Burma and Singapore have a shared history of colonial occupation and a long relationship as Southeast Asian neighbors. As relations between Burma and Western nations continue to thaw and some bilateral ties are forged for the first time,
Singapore and Burma are merely entering a new phase in their sometimes complicated but nonetheless enduring relationship.
Due to the strength of that bond, activists and dissident leaders have had a hard time over the years viewing Singapore as a friend of the democracy movement. But ideological principles aside, they quietly or openly admired the Lion City’s success story—a tiny island city-state that became one of Asia’s economic powerhouses.
With democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s landmark visit to Singapore last week, the relationship has the potential to enter a new, more dynamic phase, cementing deeper and more mutually beneficial bilateral ties. Perhaps, as Suu Kyi suggested, the two nations can learn more from each other. But what we learn from Singapore, I pray, will not be all about Asian values, censorship, cyber warfare, authoritarian rule and Singapore-style “democratic elections.” Rather, Burma would be best served if it took a page or two from Singapore’s book on city planning, tourism, trade, and banking and finance.
Perceptions of Singapore as a nation that doesn’t pass muster on true freedom and democracy metrics are widely held, but in Burma they have a more personal resonance. Many Burmese still remembered elder Singaporean statesman Lee Kuan Yew’s controversial remarks on Burma and Suu Kyi.
In April 1996, Lee said the Burmese Army was the only institution capable of “keeping the country stable and preventing civil war,” and questioned the ability of Suu Kyi “to govern if ever she came to power.”
Indignant Burmese held protests outside various Singaporean embassies in the region and burned effigies of Lee, Singapore’s first prime minister. Some angry dissident leaders advised the “father of Singapore” to mind his own business, and refrain from insulting the Burmese people.
The National League for Democracy (NLD), co-founded by Suu Kyi, was more diplomatic in its response. In a curt statement, the NLD replied: “Mr. Lee is a smart man, but he is not always right.”
The flak Lee took was substantial, but perhaps he was simply offering a pragmatic assessment of the political landscape that the much-admired Suu Kyi was up against when he said the Nobel Peace laureate should “face the reality of military rule and start cooperating with the regime.”
The irony is that Suu Kyi is the one today being accused of being “too pragmatic” in cooperating with Burma’s nominally civilian government, which is an offshoot of the previous regime.
Since 1988, when much of the world condemned Burma’s military government for its brutal suppression of pro-democracy protestors, Singapore has remained important to Burma not just as a trading partner, but also for its friendly relations with the regime.
The island state has been accused of supporting the brutal and repressive junta in Burma, as were many other Asian governments who failed to even feign concern as Burma’s government gunned down or beat to death thousands of its own citizens. That silence stood in contrast to Western governments that vocally denounced the regime and its abysmal human rights record. Singapore has defended its stance toward Burma by aligning itself with countries that backed a “Constructive Engagement” policy toward the regime that also locked up dissidents and waged decades-long war against its ethnic minority groups.
The Lion City is also known to have taken in several prominent Burmese nationals, among them the former dictators Gen Ne Win and Snr-Gen Than Shwe, who have sought medical treatment at Singapore’s first-rate facilities. Tycoons and cronies in pursuit of leisure or hospital care have also been warmly welcomed by the island, which has long been a home away from home to those Burmese who can afford it.
From the medical tourism of dictators and cronies to drug lords buying up luxury condos for holiday getaways, Burma’s well-to-do few have in their own small way helped fuel the economic success story of Singapore.
On the lower rungs of society, Singapore is also a haven to many young Burmese who emigrate there seeking low-wage jobs or an education, perhaps settling down into a stable existence that allows them to support families back home. You can find these blue-collar workers in Peninsula Plaza, also known as “Little Burma.”
Recent reports that billions of dollars were being held in Singaporean bank accounts were just the latest allegations to highlight the special banking relationship that the two nations have. A widely held assumption among Burmese is that any time rumors swirl of state funds gone missing, a Singaporean bank is likely at the end of the money trail.
A well-connected businessman in Rangoon recently told me that several bank accounts have been opened in Singapore to procure weapons and hardware for a Burmese military that is still hindered by US and EU sanctions. But where is the evidence? I asked. He just laughed.
Singaporean banks have been repeatedly accused of serving as money laundering vehicles for Burmese narcotics traffickers as well. Robert Gelbard, former US assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, made the observation in February 1997 that, “since 1988, over half of [the investments from] Singapore have been tied to the family of narco-trafficker Lo Hsing Han,” a Burmese drug kingpin known as the “Godfather of Heroin.”
Lo Hsing Han passed away earlier this year. His son Steven Law, who is managing director of Asia World, was put on a US blacklist in 1996 for suspected drug ties.
I still remember when, in the early 1990s, regional publications including the now defunct Far Eastern Economic Review began reporting on private companies in Singapore that were allegedly arranging for the sale of weapons to Burma.
Several regional papers reported that Singapore’s role as a major arms supplier to the regime began in October 1988, when Allied Ordnance, a subsidiary of Chartered Industries of Singapore, the arms branch of government-owned Singapore Technologies, shipped hundreds of boxes, believed to contain mortars, ammunition and raw materials for Burma’s own arms factories, to Rangoon.
Since then, it is believed that firms based in Singapore have continued to supply weapons directly to Burma, and Singaporean brokers have facilitated arms sales from other sources, including Belgium and Israel. It is said that Singapore’s armed forces have also cooperated closely with the Burmese military to provide training, while Singapore Technologies has provided the regime with a state-of-the-art “cyber-war center.”
Singaporean leaders’ deep interest in Burma remains evident today. It is different from the Thais, perennially prone as they are to misgivings about their neighbor to the west and perhaps mindful of the unpleasant historical memory of Burmese troops’ 18th century sacking of the ancient capital of Ayutthaya. And because Thailand is a refuge for many dissidents and exile advocacy groups, a mutual distrust from Burma’s former military regime was understandable.
It is no wonder, then, that the Singapore bond is arguably one of Burma’s tightest. While Western nations were putting the squeeze on via economic sanctions, Singapore increased its assistance and trade with Burma.
The late dictator Gen Ne Win was a friend of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. But Ne Win didn’t listen to his old pal, who since the 1970s had attempted to persuade the general and his ministers to open up the country and promote tourism. The late dictator instead shut the door.
Lee saw Burma’s potential—that it could one day count itself among the ranks of the “Asian tigers,” but Ne Win missed all that. With the Burmese general’s death, Lee’s visits to Burma stopped, but his disciples kept coming—and the message they carried was the same.
Backing the regime was costly to Singapore as Burma’s “domestic affairs” increasingly became a headache for Asean diplomats and heads of state.
Asean leaders including Singapore condemned the brutal crackdown on monk-led uprising in 2007. In 2008, the regime was accused of ignoring the plight of victims of Cyclone Nargis, a catastrophic disaster that caused some 140,000 fatalities in the Irrawaddy delta. Western governments including the United States anchored warships off Burmese shores to provide humanitarian relief and disaster assistance, but the generals refused the offer. Asean finally had to step in to provide humanitarian aid.
While the southern part of country was under water and still reeling from Nargis, the regime forcibly approved a military-backed Constitution. Trouble did not stop there. In 2009, Suu Kyi had to stand trial in a kangaroo court after she was accused of allowing an American, John William Yettaw, to swim across the lake behind her home in Rangoon, coming ashore on her property in an act that Suu Kyi had no control over.
It was this incident that prompted Goh Chok Tong, Singapore’s senior minister, to fly to Burma with a message.
In meetings with Burma’s top brass, Goh acknowledged that the Suu Kyi trial was a domestic affair, but he pointed out that there was an international dimension to it that should not be ignored. Goh then stressed that the upcoming 2010 elections must be inclusive and that the opposition NLD and Suu Kyi must be part of the process of national reconciliation.
Goh was the first foreign leader to meet then Snr-Gen Than Shwe since the trial began, and he used the occasion to deliver a political message to the leaders. “I don’t believe any Singapore investors would come in a big way before the picture is clear, before this move to democracy is seen to produce results.” Burmese leaders received the message.
But then Goh, like his compatriot Lee before him, took a jibe at Suu Kyi.
Goh told reporters at the Asia-Middle East Media Roundtable in Singapore that while the West sees Suu Kyi as the solution to Burma’s problems, she is also “part of problem” because she believes she is the government. He also suggested that the NLD needed to seek a fresh mandate in the 2010 elections, saying Suu Kyi should not dwell on the fact that her party’s victory in the 1990 elections was not recognized by the junta.
“That was 19 years ago, that’s history. If she realizes she has to be part of the solution, she has to offer some concessions, such as to publicly say that she would be in favor of the lifting of sanctions.
“Myanmar [Burma] has the potential to boom in the next 10 years and it can be like Thailand’s today in 20 years’ time,” Goh said.
Many hope Goh was right about the future. Last week in Singapore, Suu Kyi met Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and several chief executives from some of the world’s biggest companies, along with visits to two universities and Singapore’s successful anti-corruption bureau.
Reflecting on her trip, Suu Kyi offered praise for her hosts, but also got in a dig of her own.
“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,” she told reporters as she prepared to return home.
She added: “Perhaps Singapore could learn from us a more relaxed way of life.”
As this latest chapter in Burma-Singapore relations unfolds, “something more” might also include a more principled stance on democratic values. Suu Kyi’s fight for a government beholden to its people propelled her to international fame, and it’s a Lion City shortcoming that Burma’s pro-democracy forces have long felt the bite of.