Myanmar’s Biggest Foreign Investor Is Singapore. Here’s Why That Matters.

Myanmar’s Biggest Foreign Investor Is Singapore. Here’s Why That Matters.

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Myanmar coup, protests

A woman holds a bottle of Tiger Beer at a launch in Bangkok. PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL / AFP

During recent protests against the coup in Myanmar, a photo circulated widely on Twitter showing riot police officers testing an Orion 7 anti-drone gun, which eagle-eyed internet observers linked to a little-known security firm from Singapore. 

The firm, TRD, confirmed to VICE World News that it had supplied the drone gun as part of a deal selling equipment to the Myanmar police force. It said that its drone devices—used to disrupt signals, forcing them to land—had “no effect on humans” and were certified safe according to international standards.

But in light of the Feb. 1 coup, TRD said that it halted business with Myanmar for the time being—including a deal with Yangon airport authorities—and would be reassessing their ties in the country. 

“Given the current situation, we have no plans to supply our anti-drone guns to Myanmar for now, until a lawful society is re-established,” TRD CEO Sam Ong said in an emailed response to questions. 

“We will not be selling to the military and will be reviewing future sales accordingly.” 

More than two weeks after the generals seized power in Myanmar by arresting civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, mass protests have erupted across the country, drawing in virtually every segment of society, from doctors and lawyers to break dancers, teachers and fitness buffs. 

The growing demonstrations have been increasingly focused on countries and global corporations that may have business links to Myanmar security forces, with calls for boycotts of products and for investors to pull deals that involve military interests.

Women in traditional Burmese outfits walk across a bridge in Singapore. AFP: ROSLAN RAHMAN

Women in traditional Burmese outfits walk across a bridge in Singapore. Photo: ROSLAN RAHMAN / AFP

While much of the attention has been on China and Japan, Singapore is now on the list of alleged offenders. The wealthy island city-state is Myanmar’s biggest foreign investor, overtaking China in 2019 to bring in more than $24 billion of capital through lucrative real estate projects, banking, shipping, sand exports and construction, as well as arms sales. 

Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew once privately said that dealing with Myanmar’s previous junta was like “talking to dead people”. But the two Southeast Asian countries have a long-standing relationship, one which has also seen aging Myanmar army generals being given top access to Singapore’s world-class hospitals and medical facilities.

Political and economic ties grew in the brief flowering of democracy over the last decade. Singapore-based businesses now account for a sizable majority of foreign firms doing deals in Myanmar and its powerful military, according to the World Bank.

But the companies and investments are now under intense scrutiny from both human rights groups and protesters, who are looking at Myanmar’s global economic connections for possible pressure points.

“Singapore is in a powerful but delicate position when it comes to Myanmar,” political scientist Ian Chong told VICE World News. “Compared to other governments in the region, Singapore has the most influence over Myanmar’s army generals thanks to its history of building good relations.” 

“Singapore has the most influence over Myanmar’s army generals thanks to its history of building good relations.”

“But inadvertently empowering these actors cannot be good for Singapore, and the government has to question who it’s siding [with] because in the long run, continued instability across the region will not bode well—not just for Singapore but also the rest of the world,” Chong added.

Calls by activists in Myanmar to boycott Singapore brands and franchises are growing louder while protests have taken place at the Singapore embassy in Yangon to put pressure on its leaders to adopt a stronger stand against the junta. A contributor for VICE World News in Yangon witnessed diners at a restaurant being told not to order Tiger beer because it is a Singaporean brand.

“I am not foolish to spend money on brands that flow from a country that supports the military and dictatorship,” a 27-year-old Yangon resident said in an interview, who is not being named out of security concerns.

“It’s clear that Singapore isn’t respecting the voices of people in Myanmar, even if the rest of the world knows about it. Singapore’s actions are irresponsible.”

Justice for Myanmar, a collective of activists who focus on companies with ties to the Myanmar armed forces’ sprawling economic interests, said it was “unconscionable” for Singaporean businesses to continue supporting the military.

“Singapore has not played a direct role in the coup but as the largest foreign investor in Myanmar, it has an obligation to uphold human rights and immediately end all business with the military,” it said in a statement.

The international response to the military takeover in Myanmar has been swift, including a UN Security Council statement signed by China in an unusual rebuke.

U.S. president Joe Biden announced fresh sanctions against Myanmar’s military leaders, including coup mastermind Min Aung Hlaing, and demanded that they relinquished power. On the business front, Japanese beer giant Kirin said it would drop its partnership with military conglomerate Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited.

But in a region where non-interference is a near-sacred tenet of political affairs, it is unclear how many Singaporean firms will heed calls to cut ties, even if consequences of sticking around are becoming apparent.

“Any country found selling weapons and doing business with Myanmar during this time will face questions and run the risk of reputational and political consequences,” said Richard Horsey, an independent analyst on Myanmar for Crisis Group. 

“Should Singaporean companies still be allowed to continue doing business freely with a military that seized power and is cracking down on protesters? Regardless of what one thinks of sanctions, this has to be carefully navigated.” 

Singapore's Lee Hsien Loong and Aung San Suu Kyi on the sidelines of the 31st ASEAN summit back in 2017. AFP: Aaron Favila

Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong and Aung San Suu Kyi on the sidelines of the 31st ASEAN summit back in 2017. Photo: Aaron Favila / AFP

Addressing questions raised in parliament about “alarming developments” in Myanmar, Singapore’s foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan highlighted risks that Singaporean businesses in Myanmar were now facing. 

The minister also said that the Singapore government did not support widespread sanctions on Myanmar. 

“It is crucial we maintain the separation between politics and business, and let businesses make commercial and investment decisions on their own merits,” Balakrishnan said.  

“[While] we urge the authorities in Myanmar to exercise utmost restraint and hope that they will take urgent steps to de-escalate the situation, we should not embark on widespread, generalized indiscriminate sanctions because the people who suffer most will be ordinary citizens.” 

Watchdogs and rights groups criticized the Singapore government’s “weak stance.”

“Singapore’s leaders need to take a good, hard look at the situation in Myanmar and decide if short-term gains from despots are worth the long-term damage their country will face if it’s seen to be complying with dictators and military regimes,” said Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, a London-based NGO that campaigns for human rights and democracy in Myanmar. 

“Singapore’s leaders need to take a good, hard look at the situation in Myanmar and decide if short-term gains from despots are worth the long-term damage.”

Singapore has crafted a strong reputation as a global business hub and trade-friendly country, but Farmaner highlighted a dark side concerning its dealings with Myanmar—through offshore banks and western companies that made use of Singapore subsidiaries to do business in Myanmar.

“The Singapore government could make life much more difficult for Burmese army generals but instead, it seems to be nurturing a dangerous environment where lawbreakers can turn to keep their money safe, and this isn’t a reputation any country should have,” Farmaner told VICE World News.  

But action from some companies so far could signal a new approach. 

Earlier this month, a prominent businessman became the first Singaporean to pull out of business deals in Myanmar days after the coup unfolded. Lim Kaling, co-founder of cult gaming company Razer, sold his stake in a lucrative tobacco company linked to the military, and pulled out of a joint venture. “Recent events in Myanmar have caused me grave concern,” Lim said in a public statement. 

“As a result, I have decided to exit my investment in Myanmar and I hope for a time when I can be an investor in the country and its people once more.” 

However, he remains the only notable Singaporean name to date to have taken such a dramatic step.

VICE World News reached out to several Singaporean companies with ties and business dealings in Myanmar. 

Most did not immediately respond but a representative from a Singaporean Chinese shipping company, which docks at military-owned ports in Yangon, confirmed that the company was aware of the military’s actions, including violence towards unarmed civilians and protesters. The firm requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

“The situation in Myanmar is very unfortunate but our focus remains on sustaining business lifelines,” a spokeswoman said, brushing away fears of global repercussions in the wake of the coup. 

“At the end of the day, it all boils down to business and should be kept separate from politics.” 

Follow Heather Chen on Twitter.


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