absurd theatrics of enmity choreographed by opposing security forces every evening.

An average of 200 travellers a day make the crossing from a population of 1.4 billion, reflecting the general state of poor relations between India and Pakistan.

This is in sharp contrast to the vibrancy, hustle and bustle at the Malaysia-Singapore Woodlands border. From a population of approximately 35 million, 60,000 vehicles cross either side every day, carrying people and freight. City buses ply across. Thousands cross on foot. The activity is thunderous.

Demonstrating a civility of relations, the seamless immigration and security procedures handling this large transfer illustrate how Malaysia and Singapore have raised their economic interdependence to share prosperity among their people. They have in the process, brought down the walls of suspicion and hate.

Data from Malaysia’s Department of Statistics, for instance, shows that bilateral trade between Malaysia and Singapore was valued at $53.2 billion in 2012-13.

Malaysia remains Singapore’s largest trading partner, while Singapore is Malaysia’s second largest trading partner after China. Investment ratios are equally high. Compare this with India and Pakistan, where trade between two of the most populous countries in the world remains at a minuscule $2.5 billion.

Mistrust, different aspirations, demographics and mutual suspicions make for many similarities in the independence of Pakistan in 1947 and that of Singapore in 1965. The stories diverge dramatically from thereon.

While Singapore and Malaysia compliment each other in driving the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to its full potential, the India-Pakistan conflict prevents meaningful growth in South Asia. Consequently, it remains among the least connected regions, with the largest underprivileged population in the world.

Notwithstanding the multiplicity of conflicts in the Asean region – like several border disputes, overlapping maritime boundary claims and some ethnic divisions – the intra-Asean trade is robust. On the other hand, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), of which both India and Pakistan are members, has much weaker trading ties.

Disputes between Malaysia and Singapore have ranged from water rights to trouble over Pedra Branca, a collection of islets in the eastern Singapore straits.

Each of these disputes has been resolved amicably, through bi-lateral negotiations or through the judicial process. Recourse to legal institutions to find solutions eliminates emotions from disputes.

Pakistan and India too have successfully resolved at least three issues through the judicial process, once on the Rann of Kutch dispute in 1965 and twice on interpretation of the Indus Water Treaty.

And yet, more often than not, India and Pakistan lob military threats against each other when they attempt to settle their differences and generally create even more. Former US president Bill Clinton described the region as the most dangerous place on Earth in 2001. It has not got better since.

The opinion-makers in Malaysia and Singapore strive to build upon the common ground among people. The leadership in India and Pakistan, on the contrary, use the opinion makers to ratchet up tensions to pursue their politically expedient agendas.

Indian and Pakistani students are often among the best of friends when they study in overseas universities and yet politics back home prevents them from having a joint student association.

Demonstrating maturity, the Malaysian and Singaporean students have joint undergraduate organisations in some of the most respected universities in the world.

Promoting mutual interests thorough cooperation in education was the purpose of a recent visit I made to India.

I was honoured to speak at the One Globe Conference in Delhi on the subject of whether South Asia can overcome political differences to collaborate in higher education,

I proposed that just like the Indian and Pakistani students becoming the best of friends overseas, sharing the same classes, living under the same roofs and celebrating together, SAARC countries should share an agreed number of students and faculty in designated universities across the region.

This would allow these young men and women to respect each other’s values and work for shared aspirations, leading to a better-integrated region. They will replace the disappearing generation of friends who live to regret the carnage of 1947.

If India and Pakistan can together choreograph an absurd act of mutual hostility at the border every evening, they can surely choreograph a “peace dance” to enhance the good will between the two of them. South Asia, with its large human resource will then be the economic powerhouse for the world.

Sajjad Ashraf is an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore and an associate fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. He was a member of Pakistan’s foreign service from 1973-2008