A Lesson from Singapore

By The Irrawaddy 2 December 2016

RANGOON — Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to the Lion City may bring more hope and business opportunities to Burma in the future. But her unrealistic remarks about her country overtaking Singapore economically in the next 20 years drew laughter and criticism from both Burmese and Singaporeans.

Burma missed its chance long ago to become one of the “Asian tiger” economies. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has admitted that economic growth has been slow during the first six months of her administration. Still, she tried to suggest that her country could overtake Singapore in 20 years – a remark meant to evoke the respected late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

When Lee saw his country gain independence in 1965, he expressed then his desire to catch up economically with Burma within 20 years. Lee accomplished that feat, and he built Singapore into an economic powerhouse.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi recognizes the nation’s existing problems of disunity, instability, high unemployment, poverty, and an economy that is over-dependent on natural resources. She understands that the country is desperate for foreign investment and economic development, and this development will require ethnic reconciliation and peace. Still, the de facto leader maintains a cautious optimism.

Her job today is to lure investors. It is high time to show that Burma is business-friendly before the much-awaited new investment law takes effect in April 2017.

The Lion City’s success story—how a tiny island city-state became one of Asia’s economic powerhouses—is admired worldwide. Singapore remains the second largest investor in Burma, after China, with bilateral trade valued at US$3.5 billion in 2015. And in June, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made the first head of state visit to Burma since the National League for Democracy government took power in April.

Burma and Singapore have a shared history of colonial occupation and a long relationship as Southeast Asian neighbors. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made a nice gesture and referred to this relationship when he presented a gift to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—a photo of his late father Lee Kuan Yew meeting her mother Daw Khin Kyi in the 1950s.

Lee Kuan Yew was briefly a critic of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 1996. Lee said openly that the Burma Army was the only institution capable of “keeping the country stable and preventing civil war,” and he questioned Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s ability “to govern if ever she came to power.”

Lee’s comments in 1996 led to angry demonstrations outside several Singaporean embassies in the region. Some protesters burned effigies of Lee. The Father of Singapore was told to mind his own business and not to insult the Burmese people.

“Mr. Lee is a smart man,” read a statement from the NLD in 1996, “but he is not always right.”

Although two decades have passed since Lee spoke his mind, his sharp political instincts remain true.

Today, there is outcry in some Asian capitals following allegations of human rights violations against the Muslim population in Arakan State. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has already postponed her planned visit to Indonesia.

The irony is that Lee, if he were still living, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi could share an amicable conversation. In Burma, Suu Kyi’s government has charged several reporters and online activists with crimes under the electronics act. Self-censorship dominates Burmese newsrooms, and criticism of the authoritarian style leadership is not tolerated.

One could imagine Lee winking at Suu Kyi with a sly smile, saying “I told you so.”

In fact, the late Gen. Ne Win was an old pal of Lee’s. During the 1970s, visitors from the tiny island dreamed of visiting Burma. They thought of Burma’s natural resources as a potential gold mine. When Lee and Ne Win played golf together, Lee recognized Burma’s potential to become an Asian tiger. Lee suggested the dictator should open up the country and promote tourism, but his advice fell on deaf ears.

Ne Win and his generals often traveled to Singapore to deposit millions of dollars in their Singaporean bank accounts. And the Lion City was a favorite place for Burmese tycoons and generals who wanted medical treatment at one of Singapore’s first-rate facilities. Despite the close ties between Ne Win and Lee, Burma made little progress in the last four decades.

Lee later spoke his mind.

In 2007, a leaked US diplomatic cable quoted Lee describing Burma’s ruling generals as “stupid” and “dense.” According to the cable, Lee told US diplomats that dealing with the junta leaders was like “talking to dead people.” He accused the generals of mismanaging the country’s natural resources, and he said he “had given up on them a decade ago.”

Now with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in power, there is an historic opportunity to put the country back on track—if she and her cabinet ministers have a vision. One can hope that she will accept Lee’s pointed remarks toward her as a challenge to do better and to move the nation forward.