” Change is the only constant”
~ Greek philosopher, Heraclitus (540-475 BC) ~
The city of Yangon is quite developed, more than what I expected. It is crowded, congested, yet active and dynamic. Banners advertising business conference, trade expos with Vietnam, and Thailand, business-attired travellers queuing at the counter for Diplomat at the airport immigration, all are indicators of foreign interest in this country. I can only imagine how it will affect the country, and its people, in the future. Of course, it is not as simple as it sounds.
As soon as we were leaving the sleek and modern Yangon International Airport, I instantly noticed old cars on the streets, many of them were manufactured two decades ago. Cars are driven on the right side of the road. Our driver, Myint said that government does not require vehicles to be left hand drive to accompany the right side road rules. Many cars on the road are still right hand drive made for driving on the left side. Japanese used cars made up most of the country’s import. Therefore, we see a mixture of left hand drive and right hand drive cars on the road. Another common sight is Japanese-used-vehicles in their original state with the previous user’s company name in Japanese characters, address and phone numbers painted on them. It is funny to see them on Yangon roads.
Signs of modernization do appear everywhere, one of them being flashy large LCD screen on city’s few limited skyscrapers. Speaking of Singapore, one only has to take a walk around Yangon to feel the Lion City’s strong presence. From umbrella shelters to publications, advertising billboards of Singapore companies such as Tiger Beer, OSIM, Gold Roast, Super Coffee Mix were prevalent on the roads. An advertisement of a local brand coffee has Singapore business district skyline and Merlion as their backdrop. Singaporeans command respect and admiration. Our currency SGD is one of the 3 foreign currencies accepted by the moneychanger at Yangon International Airport. The other 2 currencies are USD and Euro. In Myanmar people’s eyes, management system in Singapore is good and that it would be a good place to work.
At the Sedona Hotel, a Singapore-based hotel management arm of Keppel Land, the Singapore flag flies high alongside the Myanmar flag outside the hotel’s main entrance. The hotel is clearly favoured by world leaders and dignitaries. One of the most recent familiar figure was Emeritus Goh Chok Tong.
International hotel chains are almost non-existent in Yangon except a handful like Sedona. They are restricted by American sanctions which block most U.S. investments in the country. But this is going to change. Very soon, Sofitel and JW Marriott are opening hotels in Yangon.
Foreign investors stand to reap considerable benefits from the lifting of sanctions and opening up of Myanmar, which has long been a no-go zone for all but the most intrepid business. Abundant natural resources, geographical location amidst major emerging economies and a young educated labour force all provide Myanmar with the means for significant economic growth.
Western nations are re-engaging with Myanmar. Big companies in USA, European Union, Australia and Japan like Coca-Cola, General Electric are laying plans to invest heavily in Myanmar. And yet, the pace of reform after so many years of repression, and the absence of any public explanation for why the military now decided to cede power, has left citizens, and outside observers, both wary and thrilled.
Foreign investors are welcome in the property sector but they need to form joint ventures with local companies. Land prices and value in Yangon are soaring, like in Hong Kong and Singapore. Another interesting sector for investment is industrial estates in economic zones.
At the same time, however, Myanmar’s sudden openness to foreign investment is not without challenges. Important operational challenges also face companies seeking to enter the country. These include high levels of corruption, weak legal system, macroeconomic instability, and poor infrastructure.
There are no international banks and no electronic connection between the local Myanmar banks and any banks outside of the country. This means that if one wants to get money in and out of the country it has to be done by physically carrying money. Western Union and the like are barred from doing business in Myanmar. Credit card cannot be used officially due to US embargo. Not surprisingly, most people exchanged their dollars on the black market. There are official moneychangers but they are still restrictive. Foreigners are not allowed to open an account within the country, even with business visas.
It is obvious that most of the population is found in Yangon city where there is better work prospects. It is earning to live, not earning to save. Though there is a growing middle class, many can only live day to day because of the high cost of living. There are many people doing business, shopping and driving their cars. Trishaws and motorbikes have been outlawed on the streets of Yangon to ease congestion but still, it is congested albeit less horns being blown. In a country where a salary decent-paying job is around USD50 per month, many guys who can’t afford a car commute by Ks200 a trip rickety bus and cling on for their lives. There is so much life and activity here. Every street in central Yangon is hustle and bustle especially in China town, not surprisingly.
Progress keeps its slow march forward and the country is changing by the minute. Pretty soon, we will all forget that there was a time when there wasn’t any ATM or transfer money overseas at the click of a button. Those will be relics of the past. Let’s see.
The country is starting so far behind that it will take an extraordinary amount of work to move it forward. On the good side, since they are lagging behind a lot of their neighbors, they can learn from their success and mistake.
At the end of the day, however, there is genuine reason for the people of Myanmar to be excited. People feel empowered and genuinely excited for the future, looking forward to the changes in their country and their possible role within those changes.
Statistics at one glance: