Don’t let coup get in way of making money in Myanmar: top Singapore diplomat

Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan. Photo MCI
Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan. Photo MCI

Singaporean firms invested in Myanmar should stay focused on business concerns and avoid “politics,” Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in parliament today. 

Balakrishnan, 60, told lawmakers that he was against “widespread, generalized, indiscriminate” sanctions against Myanmar’s military leaders because they could hurt the country’s poor, while noting that Singapore was Myanmar’s largest foreign investor with a cumulative USD$24 billion in investments committed as of December. 

“We are not in favor of generalized sanctions, which will hurt the ordinary citizens of Myanmar,” the minister said. “I’ve also answered earlier on our advice to businesses that you have to take into account political risks and social and political dynamics before making these investment decisions. And I’m sure all our companies are currently reevaluating our businesses.”

Those ordinary citizens of Myanmar have, since the Feb. 1 coup d’etat, been pleading for international pressure on the military there to return power to the people. Tens of thousands have taken to the streets daily amid a pervasive civil disobedience campaign that’s been met with increasingly harsh measures by the security forces.

To Balakrishnan, taking a position those matters would get in the way of business.

“But again I want to emphasize that it is crucial for us in both good times and bad times to maintain this separation between politics and business and let businesses make commercial decisions, investment decisions on their own merits,” he said. “And I think this is a good time for us to maintain that discipline.”

Balakrishnan was responding to questions posed by MPs in the wake of ongoing protests against the military coup in Myanmar after State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and other cabinet members of the National League for Democracy were detained and a state of emergency imposed by the Tatmadaw military.

Singaporean companies including gaming firm Razer have since pulled their investments out of Myanmar, where numerous companies including telco Mytel are linked to the Tatmadaw. The United States last week imposed sanctions on Myanmar entities including gemstone companies. 

Among those who posed questions to Balakrishnan was Workers’ Party MP Gerald Giam, who asked whether the government was advising Singaporean firms with links to the Myanmar military or its associated companies. 

Balakrishnan said that he would not give “specific advice” to companies but would do his best to make all information available. 

Other firms that have invested in Myanmar include Temasek-backed fund Ascent Myanmar Growth Fund, which pumped USD$26 million into internet service provider Frontiir just last year. 

Balakrishnan also said that most Singaporean investment in Myanmar occurred in the last five years under the civilian government, which he said was a “10-fold” increase over preceding years. He then went back to his narrative that politics and business should be kept separate. 

“And I want to stress that companies make these investment decisions on commercial grounds. They did not do so because of political influence or political suggestion on our part but I believe the commercial companies saw promising opportunities in a Myanmar that was undergoing democratic transition,” adding that he wanted “to head off suggestions that we should now interfere on political grounds.”

At the start of his speech, the minister expressed his wish that Myanmar would return to its democratic roadmap and not disrupt its mobile and internet connectivity, which he said was affecting communication between Singaporeans in Myanmar and the Singaporean embassy. 

About 500 Singaporeans have registered with the Singapore Foreign Affairs Ministry, of which only 17 have chosen to return home on two relief flights this month, according to Balakrishnan.  

Other stories:

Burmese expat goes to police over Singapore companies’ ties to Myanmar military

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