Singapore might be a small island state but for Myanmar it looms large, a relationship that dates back to British colonial times. Mizzima TV editor Myo Thant recently sat down with the Singapore Ambassador to Myanmar Ms Vanessa Chan to discuss the island state’s relationship with Myanmar.
For an ambassador to Myanmar, I believe you are in a rather unique position having served here as Deputy of Mission before from 2007 to 2011 and now having been here as Ambassador for two years. What would you say are the key insights you gained from your earlier service and over the last couple of years as Ambassador?
Well, first of all thank you for inviting me here and I am very pleased to be able to be able to talk to you. As for the difference between being the ambassador and being the deputy chief of mission, I would say, well, it is like being the difference between the chief editor and the deputy editor of Mizzima. The job really varies very much depending on the country you are in, helping the embassy is what is happening, what you have to do. So the ultimate difference is as the ambassador, I am the person who is finally responsible for everything in the embassy.
After Myanmar opened up in 2011, how do you view the key challenges faced by the Myanmar government?
I would say that any Myanmar government would face very similar challenges. You have the challenge of the transition from used to be a socialist economy to a modern, I would say, a modern mixed economy with free market elements but also with the need for proper regulation.
Then you have the transition from what was a military government to a civilian and democratic government. You have the very long transition between a centralized state to a more evenly spread, the term normally is a federal state. But of course, a federal – there are many, many different kinds of federal state. So the negotiation between the different parts of the country, the different ethnic groups, the different religious groups, all these are challenges that Myanmar faces.
It is not the only country that faces these challenges. Singapore, although we are much smaller than Myanmar, we also face those challenges to just concentrate into a smaller space.
As you know the Myanmar government is facing key challenges, one is the Rakhine crisis and the other one is the peace process. So how do you view these two key challenges?
Well, as I said, I don’t actually feel it is just two. There is the challenge of development, meeting the expectations of people as well, in education, in jobs, in infrastructure. So don’t forget those as well. And I think that these developmental challenges are deeply related to the other two that you have mentioned – to the peace process and to the Rakhine State situation. They are really in that sense all one challenge, a challenge of developing Myanmar so that all of its peoples have their chance.
Singapore is very developed country. What can we learn from your country to develop?
First of all remember that it has taken us more than 50 years to get to where we are now. So the first lesson is that these things take time, especially when your starting situation is so complex as it is here in Myanmar. So, I think the first lesson is to remember that really everyone here wants the same thing for Myanmar. All the different groups, they want peace, they want prosperity, they want safety for themselves, for their children, for the future. And if that is the overriding goal for everyone, then the important part is to be willing to compromise and to work together, to be a united nation. I think that is the lesson that we have learned, that we have to keep learning continuously. We also have our issues between our ethnic groups. We have the issue of radicalization in different areas, so for us the important part is to remain resilient so that if something happens, when something happens, we will stick together, instead of splitting apart.
As you mentioned earlier that education is an important issue, so the Singapore education system is very good, so what can we learn and what is the difference between the Myanmar education system and the Singapore education system?
I am not at all an expert in the Myanmar education system so I not really sure I can fully answer that question that you have asked it, for us the education system, well first of all the most important for us was that we focused on English as the common language, because we are different ethnic groups, each speaking their own language. If we tried to make Chinese the common language because the Chinese are the majority, what would happen to the Malays and the Indians and the Eurasians? I, myself, and from a family that does not speak Chinese at home. So the choice was made for everyone to learn English, which was the language of international commerce, which was the language that would plug us in to global trade. So I think that was the key decision.
After that, there have been many different policy changes as our circumstances have changed. The important point I think is to remember that no policy lasts forever. When the circumstances change, you do have to think about how to adapt and update and upgrade, as your circumstances allow, as your resources allow.
Myanmar students want to go and study in Singapore. Are there any scholarship programmes and what would you like to inform those from university here?
I think all the universities have their own programmes; so do the polytechnics. There are of course the ASEAN scholarships, which have been running for a very long time. But it is a very wide field and I don’t really think I am currently able to go into detail about this.
Nowadays, it is really not that difficult to find out this information. I would actually start with our Ministry of Education website and the websites of the institutions themselves, the separate universities and the polytechnics. And, of course, my advice would be to practice your English as much as possible, because that is the language that we use.
Singapore and Myanmar have a long-standing relationship. Can you tell us about it?
The relationship goes back to the colonial era. Singapore and Rangoon as it then was were separate stops on the Southeast Asian steamship routes, going down the Straits of Malacca on across to the Indian Ocean. So we were all part of this same entity. In Singapore there are roads, there is Mandalay Road, Shan, Rangoon Road, and these are old roads in the old part of town dating back into the colonial era. So that tells you instantly that the connection is old.
But since then, now of course, we have the connection through ASEAN, which is a very important part of the Singapore-Myanmar relationship. We are fellow members of ASEAN and this is actually the baseline for the relationship now. ASEAN has more than a thousand meetings a year, not just among the foreign ministers or the political leaders but the sectoral meetings – education, environment, defence and so on. And Myanmar actively participates in all of these. So Myanmar and Singapore actually interact all the time through ASEAN.
What is the state of trade between Singapore and Myanmar?
I am told by my commercial secretary that it is very good. It went up 10 percent in 2018, from 2017 to nearly US 3 billion dollars. I think we are Myanmar’s third largest trading partner. I am told by DICA, your own agency, that we are currently the largest investor in Myanmar, though, of course, we are a financial hub and therefore we are also a base for investment by many countries and companies into Myanmar. And we are also invested directly in a very wide range of areas. We have just opened a power plant in Minjang. There is a Singapore private company that now has an extremely large and advanced bus manufacturing factory, SC Auto, I think is their name.
We have a family company that is growing low glycemic brown rice in Nay Pyi Taw. Yes, you can buy it in City Mart. The little rice company. We advertised them because I serve their rice in my house for guests, it is very good for you. And of course we have had hotels here for a very long time. Everyone knows the Sedona, Park Royal, Summit Park View, that one they have been here nearly 20 years. And now we have our banks, law firms, finance companies, there is a microfinance company that is very active. And of course many Singaporean private companies in many sectors – you know coffee bean and tea leaf … and Easy Café downtown.
So we are actually spread in a very wide range of industries because it is Singaporean investment here is from big companies like Semcorp and Sedona down to entrepreneurial young people who have just come here.
You mentioned that Singapore is the third largest trading partner. What is the main focus of this investment?
Actually just on Tuesday (in September) my Trade and Industry Minister was here and we signed the bilateral investment treaty with Myanmar. So there are quite a lot of things that we are interested in, of course, the finance sector, education, agriculture, as I was just saying, we are not trying to focus just on one thing, we are interested in quite a lot of different areas.
What can be done by Myanmar to attract more Singaporean investment?
I think it would be the same as what you are doing to attract investment from everywhere, really. There has been a log of regulatory reform in the last two or three years, you know, the list of reforms is actually very large, especially in the finance sector, and in the legal sector. So we would encourage Myanmar to carry on with reforms , not just opening up the market but also clarity of regulation, of markets, and of course to continue focusing on improving the well-being of the people.
There are lot of migrant workers in Singapore can you tell us about that?
Well you know we have a visa-free arrangement now so actually a lot of Singaporeans come in or out of Myanmar and a lot Myanmar come in and out of Singapore all the time. So, I am not actually sure how many Myanmar there are in Singapore at any one time. It may be nearly a hundred thousand, and they are doing many things there. They are studying or working and many have been living there for a long time. So, there are Myanmar working in Singapore at every level including some university professors, I think. So, like our involvement in Myanmar it is not just focused in a particular sector.
Singapore and Myanmar have cultural ties, can you tell us about them?
As I said, the direct cultural ties go back to the colonial era. Right now, I would say these are mostly commercial and personal ties. I, myself, have an interest in Myanmar traditional culture but that’s a slightly different thing.
I heard you are interested in the Myanmar craft of Sasigyo, or 100 word ribbons. Can you tell us about that?
Oh, I can tell you lots, we could be here all day. This is a personal project obviously, Sasigyo, I brought one to show you. This is my latest, this is a gift from a scholar in Mandalay I haven’t even had a chance to get it translated and photographed yet. But these were used to tie up the besan (manuscripts) and these were woven to tie them and record the donation of the besan, so you can actually get a lot of historical and social information from it. Because quite often you have the names of the donor, the place, the occasion of the donation.
Sometimes, it would have been for the monk’s ordination, sometimes a wedding or something like that and it can tell you a great deal about the customs at the time and the society at the time, especially the older ones from the colonial era. So, I got interested in these, there has been so little research done on them in English or even in Myanmar. So, my goal is to get Myanmar scholars to start treating these texts in the same way they study bell inscriptions and rock inscriptions as part of the historical literature of Myanmar. I’ve also tried to restore or revive the skill of weaving these because it was lost for a long time the last professional weaver died in 1984. But, with the help from some friends from the Chin community we have managed to restore the weaving of Sasigyo in its modern form so, they are not doing huge long ribbons anymore because people don’t donate besan anymore. What they are doing is little short bracelets to help you with meditation with the texts on them. That’s maintains the skill and encourages people to start using sasigyo again.
What do you think Myanmar can do too woo more tourists from Singapore?
I think there is a lot of potential in Myanmar for tourism. At the moment people think of it as just visiting ancient sites. But really there is so much more. You could do what people do in Japan. For instance there are pilgrimage trails, people go pagoda to pagoda collecting the stamps, each pagoda has its own design, they sell booklets and they stamp each one as you go along so people collect these stamps. If they don’t finish one trail during one period, they will come back to the others so I think actually this is something Myanmar could do because you could do different kinds, you could do the trails for pagodas in each state and region or you could do them within one area.
For instance Inle lake you could start there and move around all the sites in that region. And of course, there’s a lot of potential in domestic tourism. Myanmar has beautiful scenery, it has nice quiet places, good food. Marketing Myanmar has place for wellness of relaxation, for meditation, and healing and health, I think that is also a very good possibility.
There are two issues as I mentioned earlier, the Rakhine crisis and the peace process. The peace process is delayed now so foreigners do not come to our country. So, what should we do?
Singaporeans don’t know much about Myanmar, so a lot of this is information letting people know that Myanmar is a big place and is more than just the challenges you have mentioned. There are things to see and do in Myanmar, things that people can come and learn from and enjoy and appreciate regardless of the challenges.
Myanmar is a big country. Not everywhere is suffering from the situations you describe and avoiding it doesn’t actually help. In fact, I would encourage more visitors because that encourages development, it encourages interaction, it encourages openness. I think having a more, how do I put this, the Myanmar tourism industry also needs to go out there it does require a lot of active attention because there are many places people can go, so, why would they come to Myanmar.
So, I think more information about the different things you can do in Myanmar. It’s not just come to the Shwedagon and that’s it, or go to Bagan or go to Inle. So, for instance, you’ve got several world heritage sites. Now there are people who actually enjoy going to archaeological sites, so the more high-end scholarly tourism is actually something that should be encouraged here as well. I’ve done that myself in other countries, you go in a small group, you are led by a scholar or archaeologist in that area and they give you a little lecture along the way. This would be something good for Myanmar and it’s a natural fit for Myanmar because it has so much in the way of history and culture.
Given your experience of Myanmar what do you enjoy the most?
Well, Sein Ta Lone mangoes certainly come high on the list. I would encourage Myanmar to export more to Singapore. It is very popular in Singapore. Everyone there knows Myanmar mangoes are the best. But my primary interest, personally of course, apart from my work, is the history and culture of Myanmar particularly the traditional arts which are basically in trouble and need support.
Myanmar people of course have other problems to deal with but I think it is important as much as possible to try and appreciate and support your traditional arts because these are a fundamental part of your history and culture. And it not just for example the longyi or the Chin jacket weaving, or the Kachin weaving or the silk weaving at Inle or Myanmar traditional music, the making of a ‘sound’, there are very few people left who can make a ‘sound’ but that is the heart of the classical Myanmar music repertoire. No more harps made, no more harp music. So, this is something that should be encouraged.
Would you like to say anything else?
I think really the important thing for Myanmar is that it is a country that is very diverse, many groups, many religions, many cultures, with different interpretations of history, different interpretations of politics but ultimately for a country to survive in the modern world it must be united and so I think it is important for all groups to be willing and able to compromise. Everyone has to give up something, to gain something. So compromise and unity that is the important thing.