Making the most of Myanmar reforms

Making the most of Myanmar reforms

In a dull year for business almost everywhere in the world, Myanmar stood out as the hottest must-go place for property developers, oil executives, traders and gem merchants from Asia and as far afield as North America.

Singapore firms are quick to hop on the bandwagon as recent reforms seek to draw more foreign direct investment.

Several business missions have taken place to help businessmen understand the new developments in Myanmar, explore business opportunities and network with local business representatives.

Last year, the Republic invested US$49.2 million in Myanmar, ahead of Japan and South Korea but trailing China and Vietnam.

But Singapore's economic rivals such as the Japanese and South Koreans are hot on its heels as they snap up deals. The South Koreans have closed about 25 deals in the past 12 months, more than any other country.

Japan has also won a huge contract to develop a 2,400-hectare special economic zone at Thilawa, a spot near Myanmar's largest city and the Indian Ocean coast.

In return for the project, Japan agreed to erase about US$3.36 billion of debt owed to it in two phases throughout 2013, and lend an extra $56.1 million to Myanmar this year.

"It's hard for Singapore to fight that," said Maung Maung Lay, vice-president of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI), explaining that these countries are offering huge amounts of official development assistance (ODA) to Myanmar.

This is expected to give the countries a leg-up in the race to win a share of the emerging market. "But we don't have any other choice," he added.

Dr Maung acknowledged that Singapore would have had advantages before the reforms.

"In those days, Singapore had the advantage. But frankly and candidly speaking, with this opening up, I don't know if Singapore still has that advantage."

Over the years, Singapore has favoured engagement with Myanmar, even when other countries adopted more hardline approaches.

"Singapore is one of the midwives for our attainment of democracy," said Dr Maung. "We owe a lot to Singapore for being steadfastly behind Myanmar during our 'naughty' days."

Tan Seng Chye, senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and a former ambassador to Myanmar, explained that the country was a "very strategic" one in mainland South-east Asia.

"If you go back in history to the 50-60s, Myanmar was one of the world's largest rice exporter. It was also the second most advanced economy in Asia, relatively speaking, in the 1970s," he said.

Located between China, India, and the ASEAN countries of Laos and Thailand, Myanmar is in a region with a combined market of close to three billion people. The country is also rich in natural resources such as petroleum, timber, natural gas, limestone and precious stones.

After President Thein Sein took office in March 2011, his efforts to open the country to more foreign investments, following a series of political and economic reforms, have paved the way for the lifting of foreign sanctions that had throttled the economy.

However, now that Myanmar has liberalised its economy, Singapore might not be getting the kind of payback it had expected.

"Goodwill opens doors, but at the end of the day, it all boils down to dollars and cents," said TEE International director for corporate finance and strategy Yap Shih Chia.

The mainboard-listed engineering and integrated real estate group has recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Myanmar conglomerate A1 Group to set up a cement plant there.

While other countries are offering large sums of ODA to Myanmar to help their companies compete for opportunities, an official from the Singapore embassy in Yangon explained that it was not Singapore's policy to offer ODA.

Instead, Singapore helps Myanmar in "less sexy, but still important" ways, such as by offering technical assistance and training. These projects are often less publicised, the embassy official added.

During Mr Thein Sein's state visit to Singapore last year, the two countries signed an agreement under which Singapore would share its developmental experience and provide training to Myanmar in the legal, banking and financial sectors.

The pact also calls on Singapore to share its expertise in trade, tourism and urban planning. Singapore's constant encouragement and emphasis on training have given local firms a headstart in the Myanmar market.

The city-state is currently the sixth largest investor in Myanmar, with a cumulative investment of about US$2.2 billion as at the start of the year.

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