Singapore and Burma: Such good friends

Eric Ellis
Asia Sentinel

The city-state’s diplomats may denounce the current crackdown, but Singapore is a crucial ally for the junta’s brutal generals

When protesters dared to show up in Singapore’s Istana Park earlier this week to protest Burma’s crackdown, authorities promptly arrested them, a reminder that Singapore isn’t just skilled at mandatory executions of drug traffickers, running an excellent airport and selling cameras to tourists. It also does a very useful trade keeping Burma’s military rulers and their cronies afloat. The five, members of the Singapore Democratic Party, were arrested, police said, for staging an unlawful demonstration. Singapore and Burmese nationals, the police said, have been allowed to protest “in a lawful manner,” along with some expatriate women wearing red.

For all the attention placed on China and its upcoming hosting of the Olympic Games as a diplomatic pressure point on the Burmese junta, which hove back into the world’s view by violently squashed non-violent demonstrators led by Buddhist monks all across Burma. Government business-technocrats in Singapore were also closely – and perhaps nervously — monitoring the brutality underway in Rangoon. And, were they so inclined, their influence could go a long way to limiting the misery being inflicted on Burma’s 54 million people.

Collectively known as “Singapore Inc,” they tend to gather around the $150 billion state-owned investment house Temasek Holdings, controlled by a member of Singapore’s long-ruling Lee family, Ho Ching, the wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Singapore companies have been some of the biggest investors in and supporters of Burma’s military junta, while its government, in the rare times it is asked, suggests a softly-softly diplomatic approach toward the junta. Tiny Singapore ranks alongside China and Thailand as Burma’s biggest trading partners.

When it comes to Burma, Singapore pockets the high morals it likes to wave at the West elsewhere. Singapore’s one-time head of foreign trade once said as his country was building links with Burma in the mid 1990’s; “while the other countries are ignoring it, it’s a good time for us to go in….you get better deals, and you’re more appreciated… Singapore’s position is not to judge them and take a judgmental moral high ground.”

But by providing Burma’s pariah junta much of the crucial materiel and equipment denied by Western sanctions, Singapore has helped keep the junta and its cronies afloat for 20 years, indeed since the last time the generals opened fire on the citizens they are supposed to protect. Withdraw that financial support from Singapore and others and Burma’s junta would be substantially weakened, perhaps even fail. But after two decades of profitable business with the trigger-happy generals, that’s about the last thing Singapore is likely to do. There’s too much money to be made.

While the world’s attention — and outrage — was riveted on Rangoon in late September, Singapore was at pains to be seen as the region’s leading voice in condemning the junta. Chairing ASEAN, it articulated the grouping’s “revulsion” toward Burma at the United Nations. The quasi-official Straits Times loyally parroted the line while overlooking the intimate business links Singapore has cultivated there, the medical care and hyper-security junta leaders get from Singapore and the frequent state visits.

Singapore’s spin was no better articulated internationally than by Tom Plate of the UCLA’s Asia-Pacific Media Network, a man regarded in Singapore as a particular favorite. In a column for CNN, Plate opined that (Foreign Minister George) Yeo “has few equals on the world diplomatic stage in the department of clear, concise and unmistakable language. Words like ‘appalled’ and we ‘demand’ are rarities in ASEAN-speak. Yeo used them — and a few other choice ones as well … Also working behind the scenes was Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong. He was lobbying his often-timid counterparts among the ASEAN states not to wimp out at the very moment the eyes of the entire world were glued on messed-up Buddhist Burma in Southeast Asia. Nobody has ever said Singapore was dumb.”

Perhaps, but no one ever said Singapore wasn’t pragmatic either, and nowhere did Plate link Singapore’s corporate endeavors in Burma to the current appalling mess. No sooner had the junta’s guns prevailed and world attention diverted, Singapore retreated to its self-interested status quo of doing little beyond occasional diplomatic hand-wringing. While Malaysia stated the obvious – that ASEAN’s policy toward Rangoon had failed and capitals across the region summoned envoys, kept up pressure and allowed spontaneous popular protests outside Burma’s ASEAN embassies, Singapore quietly balked. In New York, Singapore’s UN ambassador Vanu Gopala Menon told the Security Council that if sanctions were adopted against Burma, “we have to pause to consider dispassionately what the real impact of additional sanctions will be.”

So much of Burma’s bucks start with Singapore. Hotels, airlines, military equipment and training, crowd control equipment and sophisticated monitoring devices for its secret police, Singapore is a crucial manager and supplier to the junta, and the economy it controls. It is impossible to spend any meaningful time in Burma, and not make the junta richer, often via contracts with Singaporean suppliers to the tourism industry. Singapore’s hospitals also keep its leaders alive – 74 year-old junta strongman Than Shwe has been getting his intestinal cancer treated in a Singapore government hospital, in a ward heavily protected by Singaporean security. Singapore’s boutiques keep junta wives and families cloaked in Armani, and its banks help launder their money.

Much of Singapore’s activity in Burma has been documented by an analyst working in Australia’s Office of National Assessments, Canberra’s premier intelligence agency. Andrew Selth is recognized as one of the world’s leading authorities on the Burmese military. Now a research fellow at Queensland’s Griffith University, Selth has written extensively on how close Singapore is to the junta. Often writing as “William Ashton” in the authoritative Jane’s Intelligence Review, Selth has described in various articles how Singapore has sent the junta guns, rockets, armored personnel carriers and grenade launchers, some of it trans-shipped from stocks seized by Israel from Palestinians in southern Lebanon. Singaporean companies have provided computers and networking equipment for Burma’s defense ministry and army, while upgrading the junta’s ability to network with regional commanders, crucial when protests spread, as they did recently, nationwide causing major logistical headaches for the Tatmadaw, Burma’s military.

“Singapore cares little about human rights, in particular the plight of the ethnic and religious minorities in Burma,” Selth writes. “Having developed one of the region’s most advanced armed forces and defense industrial support bases, Singapore is in a good position to offer Burma a number of inducements which other ASEAN countries would find hard to match.”

Selth says Singapore also provided the equipment for a “cyber war center” to monitor dissident activity while training Burma’s secret police, whose sole job it seems is to ensure pro-democracy groups are crushed. Monitoring dissidents is an area where Singapore has particular expertise. “This centre is reported to be closely involved in the monitoring and recording of foreign and domestic telecommunications, including the satellite telephone conversations of Burmese opposition groups.” Selth writes.

Singapore government companies, like leading arms supplier Singapore Technologies, dominate the communications and military sector in Singapore. Duly, Selth writes “it is highly unlikely that any of these arms shipments to Burma could have been made without the knowledge and support of the Singapore Government.” He notes that Singapore’s ambassadors to Burma have included a former senior Singapore Armed Forces officer, and a past director of Singapore’s defense-oriented Joint Intelligence Directorate. “It is curious that Singapore chose to assign someone with a military background to this new member of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and not one of its many capable professional diplomats.” He writes that after the 1988 crackdown, when the junta killed some 3,000 democracy protesters, “The first country to come to the regime’s rescue was in fact Singapore.”

When I interviewed Singapore Technologies CEO Peter Seah at his office in Singapore, I inquired after the scale model of an armored personnel carrier made by his company that sat on his office table. He said ST sold the vehicles “only to allies.” Does that include Burma, I asked, given that Singapore helped sponsor the military regime’s entry into ASEAN? Seah was non-specific. “We only sell to allies and we make sure they are responsible.” He didn’t say how. For their part, ST and Temasek don’t respond to questions about their activities in Burma.

Singapore is so close to Burma than one of its diplomats there wrote a handbook for its businesspeople there. Matthew Sim’s “Myanmar on My Mind” is full of useful tips for doing business in Burma, including being realistic about corruption and lawbreakers, despite Singapore’s self-proclaimed clean image. “A little money goes a long way in greasing the wheels of productivity,” he writes.

A chapter headed “Committing Manslaughter When Driving” describes the appropriate action if a Singaporean businessman accidentally kills a Burmese pedestrian. “Firstly, the international businessman could give the family of the deceased some money as compensation and dissuade them from pressing charges. Secondly, he could pay a Myanmar citizen to take the blame by declaring that he was the driver in the fatal accident. An international businessman should not make the mistake of trying to argue his case in a court of law when it comes to a fatal accident, even if he is in the right. He highly probably will spend time in jail regretting it. It is a sad and hard world. The facts of life can be ugly.”

Sim describes Singapore’s usefulness to Burma. “Many successful Myanmar businessmen have opened shell companies” in Singapore “with little or no staff, used to keep funds overseas,” he notes. Sim says the companies are used to keep business deals outside the control of Burma’s central bank, enabling Singaporeans and others to do business with Burma in Singapore.

He may be referring to junta cronies like Tay Za and the druglord Lo Hsing Han. Lo is an ethnic Chinese, from Burma’s traditionally Chinese-populated and opium-rich Kokang region in the country’s east, bordering China. Lo controls a massive heroin empire, and one of Burma’s biggest companies, Asia World, which the US Drug Enforcement Agency describes as a front for his drug-trafficking. Asia World controls toll roads, industrial parks and trading companies. Singapore is the Lo family’s crucial window to the world, controlling a number of companies there. His son Steven, who has been denied a visa to the US because of his links to the drug trade, even married a Singaporean, Cecilia Ng, and the two reportedly control a Singapore-based trading house, Kokang Singapore Pte Ltd. The couple transit Singapore at will. A former US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Robert Gelbard, has said that half of Singapore’s investments in Burma “have been tied to the family of narco-trafficker Lo Hsing Han.”

Romantically-linked to a daughter of junta leader Than Shwe, Tay Za is also well known in Singapore. He had his fleet of Ferraris, Lexus’ and Mercedes shipped in from there. When on the island, he likes to stay at the Meritus Mandarin hotel on Orchard Rd, close to the excellent Singapore hospitals favored by his senior military patrons in Burma. Tay Za was all over the Singapore media last year toasting the launch of his new airline, Air Bagan, with the head of Singapore’s aviation authority. Dissident groups say the trade-off for Tay Za’s government business contracts in Burma is to fund junta leaders’ medical trips to Singapore.


When an earlier version of the article above was published last week in the Sydney Morning Herald, Singapore’s High Commissioner to Canberra, Eddie Teo, a former boss of Singapore’s secret police, the ISD, wrote to the newspaper to deny that Singapore had provided Burma’s generals with succor and support. It may be that these remarks are re-visited when what Lee Kuan Yew describes as the “ticking time bomb” of the Burmese junta explodes, as many Burmese and foreign diplomats believe is likely.

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