A wide-ranging interview with Singapore Ambassador to Myanmar Robert Chua by the Global New Light of Myanmar and MRTV touched upon democratic and economic reform, peace process and bilateral relations between Singapore and Myanmar.
Q: Singapore and Myanmar started diplomatic relations in 1966 so please tell us how there will be strengthening ties between Singapore and Myanmar.
A: I think our two countries’ relationship reflects a relationship between neighbors and old friends. Our founding Prime Minister Mr. Lee Kuan Yew visited your beautiful country to see Myanmar’s development and to build close relations at the leaders’ level and economic cooperation.
We are always confident in the calibre of the Myanmar people. So we have concentrated on supporting Myanmar in capacity building of your civil servants through training programmes and study visits in Singapore as well as setting up here the Myanmar-Singapore Training Centre in 2001 in support of Myanmar as a new member of ASEAN. I’m glad through all these years of training programmes, we have been able to contribute to the training of over 15,000 civil servants across all fields. When people say that Myanmar lacks capacity, I say “no”, as countries like Singapore have been contributing to Myanmar’s human resource development. The other areas we are helping in this field are scholarships for your talented students to study in Singapore and our Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long opened the Singapore-Myanmar Vocational Training Institute (SMVTI) in Yangon last year. It offers training in electronics and electrical work, facilities management, engineering services, and hospitality and tourism. We believe these areas are needed in Myanmar’s opening economy. The courses are designed in consultation with the Myanmar government. I’m happy that three batches have graduated so far. SMVTI will contribute 800 trained workers yearly for the Myanmar economy. I’m confident that Singapore will continue to support Myanmar in its journey to become a middle-income country and a democracy in the years to come.
Q: Can you tell us your impression about Myanmar’s democratization process?
A: When I first visited your beautiful country as a young diplomat in August 1980, I got a glimpse into your country at that time when it was under socialism. I’ve seen three governments’ governance since I came back and started my diplomatic posting in 2006. It’s challenging as Myanmar has a big geographical size and 135 different races. I think for any government and any leader of the day, to bring together such diverse peoples is a challenge. Your leaders since independence led by General Aung San have grappled with this challenge. I ask myself as a political science student, what does it take for a country that has all the resources that a country needs, to succeed in democracy? I think it is the challenge of nation building and bringing all the States and Regions together in the spirit of moving forward together. It is like a football team which I call “Myanmar United” where all players learn to work together to succeed.
I see the wisdom of the Myanmar people in a time of the euphoria about what’s happening in the world of the ‘Arab Spring’. The Myanmar people have been wise to want a ‘Myanmar Summer’ of warmth, reconciliation and finding a way forward after so many years of civil conflicts. This can be done with love and forgiveness as practised in all the religions in this country. It is now a time of great hope and enthusiasm but some critics say “Is Myanmar ready for democracy?” I believe this transition started off with great hope and at times has become messy, and it is at an important turning point now. After the unfortunate events in Rakhine State, it is a critical time for the people and the government to come together in unity to preserve this process of creating a democracy that is appropriate for Myanmar. As a political science student, I understand that democracy is a concept that each country can fashion within its own circumstances. Singapore’s democracy has been different because we’ve borne in mind that we are multi-racial too and we chose a path of political accommodation where all our races are accommodated within the principles of the rule of law and meritocracy under a policy of integration so that all our citizens can live, study and work together harmoniously.
Q: What do you think will be the challenges in the transition from war to peace?
A: I think the first step is how to stop the fighting and you need a workable concept of a ceasefire that all parties must honour and implement. Then you can move to political dialogue to discuss the current proposal of a federal system. Federalism will mean some form of political, economic and administrative autonomy for each State and Region, and at the same time, addressing key issues like national security, sharing of resources and an education framework using a national language. All are touchy nation-building issues that Singapore also went through. The critical issue now is “what is a workable ceasefire”? If you have the current situation of “talk, talk, fight, fight”, then of course mutual suspicion and trust deficit will continue. I think it is a tragedy for any country that protracted fighting is going on and will affect future generations, when peace can be restored and development can follow.
Q: Can you tell us about your recent visit to Rakhine State?
A: I will give my personal view on what I’ve seen. I looked back to my first visit to Rakhine State ten years ago in 2007 when a diplomatic tour was organized by the UN and the Myanmar government. When I look back at that visit and the recent one on 2 October 2017, I came back saddened. Ten years ago, I saw the different communities living side by side peacefully with some tensions. Today, I see destruction of homes, loss of lives, displaced people and the violence that started with the terrorist attacks last year. Violence starts a cycle of violence.
But I was heartened that in two of the villages we visited amid all these conflicts and tensions, three communities could still live peacefully – Muslims, Rakhines, and Hindus. I asked them “why is it you can still live peacefully after so many years” and they said they learned to live together with common interests. They do business together and respect each other, and if there is any concern, then it is a common concern for the whole village discussed in an inter-faith committee.
As your neighbours in the ASEAN family, we wish that urgent humanitarian assistance that will be delivered by the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance Centre, can come in to support your government to help all the affected communities. The ASEAN family also shares the view that the violence must stop, and once stability is restored and the communities can come back to their villages, then it is time to look for a long-term political solution in this complex inter-communal situation with deep historical roots that will require reconciliation, dialogue and a peace process. Rakhine State has fertile soil and the rice is growing but because of the conflicts, the people cannot harvest the rice.
My personal view is that as the government work towards a recovery programme for all the communities, it can consider the integration approach that I saw in the two villages. Segregation can cause hatred and resentment.
Q: Singapore has so far been listed as the top investor in the Thilawa Special Economic Zone so what are the major challenges for Singaporean entrepreneurs making investments in Myanmar?
A: I’m glad that the data shows that cumulatively, Singapore is the second largest investor in Myanmar and consistently Myanmar’s third largest trading partner. This shows Singapore’s confidence in Myanmar’s potential to grow as an economy and succeed. I’ve met Singaporeans who have been working and investing here for more than 20 years and that reflects their faith in the economic potential of your country. But for foreign investors, what gives them confidence for investing is political stability because investors don’t like political risk. So the government of the day must create a stable political system. On the economic side, investors want certainty, rule of law, clear investment policies, rules and regulations, and also a dispute mechanism to resolve business problems.
I’ve seen in the past five years from U Thein Sein’s government till today, there has been a strong effort to open up the economy to welcome Foreign Direct Investment. But for a country that has been closed for quite some time, opening up requires confidence that FDI coming in will not swallow up local businesses.
Q: Could you explain more about law and order and clarity for investment policies?
A: I think investors that go to any country need clarity that there is clear and firm rule of law so that if there is any business dispute, they can seek recourse like arbitration or take it to the courts. Clarity is important when there are new policies. I understand from businessmen that whenever there is a new investment law, it is the implementing rules and regulations that give clarity on how their investments can be implemented.
Q: Singapore’s Emeritus Senior Minister Mr. Goh Chok Tong held talks with President U Htin Kyaw over the development of SMEs, trade, investment. Could you tell us the current efforts of the bilateral achievements and challenges?
A: First, I’d like to backtrack that when Mr. Goh Chok Tong was our Prime Minister, he encouraged the first wave of investors to come in the 1990s and he had the wisdom to suggest to our businessman to help Myanmar’s tourism given its beautiful scenery and rich cultural tapestry. He believed that if you grow your tourism sector, then it brings good revenue and creates jobs. Today we are looking at how other sectors can support Myanmar’s economic development and for that, we have created the Singapore-Myanmar Joint Ministerial Working Committee that started over ten years ago. It focuses on three areas: financial cooperation, legal cooperation, and trade and investment. These are three areas that we believe from our economic development experience will support Myanmar’s financial reforms and legal reforms which are important to underpin your foreign investment law and economic development. Both sides are now working to conclude a Bilateral Investment Treaty by the end of this year that will benefit our businessmen.