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3-on-3 with Dr. Maung Maung Lay

18 Aug 3-on-3 with Dr. Maung Maung Lay

Myanmar’s military government opened the country’s economy to much fanfare in 2011. But the last frontier market in ASEAN remains one of the most unfriendly to businesses, according to the latest joint study by the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation. Myanmar is ranked the world’s hardest place to start a business and second last in terms of “enforcing contracts”. It is placed at 182nd  (out of 189 countries) on the “ease of doing business” index.

But the US$55 billion (S$68 billion) economy should not be written off as an attractive investment destination, said Dr. Maung Maung Lay, Vice President of Myanmar’s Federation of Chambers of Commerce & Industry (UMFCCI). The medical doctor-turned-pharmaceutical firm owner, who himself has had to overcome many bureaucratic hurdles in his import business, urged foreign investors to give Myanmar more time as his government learns to adapt to international norms.

We posed three questions to Dr. Maung Maung Lay, who was recently in Singapore to speak at the SIIA’s 7th ASEAN & Asia Forum.

Q1. Many investors are keen to enter or expand in Myanmar. But a recently-released World Bank and International Finance Corporation’s study shows that starting a business in Myanmar and doing business there remain very difficult. What would you say to foreign investors who are holding their horses because of these findings? 

Dr. Maung Maung Lay: Well, Myanmar has been hibernating for 50 years out in the cold behind the bamboo curtain. Now, we have emerged, we have resurrected. But the people are not that prepared. They have not been exposed to the international or regional arena. They do not know much about international norms, standard practices and corporate governance.

But our present government tends to listen. That’s the beauty of it. In a way, they have been copying Singapore’s way of problem solving. They listen to the complaints and they make changes quickly. But just like a Chinese dragon, after the head moves, it takes a while before the tail follows. The bureaucracy now still lacks the competency to move along with the leaders. But we can overcome this. Dramatic transformations are already taking place. So I don’t think potential investors and our business and development partners should be scared of doing business in Myanmar.

Q2. Many young and capable Myanmarese are working abroad now. Are you confident that they will return to the country? Would you want them to return to Myanmar now or only after they have gained enough experiences overseas?

Dr. Maung Maung Lay: As a matter of fact, they will return to Myanmar when we can have greener pastures. When they come back, they will be put in managerial roles immediately. The polarity (between those who have not left the country and those who return with overseas experiences) is there.

And frankly, the country needs them badly. The multinational corporations in Myanmar need them too. We simply do not have enough skilled labour at home because of our education system.

Q3: How would you like Myanmar to be seen by the international community?

Dr. Maung Maung Lay: Many people still think of Myanmar as a primitive country. Some don’t even know where Myanmar is. But hopefully by December, after the US President Barack Obama makes his second visit to Myanmar, more people would know that we are the last frontier economy in ASEAN, and that we have the biggest land mass in mainland Southeast Asia.

We have many untapped resources above and below ground. We have very long coastline. Our fishes are dying of old age. They are waiting to be served on your plates. We have timber, gold mine, jade, ruby. And our labour is still relatively cheap. Do come to Myanmar. The early bird catches the worm.