Myanmar’s Little Helper

Revolutions have a way of revealing inconvenient truths; the dictator is toppled, his cronies flee in haste while they can, and in the ransacked files of the regime’s abandoned palaces, the dark secrets of tyrants – and the hypocrisy of their embarrassed enablers, too – are revealed.

But sometimes revolutions are bloodless, the transitions managed. Triumphant revolutionaries who might have ravaged ministries are kept at bay, sparing tyranny’s enablers their blushes. The sleazy deals and the signatures of those who made them are kept private, to prosper another day.

In Singapore, which has for years been the Myanmar military junta’s little helper, the sighs of relief are almost audible.

Aung San Suu Kyi may have contemplated some of this during the past week, as she made her way among Singapore’s political and business leaders while on her first visit to the gleaming little city-state.

Her hosts were the same Singapore leadership that had helped one of the world’s most brutal military regime’s subdue Suu Kyi and her opposition National League for Democracy for years. Singapore sold the long-ruling junta many of the tools of repression that made Myanmar an international pariah until, in November 2010, it released Suu Kyi from 15 years of house arrest and embarked on a painstaking process of democratic reform.

Her hosts were also the same Singapore leadership that has long cracked down on any suggestion of political protest by Myanmar expatriates in Singapore itself, even expelling such protestors when they got too uppity for local taste. As Singapore has seen it, a lucrative business relationship with a military regime is not enhanced by providing a forum for its opponents.

Singapore has been Myanmar’s most valuable international ally during the decades Yangon (Rangoon) spent under international sanctions. In Myanmar, the stamp of Singapore is everywhere; stay in a smart Myanmar hotel, for example, and the management was inevitably Singaporean, as was the bank that processes your credit card when you check out.

<p>Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images</p>

Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

Aung San Suu Kyi meets with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Singapore on September 23.

Singapore provides essential structural support to the Myanmar economy, which effectively functions as a branch office of Singapore’s financial system by enabling bank transfers and clearing transactions that international trade sanctions prevented Myanmar from directly undertaking.

Just three hours’ flight from Yangon, Singapore’s world-class hospitals keep Myanmar’s brass and their families healthy. Its private banks asked no questions as Singapore securely invested the ill-gotten fortunes of generals and their drug-dealing cronies. And the country’s private schools educated the advantaged children of Myanmar’s leaders, who parked their families there to function as Singapore-based proxies, so they could get around official business blockages that restricted people from operating out of Myanmar itself.

It’s been an everyone’s-a-winner relationship. Stridently arguing against the imposition of economic sanctions on Myanmar, tiny Singapore was able to extend its diplomatic influence in its backyard while making billions for its domestic economy by providing a comfortable bolthole for the junta if ever things got tricky for its members back home.

If any of this was on Suu Kyi’s mind in her five days in Singapore this week, she kept a diplomatic, even pragmatic silence. As close as she got to criticism was to remark that she thought Singapore “could learn from us, a more relaxed way of life, perhaps warmer and closer relationships. I want to learn a lot from the standards that Singapore has been able to achieve but I wonder whether we want something more for our country.”

As Suu Kyi toured Singapore, even taking in the Formula One Grand Prix, its political leaders – mostly untrammelled by genuine democracy in the 50 years their monolithic People’s Action Party have been in power in the city-state – clamoured to be photographed, beaming, with a dissident-democrat they had struggled to even acknowledge existed until recently.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong even declared that Suu Kyi would be a “capable” president if she got elected in 2015, and that naturally Singapore would be there to help Myanmar economically if asked.

Singapore “helped” Myanmar economically after the junta cracked down on Suu Kyi’s democrats in 1988, when the generals ignored her election victory and would massacre more than 1,000 of her supporters when they rose in an ultimately failed rebellion. Government-owned Singaporean companies directly provided the junta with crucial surveillance equipment and weaponry, and acted as a middleman channelling such equipment from arms-length third parties. Singapore has also enabled a notorious Myanmar drug baron, Lo Hsing Han and his family, to prosper, showing extreme hypocrisy doing so, given Singapore’s take-no-prisoners approach to drugs.

<p>ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images</p>


Campaigners opposite the entrance to the Myanmar embassy in Singapore in 2007, protesting against a bloody crackdown on dissent in Myanmar.

Much of this activity has been documented by the Australian academic Andrew Selth, now of Brisbane-based Griffith University’s Asia Institute.

Selth is a former staffer of Australia’s Office of National Assessments, the intelligence-gathering agency that is part of the Prime Minister’s Department in Canberra. Once a diplomat posted to Yangon, he has long written about Myanmar for leading international journals under the pseudonym of William Ashton, and is regarded as a leading international authority on Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw.

“Having developed one of the region’s most advanced armed forces and defence industrial support bases, Singapore is in a good position to offer Burma a number of inducements which other ASEAN countries would find hard to match,” Selth/Ashton has written in the prestigious Jane’s Intelligence Review. “It is highly unlikely that any of these shipments to Burma could have been made without the knowledge and support of the Singapore Government. By assisting with weapons sales, defense technology transfers, military training and intelligence cooperation, Singapore has been able to win a sympathetic hearing at the very heart of Burma’s official councils.”

Former Singapore diplomat Matthew Sim would seem to agree. As his country was extending its controversial corporate relationship with the Myanmar regime through the 1990’s, he wrote Myanmar On My Mind, a guide for Singaporeans doing deals there.

Of the many books written to help businesspeople successfully chart the supposed mysteries of corporate Asia, Sim’s tome may well rank as one of the more remarkable – and perhaps most revealing of Singaporean attitudes to its struggling neighbour – of the genre.

Published in 2001 by a Singapore government-linked media house, Myanmar On My Mind was written by diplomat Sim after he’d spent time posted in Yangon, where he managed his nation’s burgeoning trade relationship with the generals. Today, he’s a business lecturer at Singapore’s Temasek Polytechnic and consultant to some of Singapore Inc’s leading government-owned companies.

No matter that Myanmar’s barbaric regime was under international sanctions, and no matter either that Singapore has a famously hard line on corruption on its own pristine little island, Sim’s breezy book offered helpful hints for Singaporean investors sallying forth into Myanmar’s new corporate frontier.

Want to get a general to sign off on a much-coveted contract? Nothing some targeted prostitution wouldn’t fix, writes Sim, as he goes into intimate detail – no doubt obtained for research purposes only – about how to pay for sex in Myanmar.

“I have always said that women have their cosmetics while men have their money,” Sim writes. “With money, men who are old, fat and ugly can be instantaneously transformed into desirable creatures sought by young pretty women everywhere.”

Killing someone in a car accident in Myanmar would be unfortunate, but by Sim’s artful hand it need pose no impediment to deal-making. Sim devotes a chapter, Committing Manslaughter When Driving, to such a possibility, and offers two ways of evading prosecution in the event.

First, he writes, one should quickly hand the victim’s family some cash to dissuade them from pressing charges. If this gambit were to fail, you could fund an uninvolved Myanmar third party to shoulder the blame and officially declare themselves to have been the driver.

“An international businessman should not make the mistake of trying to argue his case in a court of law when it comes to a fatal accident, even if he is in the right,” Sim advises. “He highly probably will spend time in jail regretting it. It is a sad and hard world. The facts of life can be ugly.”

Confronted by a grasping official insisting on a large wodge of “tea money” to get a lucrative deal across the line? Sim’s bloodless advice is to go along with it. “One important factor to keep in mind is that gifts for VIPs must be easily re-saleable for cash, and the amount should reflect their rank.”

Matters are moving on in Myanmar from Sim’s advisories but as Suu Kyi reminded her Singaporean audience, Myanmar still isn’t a democracy and it still has a military regime of generals intimately engaged in the nation’s business affairs and remains very corrupt. As she told Singapore businesspeople: “I would like you to continue your investments. But make them as responsible as possible.”