SINGAPORE — Burma opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi cemented Singapore’s role as a major economic partner and model for her country on a five-day trip to the island, taking home what she said were valuable lessons on education policy and anti-graft measures.
But her endorsement of the wealthy city-state came with a caveat—Burma could do without the materialistic and high-pressure society that has accompanied Singapore’s decades-long transformation from tropical backwater to economic powerhouse.
“I want to learn a lot from the standards that Singapore has been able to achieve, but I wonder whether we don’t want something more for our country,” the Nobel Peace laureate told reporters on Monday evening as she prepared to return home.
She added: “Perhaps Singapore could learn from us a more relaxed way of life.”
Despite that reservation, Suu Kyi’s first visit to Singapore is seen as affirming Burma’s close ties with the city-state as it seeks investments and aims to tap technocratic expertise to help its transformation to democracy from dictatorship.
Suu Kyi, 68, met Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, chief executives from some of the world’s biggest companies, and visited Singapore’s successful anti-corruption bureau. She was able to see the fruits of the island’s success at two of its universities and also took in a Formula 1 race on Sunday.
Suu Kyi, the daughter of the hero of Burma’s campaign for independence from Britain, has shifted from democracy icon to opposition boss in the country’s parliament after her party won a landslide in by-elections last year. She had been kept under house arrest for 15 out of 20 years after the junta ignored the results of a 1990 election won by her party.
She said many of her country’s people believe Singapore could provide them with the key planks of their development model as it grapples with huge challenges, ranging from decrepit infrastructure to ethnic violence.
“A lot of Burmese look to Singapore when they think of economic reforms in our country because they see the success of Singapore, and many of our young people are getting their education here so these are the sectors where many of our people feel they can learn from,” she said, referring to Singapore’s education and anti-corruption policies in particular.
Singapore was a major proponent of maintaining diplomatic relations and providing humanitarian aid to Burma under the military junta that was shunned and sanctioned by the West. In 2001, it established a center in the commercial capital Rangoon to provide education for public servants, giving them training in English, trade, finance and information technology.
Now it is reaping the benefits of those close ties as the country of about 60 million opens up to investors after a quasi-civilian government took power in 2011.
Singapore Firms Leverage Close Ties
Singapore trade agency International Enterprise (IE) opened an office in Rangoon last year to help companies from the city-state invest in the country. Singapore is Burma’s third-largest trading partner, with trade between the two countries reaching S$1.8 billion (US$1.44 billion) in 2012.
All three of Singapore’s banks—DBS Group Holdings Ltd, Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation Ltd and United Overseas Bank Ltd—have had representative offices in Burma since the 1990s, while Singapore-listed Yoma Strategic Holdings is aiming to become one of the country’s biggest conglomerates by opening department stores, importing trucks and developing plantations.
“Many Singaporean firms are certainly rushing into Myanmar with foreign investment rising sharply in recent months,” said Kevin McGahan, a political science lecturer at the National University of Singapore.
Burma officials have also shown interest in transplanting Singapore’s bureaucratic and governance expertise.
In 2012, Singapore committed to a more substantial co-operation program, pledging to provide courses to Burmese nationals in law, banking and finance as well as sharing with the country its expertise in trade, tourism and town planning.
A group of 25 Burmese parliamentarians visited Singapore in May to look at the city-state’s governance model, which has won a reputation for efficiency and zero-tolerance for corruption, albeit with a strong authoritarian streak.
Suu Kyi, who plans to run for Burma’s presidency in 2015 if the Constitution allows, is looking for more than just capital inflows and training courses from Singapore, urging an estimated 150,000 Burmese nationals living there to support their homeland and use their skills to develop the country.
On Sunday morning, more than 5,000 members of the Burmese community packed into a ballroom in one of Singapore’s casino resorts to hear her deliver that message.
“She has asked us to help and I will, I want to contribute what I learn to my country,” said Chit Lin Su, 23, who is studying computer science at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, during Sunday’s event.