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Singapore isn’t just skilled at mandatory executions of drug traffickers, running an excellent airport and selling cameras on Orchard Road. It also does a useful trade keeping Burma’s military rulers and their cronies afloat.
Much attention is placed on China and its coming hosting of the Olympic Games as a diplomatic pressure point on the rampant Burmese junta. But there is a group of government businessmen-technocrats in Singapore who will also be closely monitoring the brutality 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 gather around the $A150 billion state-owned investment house Temasek Holdings, controlled by a member of the ruling Lee family.
With an estimated $A3 billion staked in the country (and a more than $20 billion stake in Australia), Singapore Inc companies have been some of the biggest investors in and supporters of Burma’s military junta — this while its Government, on the rare times it is asked, suggests a softly-softly diplomatic approach towards the junta.
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-1990s: “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 with the crucial equipment mostly denied by Western sanctions, Singapore has helped keep the junta and its cronies afloat for 20 years, since the last time the generals killed the citizens they are supposed to protect.
Withdraw that financial support and Burma’s junta would be substantially weakened, perhaps even fail. But after two decades of profitable business with the trigger-happy generals and their cronies, that’s about the last thing Singapore is likely to do. There’s too much money to be made.
Hotels, airlines, military material and training, crowd control equipment and sophisticated telecoms-monitoring devices for its secret police — Singapore is manager and supplier to the junta, and the “cronified” economy it controls.
It’s impossible to spend any time in Burma and not make the junta richer, thanks to Singapore suppliers’ contracts with the tourism industry. Singapore’s hospitals also keep Burma’s leaders alive — 74-year-old junta leader Than Shwe has been getting his intestinal cancer treated in a Singapore government hospital, protected by Singapore security. Singapore’s boutiques keep junta wives and families cloaked in Armani, and its banks help launder their money and that of Burma’s crony drug lords.
Much of Singapore’s activity in Burma has been documented by an analyst working in Prime Minister John Howard’s direct chain of command, in the Office of National Assessments. Andrew Selth is recognised as an authority on the Burmese military. Now a research fellow at Queensland’s Griffith University, Mr Selth has written extensively on how close Singapore is to the junta.
Often writing as “William Ashton” in the authoritative Jane’s Intelligence Review, Mr Selth has described in various articles how Singapore has sent the junta guns, rockets, armoured 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 defence ministry and army, while upgrading the bunkered junta’s ability to network with regional commanders — so crucial as protesting monks take to the streets of 20 Burmese cities, causing major logistical headaches for the Tatmadaw, the Burmese military.
“Singapore cares little about human rights, in particular the plight of the ethnic and religious minorities in Burma,” Mr Selth writes.
“Having developed one of the region’s most advanced armed forces and defence industrial support bases, Singapore is in a good position to offer Burma a number of inducements which other ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) countries would find hard to match.”
Singapore’s Foreign Minister, George Yeo, is the current chairman of ASEAN.
Mr Selth says Singapore also provided the equipment for a “cyber war centre” to monitor dissident activity while training Burma’s secret police, whose sole job seems to be ensuring pro-democracy groups are crushed.
Monitoring dissidents is an area where Singapore has particular expertise. After almost five decades in power, the Lee family-controlled People’s Action Party ranks behind only the communists of China, Cuba and North Korea in leadership longevity, skilled in neutralising opposition.
“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,” Mr Selth writes.
Singapore Government companies, such as leading arms supplier Singapore Technologies, dominate the communications and military sector in Singapore. “It is highly unlikely,” Mr Selth writes, “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 defence-oriented Joint Intelligence Directorate, people with a military background rather than professional diplomats.
He writes that after the 1988 crackdown, when the junta killed 3000 protesters, “the first country to come to the regime’s rescue was in fact Singapore”.
When I interviewed Singapore Technologies chief executive Peter Seah at his office in Singapore, I asked about the scale model of an armoured personnel carrier made by his company on his office table. He said ST sold the vehicles “only to allies”.
Does that include Burma, I asked, given that Singapore controversially helped sponsor the military regime into ASEAN?
Mr Seah was non-specific: “We only sell to allies and we make sure they are responsible.” He didn’t say how. ST and Temasek don’t respond to questions about their activities in Burma.
Singapore is so close to Burma that one of its diplomats there wrote a handbook for its business people there. Matthew Sim’s Myanmar on my Mind is full of useful tips for Singaporean business people in Burma. “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.”
Mr Sim says many successful Myanmar businessmen have opened shell companies in Singapore “with little or no staff, used to keep funds overseas”. The companies are used to keep business deals outside the control of Burma’s central bank, enabling Singaporeans and others to transact with Burma in Singapore.
He may be referring to junta cronies such as Tay Za and the drug lord 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. He 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, as it controls 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, married a Singaporean, Cecilia Ng, and the two reportedly control Singapore-based trading house Kokang Singapore.
A former assistant secretary of state for the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Robert Gelbard, has said that half Singapore’s investment in Burma has “been tied to the family of narco-trafficker Lo Hsing Han”.
Tay Za, who is romantically linked to a daughter of junta leader Than Shwe, is also well known in Singapore. He was prominent in the Singapore media last year, toasting the launch of his 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.
Eric Ellis is an Australian journalist and correspondent in South-East Asia.