In an exclusive interview, Ambassador of Singapore Mr Robert Chua discusses Singapore’s long friendship, relationship and trade with Myanmar.
The interview was conducted by Mizzima Editor-in-Chief Soe Myint.
I would like to start with the bilateral relationship. What would you say are the priorities for Singapore’s relationship with Myanmar?
Well I think first and foremost, we regard Myanmar as an old friend and neighbour. We have known each other since the time of Singapore’s self-government in 1959 because many friends in Myanmar said Mr Lee Kuan Yew sent many civil servants to come to then Burma to learn development. So that is one starting point of our relations and from there, there was a very strong building of relations at the political leaders level. Then of course businessmen from both sides built a relationship and as more Myanmar people came to work and study in Singapore, we had the foundation of people-to-people relations. My Myanmar friends tell me there are over 100,000 Myanmar people living in my country. Now the number of Singaporeans living in Myanmar is growing, a few hundred. So with such exchanges, I think this strengthens the relationship between our countries. People-to-people ties are a very strong element between our countries. I think on our priorities, we will continue to be a good and friendly neighbour to Myanmar and continue to support Myanmar in a practical area where we have learned and benefitted from many developed countries and that is human resource development, capacity building.
Since we started our own technical assistance programme, called the “Singapore Cooperation Programme”, we have from 1992 till now added other programmes. In 2000, we had the “Initiative for ASEAN Integration”. That is for the four new members of ASEAN: Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and we set up in each country a training centre. The Singapore Myanmar Training Centre was set up in Yangon around 2002 and then we have created other programmes like when President U Thein Sein came to my country on a State Visit in January 2012, we created the “Singapore Myanmar Technical Cooperation Programme” to help in the capacity building of the government over the past five years in three areas: economic development, human resource development and public administration. Cumulatively under all these programmes, I am happy to note we have been able to contribute training for over 12,500 Myanmar civil servants. This is a very encouraging number in supporting capacity in the civil service of your country.
Last year, following the State Visit of Singapore President His Excellency Dr Tony Tan in 2013, we started the Singapore Myanmar Vocational Training Institute in Bahan Township and this is to support vocational education for young people in your country. A different pathway for those who cannot go on to university. Vocational education like we have in Singapore through the Institute of Technical Education provides young people with a different set of skills and will help them find gainful employment. We are working closely with your government to run these six month courses two times a year to create eight hundred skilled workers for local industry and foreign investors in four schools: electronics and electrical work, facilities management, engineering services, and hospitality and tourism. I am very happy to know that the first batch who are finishing are already getting job offers. So this is very encouraging, and I think this is what Singapore will continue to do to support Myanmar’s development in areas where we have the expertise. Primarily, this is in human resource development.
What about bilateral trade. Five years ago Singapore was Myanmar’s fourth largest trading partner, what about the current situation between the two countries?
From the Myanmar government’s statistics, we are now the third largest trade partner of Myanmar and this shows the vibrancy of the relationship between the two countries. Our business people know each other well. I remember about four years ago, a new MOU was signed between the UMFCCI and the Singapore Business Federation to enhance cooperation and find a mechanism for any business dispute. From such cooperation, there has been an increase in trade between our two countries. There are many things we would like to see exported from Myanmar particularly food stuff because most of the food we eat in Singapore is imported. I am happy to see that after a year, working with the Myanmar agricultural sector, we can now find Myanmar mangoes in our supermarkets. I hope to see maybe in the coming year your famous fragrant rice exported because many people in Singapore remember eating your famous Burmese rice because the Irrawaddy Delta was the rice bowl of Asia. And vice-versa, I am sure there are exports from my country that could be helpful for the Myanmar economy. I think that is why we are seeing trade growing steadily.
Singapore, in my opinion, has been the destination for many of the elite, even for health, do you think this is likely to increase?
We welcome anyone in the region or the world at large to come to our country for tourism, and of course this whole new area, medical tourism and also for business and private banking. We are a financial centre within the region and we welcome people to come in and invest. Of course, there are strict laws of screening before one can open a banking account and these follow international standards. We welcome people from Myanmar from different income groups to come even for a simple medical screening. If they find Singapore comfortable and the facilities are of a good standard, I am sure you will see more people coming. The main thing is we are an open country and also in the area of tourism, we welcome the Myanmar people to come and visit. I do see a growing number of Myanmar tourists. When I go home on vacation, I take the bus to my apartment which is outside the city. In the bus, I often hear the Myanmar language because there are people living in different parts of Singapore including the township where I stay. So for me, I am very happy to see that this is part of the two-way exchange between our two countries. And I think, if you go anywhere in Yangon, in the restaurants, you will find a whole new generation of young business people, young professionals, coming here to work or look for trade and investment opportunities. This is part of being the ASEAN Economic Community, ASEAN neighbours and friends in South East Asia.
What about financial institutions, for example Yoma is listed in Singapore, we now also have a stock exchange in Myanmar, do you expect more such financial arrangements with the new government in Myanmar?
We wish the new stock exchange well. The Singapore Stock Exchange came up a few years ago to see how we can help the stock exchange set up. We also welcomed Myanmar companies to list on the Singapore Stock Exchange as long as they meet the usual criteria for listing. Of course, after you have one Myanmar company listed, we welcome other Myanmar companies because the Singapore Exchange is a regional and international platform for listing. There is a lot of potential for stock exchange listing in Singapore. We wish your stock exchange well. As with anything new, there is always a starting phase and I am told by experts that a stock exchange requires a supporting eco-system. I am sure with time, more companies will be listed here.
This month there will be the fifty year celebration of the bilateral relationship. When we look at the two countries Singapore/Myanmar, Myanmar was under a military dictatorship but Singapore engaged with it. Why did you take a different approach than many other western countries that boycotted it?
Our foreign policy is based on a very simple policy- we want to have as many friends as possible around the world and naturally within Southeast Asia, Myanmar is a neighbour as are the other countries in the region. We look back historically the relationship between our two countries. We had self-government in 1959 and our political leaders built a relationship with your country. I could see as a young civil servant coming here in August 1980, the relationship between our two countries during the socialist era to the military government in 2006 when I arrived to start my posting, to the period of U Thein Sein’s government. The consistency is our desire to be good friends with our neighbours. We accept that in every country, there will always be change of government, but in our foreign policy, the priority is always to sustain good neighbourly relations. So engagement is very much the core principle of our foreign policy. So when Myanmar chose to join ASEAN in 1997, we welcomed and supported it because this is our neighbour who wants to be part of the regional economic community. There is a consistency in our foreign policy and I must also say that historically, we are grateful when we were independent in 1965, Myanmar was among the first countries that recognised our independence. We are grateful for the friendship of Myanmar and in turn, we want to continue this very close neighbourly friendship.
You have seen the democratic transition in Myanmar. You are the dean of the diplomatic corps in Myanmar, you have been here for more than 10 years. How do you view this transition?
I speak from the view of a diplomatic observer who is privileged to work through the different chapters of your country’s history. What I would say is of course, I share the joy of the people that their desire for change has been met and the governments of the past have met the people’s desire for change through the peaceful way of general elections. I see the wisdom of the people to seek peaceful change and the transition back to democracy through the ballot box. We saw that in the 2010 general elections, the 2012 by-elections, and the 2015 general elections. Essentially what any country becomes is an expression of the will of the people and in many countries, this is available through general elections. So for the elections in your country, I think the people have chosen this peaceful way for change. I will say in my own metaphor that the Myanmar people want a “Myanmar Summer” of reconciliation, unity, and to find consensus to bring the country forward. I think the Myanmar people do not want an “Arab Spring” because we see the “Arab Spring” has led to continued unrest. This is where I am encouraged, and I respect the wisdom of the people in this country. And now, it is time to start a national conversation between the new government and the people to find a new way forward together and work towards better days for the country and for people’s lives.
Leaders like Lee Kuan Yew visited Myanmar many times, did Singapore play a major role in the transition in Myanmar?
It is not playing a role. It is keeping the friendship and of course when there are such visits as our leaders coming here or your leaders visiting Singapore, there will always be diplomatic conversations and ideas and exchange of views. It is how a government’s leaders, at a certain period in time, will decide, based on its relations with many countries, which way it wants to go. When I arrived in 2006, I was still learning about the political situation of the country and there was the “Seven Step Roadmap to Democracy”. If we look back today, the past government’s Seven Step Roadmap was honoured, implemented and led to the opening and a civilian government today. So in my view, this is something for the government of the country to decide and for the people to support it. Neighbours can give our views, but within our region, we respect each country’s sovereignty and within the ASEAN Charter and the UN Charter, there is the diplomatic principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of countries. We continue to wish Myanmar well and we will continue to support your country through an exchange of views or the core approach of supporting your human resource development, because in our view, that is the most important pillar for economic development. When you have trained people, you can make things happen in growing the economy.
Now Myanmar has a new government led by Aung San Suu Kyi and we have the first civilian elected president. We have a good relationship in the past. How to foresee the relationship between our two countries over say the five to ten years with the new government?
Well I expect the relationship to continue steadily and be warm and friendly. I think fundamentally, Myanmar and Singapore culturally and being in the same ASEAN community, we know each other well. I believe our relationship will continue to be strong and there will probably be more areas of cooperation. We were privileged to welcome Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at the Singapore Economic Forum in September 2013 and we look forward to the visit of His Excellency President U Htin Kyaw and his wife Daw Su Su Lwin in the coming year. With such high-level exchanges especially this year being the 50th anniversary of our diplomatic relations, I think the relationship will continue to grow.
Any official visits in the coming year between the two countries?
We are planning on our part, but of course it will have to fit the schedule of the new government. We are in dialogue now with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs over what are convenient dates for my leaders to visit. Of course, we also welcome the new leaders of your country to visit us. Because we in ASEAN have this tradition of introductory visits where a new leader or minister tries to visit every member country on short visits to introduce himself or herself. So we look forward to the introductory visits of His Excellency President U Htin Kyaw and Her Excellency Foreign Minister Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. On our part, we have a new Foreign Minister His Excellency Dr Vivian Balakrishnan who is planning to make his introductory visit here. There will be a series of high-level exchanges marking the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations this year.
As a friend of Myanmar what would say are the main challenges for the country?
I think as in any country, the key challenge is national unity and if there is national unity, you can get things done. And I understand after having lived here, you have such a big, beautiful, country but it comprises seven regions and seven states; much more multi-racial than my country. So we understand over all these years, there has been this relationship between the different races that needs to be sorted out. And I think that is why it has led to the nationwide ceasefire agreement and we wish your peace process well. But my view is that in any country, if there is strong national unity then you can have the consensus on which direction the country can forward on political, social, and economic development. So it is my personal wish that in the coming years, there will peaceful national reconciliation and a desire to build national unity and bring your country forward. Because in the world economy we are facing challenges; we have to grow, we have to trade, we have to welcome investments.
In our efforts to develop the nation, and economic development we are struggling with the issue of capacity and of lack of resources in relation to a skilled labour force, what would you advise for us?
For human resource development, any government should invest resources in it. For example, in my country, a large proportion of the national budget has always been invested in the education system; so you build generation after generation of skilled workers for your economy to grow, from the labour intensive to the high technology economy. My country has always emphasised education. Even for us civil servants, we are encouraged every year to go for training courses to upgrade our skills. The whole concept in my country is life-long learning. As long as you have the interest to learn, in the civil service, they will pay for the training courses and we can attend training courses every year. I suppose in this new government, the focus will be very much on education because this is a big investment in bringing education not only to urban cities, but also countrywide. This will lift up the standard of education and lead to skilled workers from vocational to tertiary education.
When we talk about AEC as in ASEAN Economic Community many are concerned that in Myanmar we don’t really have skilled labour, while Singapore is much more advanced, what would you Myanmar can do to really be a part of the AEC?
I think every country can develop its workers, for an exchange of workers in the AEC. Naturally if Myanmar needs time, we understand. But I have seen Myanmar workers in my country, very hardworking, honest, dedicated. I see many employers are very happy with Myanmar workers in my country. So with time, as more people are trained and they desire to work in neighbouring countries, then the Myanmar people will be welcomed. But of course, as in any government’s priorities, economic development over the next five years requires more people to remain in the country. It requires more workers to be built up and to go into the different industries and different investments that are coming in. We know the story over the last five years. Foreign investors have the common challenge of finding skilled workers and that is why in the area of skilled workers for the various industries like tourism, engineering services, we are contributing via the Singapore Myanmar Vocational Training Institute to help produce 800 skilled workers a year. It is a small number, but it is a building block to contribute to the growth of your economy.
When we talk about tourism, you mentioned about medical tourism, besides that how can we increase the number of people visiting between our two countries?
I think what I have seen is a big contribution in the two-way exchange of people just for tourism. Over the past three years, there has been a growth of low cost carriers, more airlines are now available between our two countries. So for the average person who wants to visit Singapore say over Thingyan or Christmas or any other holiday period, there is a whole range of very competitive fares. I think that is why I am seeing a growth in the number of Myanmar tourists coming to Singapore because of a whole range of low cost airlines. And the same too as more Singaporeans are coming to Myanmar. The air traffic is a big catalyst for tourism exchange. Visas are not a big problem because I understand your embassy in Singapore is facilitating tourist visas in the same way as the Singaporean embassy in Yangon is facilitating tourist visas for people who wish to visit my country for tourism. We normally give multiple journey visas for Myanmar citizens going as tourists, so if they enjoy the visit, they can visit again within the period of the multiple journey visas.
If we look at the past what were the hardest issues for investors from Singapore?
I think it is commonly experienced by all foreign investors in any developing country or emerging economy. Often, one of the key areas is the regulatory environment, to use a simple term “rule of law”. For instance, if foreign investors were to come in, they would need to know the legal system in terms of implementation. Are the laws up to date in terms of international norms in welcoming investments? I think it has been well documented in reports like the World Bank’s “Doing Business”; this is one report that comes out every year and this is one issue that has been noted by such reports and foreign investors. They want to see a much friendlier operating environment with clear rules and regulations. So it will be very clear that if I want to start a factory in this area, how long will it take to get an investment licence? Will it then be easy for me to hire Myanmar workers? Will it be easy for me to lease factory space? All these are inter-related issues of the business operating environment that any foreign investor who comes to any country will want to be friendly. I have seen that the previous government has tried to facilitate a friendlier operating environment. I am sure this new government can build upon it and open up the economy. Naturally, there will be people concerned that we should protect local industries. That is natural. I think your country desires to welcome foreign investments and how to make it friendly, such as the very basic step of applying for a business licence, and how long will it take for quick approval and implementation.
One last question. You have been here for many years what are the moments that have been very important to you in Myanmar so far?
I would say one of the moments was after Cyclone Nargis (May 2008). It was a sad time and I was with the Tripartite Core Group representing ASEAN with the Myanmar Government and the UN trying to cooperate to facilitate humanitarian aid to come in. I went on the regular weekly helicopter visits to the Irrawaddy Delta to see the ground situation and to see how we could help the victims. One thing I was very touched by was the resilience, the strong spirit of your people to overcome any hardship. During this time, I had been to many parts of the Delta. Every time I went up the helicopter, I just tried to wave my hat to offer some encouragement and you could see people smiling and waving back. It really moved me a lot. Today, when I see the people in the Delta recovering or have recovered, it will be a very strong memory to see the resilience of your people.
I think the other memory would be the elections that have been held. Elections will always be an historic time like last year’s elections; truly historic, disciplined, smooth, how people patiently queued up early to vote. But again that is the strength of your people, their patience, and their discipline. And I think that is an example to the world, it was smooth and peaceful elections. These two are memories I will take from this period of 10 years in your country so far. It has been a beautiful experience to be blessed with so many friends in Myanmar. I think this is the privilege of serving my government in your beautiful country.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Happy Thingyan and may your country continue to grow steadily, and may there be peaceful national reconciliation, national unity, and a consensus on bringing your country forward to better and better days.