More Singapore business in Burma

Mark Baker
Sydney Morning Herald
10 April 2004

Qantas has defended its partnership in a new Asian budget airline with two prominent Singaporean businessmen who have commercial ties to Burma’s military regime.

One of the partners this week left open the possibility of the Singapore-based airline flying to Burma – despite an international boycott on tourism and investment called by detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Qantas chief executive Geoff Dixon, while refusing to disclose which routes were being considered, later insisted that he and his partners would “do the right thing” in response to the Burma boycott.

“If they are discouraging tourism and all the rest of it, it’s probably very unlikely we’d want to fly there,” Mr Dixon said.

The new airline – likely to be called Jetstar Asia – plans to begin flying later this year to a range of budget tourist destinations within a five-hour radius of Singapore. It aims to build a fleet of 20 aircraft within three years.

Qantas will have a 49.9 per cent stake in the $S100 million ($78 million) start-up and will initially hold the chairmanship of a six-member board.

Two leading Singaporean businessmen – Wong Fong Fui and Tony Chew – have taken a total 31.1 per cent stake in the new company, with the balance of the shareholding held by Temasek Holdings, the powerful investment arm of the Singapore Government.

Mr Wong was managing director of Burma’s privatised national airline, Myanmar Airways International, for seven years up to 1998, and Mr Chew is a member of the Myanmar Business Group, an association of Singaporean businessmen with interests in Burma.

Asked whether his strong business ties in Burma and Vietnam made them likely destinations for the new airline, Mr Chew told a press conference in Singapore on Tuesday: “I think every destination is potential.”

Mr Dixon said the airline was studying a range of potential routes, but said he could not be specific until approval had been granted by Singapore’s transport ministry.

Pressed on whether Qantas was swayed by calls from Ms Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy for tourists and businessmen to stay away from Burma until democracy was restored, Mr Dixon appeared unsure about the boycott, which has drawn strong international support.

“Are you saying a social issue, a conscience issue or a commercial issue?” he said, in response to a question from The Herald.

When told it was a political issue, he said: “I’m quite sure all the shareholders would take in political issues, they’ll take in social issues and they’ll take in commercial issues.

“I think you can rest assured, given our background, and I’m quite sure with Mr Chew and others, that we’ll make the right decision when it comes to things like that.”

Mr Dixon said Qantas had “a track record around the world for doing, basically, the right thing, and I’m very confident Mr Wong and Mr Chew and Temasek will [do] the same”.

Singaporean companies – including some with substantial government shareholdings – have been attacked by international human rights groups as being among the most active foreign investors in Burma in recent years.

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