The coup in Myanmar has compounded problems for Singapore firms operating there. But they appear to be battening down the hatches to ride out the political storm.
Singaporean businesses, like other enterprises in Myanmar, have been trying to navigate the turbulent waves created by the military coup on 1 February. Their operations have been affected in three main ways: everyday disruptions brought about by political protests against the coup, challenges raised by the measures taken by the military government to assert control over resistance to the coup, and greater scrutiny of Singaporean businesses and their links with the Myanmar military.
In the first few days after the coup, internet blackouts and communication blocks set up by the military government created communication challenges between Singapore headquarters and their in-country staff. The military government has since ordered several temporary internet shutdowns. At present, access to the internet is heavily blocked — it is shut down between 1 am and 9 am, and mobile internet and pocket Wi-Fi have been cut. Only broadband Wi-Fi is working. Besides restricting communication, this has made it difficult for news and information to be disseminated, an invaluable resource at a time of uncertainty and rapid change. In February, the military government adopted a 2021 Electronic Transactions Law Amendment that increases the criminalization of data use and sharing, and creates problematic data protection rules. These changes came a few days after a draft Cyber Security bill was proposed by the military government to give it the power to block websites, order internet shutdowns, and restrict the dissemination of what it considers false news.
In addition, Singaporean businesses are facing disruptions in workflow and cashflow. Many shops, factories and banks have been closed due to the political protests. At the same time, the participation of civil servants in the civil disobedience movement has slowed down the processing of permits, licences and other bureaucratic procedures.
Banks remain closed due to political protests on the part of bank employees. As a result, carrying out financial transactions has become a challenge for all businesses in Myanmar. Businesses and individuals alike are unable to use over-the-counter services such as banking in or cashing cheques and withdrawing or transferring large amounts of money. Although it is still possible to withdraw cash from ATMs and transfer money online, the limits on these amounts make it challenging to pay for higher value items such as rent, supplies, start-up costs and so on.
As Singapore has been the largest foreign investor in Myanmar since 2012, having invested more than US$24 billion between 1988 and January 2021, activists are calling on the public to pressure Singapore companies to cut ties with the Myanmar military and its associated businesses so as to undermine the regime’s political legitimacy.
To compound matters, Singaporean businesses have come under increased scrutiny by international and Myanmar activists. As Singapore has been the largest foreign investor in Myanmar since 2012, having invested more than US$24 billion between 1988 and January 2021, activists are calling on the public to pressure Singapore companies to cut ties with the Myanmar military and its associated businesses so as to undermine the regime’s political legitimacy. In Myanmar, the nature of links between businesses and the military is wide-ranging in scope. They include, among other things, the leasing of land, the sale and purchase of goods and services, joint ventures, and stakes in the two military conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and their subsidiaries. These conglomerates, owned and influenced by senior military leaders including Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, own more than 100 businesses across many sectors of the economy, including manufacturing, construction, gem extraction, tourism and banking. The revenue from these businesses strengthens the military’s autonomy from former elected civilian oversight and provides financial support for its operations.
Among those Singaporean companies that have been singled out is Emerging Towns and Cities (ETC). Golden City, the company’s residential and commercial project was to be built on land reportedly leased from the military. ETC suspended trading of its shares on the Singapore Exchange after the latter launched an official query. It has also reportedly engaged an independent professional to review some of its dealings in Myanmar.
TRD, which supplies anti-drone guns, has reportedly stopped doing business in Myanmar after it became known that the Myanmar police were using these devices against protestors. It has also been reported that Coda, a Singapore-headquartered digital payments company, has removed military-affiliated telecoms firm Mytel from its portfolio. Razer’s co-founder and director declared that he would sell his one-third stake in a joint venture that owns RMH Singapore, which in turn owns 49 per cent of Myanmar’s cigarette maker Virginia Tobacco Company. The rest of Virginia Tobacco is owned by MEHL.
It is likely that other Singaporean businesses will divest their holdings to cut their links with the military’s conglomerates and/or to seek profits in other countries in the region. Surprisingly though, the Singapore Business Federation (SBF) has received enquiries from Singapore enterprises that are keen to explore future business opportunities in Myanmar.
Despite the turmoil and upheaval of the coup, it appears that Singaporean businesses are determined to ride out the storm. According to the SBF, many Singaporean enterprises in Myanmar are keenly aware of the risks and challenges of operating in an emerging economy. They have been mentally prepared for political upheaval. Those Singaporean businesses that remain in Myanmar are keeping their heads down and paddling hard to keep afloat. Their goal is to reap long-term gains and their ability to survive will depend on their tenacity, adaptability and ties with their Myanmar community.
Su-Ann Oh was Visiting Fellow of the Myanmar Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.