Insight Down South

Published: Saturday October 5, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Saturday October 5, 2013 MYT 8:01:16 AM

Learning from Myanmar

Aung San Suu Kyi has stunned Singaporeans with her answers and fresh perspective  during her recent trip to the republic.

IN my long working years I have gotten used to our reporters asking departing dignitaries what they thought of Singapore, expecting some lavish praises.

Generally, they would not be disappointed since most guests – however unimpressed they are – would not want to appear impolite towards their hosts.

Their kind comments, whether deserved or not, made great headlines in a compliant press.

In her first ever visit here, Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was a refreshing exception and by doing so, taught Singapore’s leaders a valuable lesson.

Although she carefully observed diplomatic niceties, the revered Nobel Peace laureate was frank about what she liked and disliked about Singapore.

During her final press conference, she was asked the familiar question of what she saw in Singapore that she might like to recreate in Myanmar.

She replied, “I don’t think ‘recreate’ is the word, ‘learn’ yes.”

If the host had hoped that she would cite Singapore as a role model, they were disappointed.

Her country, she said, would not want copy the city’s materialistic and high pressure living that had come with its affluence.

Her comments actually reflected a public complaint here that the government accords higher priority to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) rather than the people’s welfare.

A recent survey found that most citizens would accept a slower growth rate in exchange for a more relaxed lifestyle.

Some want a United Nations-type Happiness Index, not just GDP, to measure progress.

Upon being briefed that Singapore’s education system was “workforce-oriented”, Suu Kyi, 68, said: “That made me think, what is work all about? What are human beings for? What are human lives about?”

Despite that reservation, her visit has affirmed Myanmar’s close ties with Singapore as it seeks investments and technocratic expertise.

Although she was merely an opposition leader, Suu Kyi was greeted as though she were a national leader.

She met the whole Singaporean leadership – Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, President Tony Tan and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.

This may be due more than just Singapore’s charm offensive.

Years before Myanmar’s political changes came about, the republic had been sucking up to the military leaders even though they were suppressing her movements – principally for economic reasons.

They are now making up to the opposition.

Since time immemorial, foreign policy here has always been an extension of international trade and investment.

Founding leader Lee Kuan Yew once said: “We will trade even with the devil for our survival.”

Like many governments, the leaders here failed to correctly read the determination and prospect of Suu Kyi and her people’s revolution against the powerful military.

Singapore’s older leaders, who were ideologically of a different mould from Suu Kyi, had made remarks about her that they would probably rather not have made with hindsight.

Goh Chok Tong, for example, had said that Suu Kyi could not provide a solution to Myanmar’s problems because she was part of the problem.

And former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, once said it was better for her to stay at home than to interfere in politics.

“There is only one instrument of government and that is the army ... If I were Aung San Suu Kyi, I think I’d rather be behind a fence and be a symbol than after two or three years, be found impotent,” he added.

To his credit, the current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, adopted a different attitude.

Instead of running down the lady’s capability, he threw his support behind her declared candidacy for president in the 2015 election.

Suu Kyi will be a “capable” president if she gets elected, Hsien Loong said, and Singapore will be there to help Myanmar economically if the need arises.

That provided the salvation point to Singapore’s future friendly ties with her if she gains the leadership.

The foreign policy of Singapore, being a small country, has generally been to avoid getting caught between two big conflicting forces.

Suu Kyi’s diplomatic weaving around the past slights here last week was a good lesson for Singaporeans.

None of this, however, has affected the gathering business momentum between the two countries.

Singapore is Myanmar’s third-largest trading partner, with trade reaching S$1.8bil (RM4.6bil) last year.

An increasing number of Singaporeans are flocking to the nation of 60 million people to invest or trade.

Suu Kyi’s visit here has shown her to be an extraordinary woman.

Her departing words shook Singaporeans who had been led to believe in the superiority of the Singaporean development model for less developed countries.

“I think we have much to offer you, come and find out,” Suu Kyi said.

“Perhaps Singapore could learn from us on how to have a more relaxed way of life.”

The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

Tags / Keywords: Opinion, seah chiang nee

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