As Myanmar opens up to the world, how will its people adapt, after decades of virtual isolation? SIIA Director and Nominated Member of Parliament Nicholas Fang examines this, in Part 2 of a special report for TODAY. Part 1, "Taming the new frontier", is available here.
This article was originally published in TODAY on Friday, 17 August 2012.
One of the first things visitors notice upon arrival is the smiles on the faces of the locals. While neighbouring Thailand is more famously known as the "Land of a Thousand Smiles", Myanmar may be fast laying claim to that title.
Visiting tourists and expats who spoke to TODAY shared the same observation: The warm Myanmarese seem genuinely happy to see you in their country. That can only be a good sign, given the heightened interest from curious foreign tourists, who stayed away during five decades of military rule; and overseas investors, now rubbing their hands in anticipation of opportunities.
Emerging from decades of isolation and military rule last year, Myanmar is being cautiously welcomed back into the fold by the global community, after sweeping reforms that saw democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi installed in the country's Parliament last month.
Observers say her return to the public eye, after decades of detention, has boosted morale among many Myanmarese. Even the ongoing communal violence between ethnic Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya, which has left dozens dead and tens of thousands homeless, has not quenched the apparent greater sense of optimism and hope among ordinary citizens.
SLOWER PACE OF LIFE
In the months since political reforms began, "the mood of the people has changed dramatically from January 2011, when I was first here," said Mr Philipp Hoffmann, General Manager of JJ-Pun, a joint venture between Jebsen & Jessen (SEA) and Myanmar's Serge Pun & Associates Group.
"The locals are much more optimistic and happier, even if they are a little wary about what the opening-up could mean in terms of increased competition from abroad."
This concern about the implications of increased connectivity with the world is understandable, given the many years of isolation from it. Some locals that I spoke to expressed a fondness for the simple and slower-paced life that is familiar to them.
Thann Zaw, 37, is an economics university graduate. With two children aged five and 10 and a homemaker wife, he is content to work as a taxi driver, while earning sideline cash as a translator and tour guide for the growing number of visitors to Myanmar.
"I'm happy not to have a regular office job. I don't want a stressful life and I value the freedom to do what I like, to go home and see my family when I want to," he said.
He estimates that he earns enough to cover his monthly expenses of some 150,000 kyats - about S$144 to S$250, depending on the widely fluctuating street exchange rate - and rent for his two-bedroom apartment of 120,000 kyats. Officially, the exchange rate stands at about 6.5 kyats to US$1, but the more accurate street rate ranges between 750 and 1,300 kyats. (It was 850 kyats to the greenback when TODAY visited.)
S'POREAN EXPAT EXPERIENCE
With quirks like the exchange rate, the lack of credit card facilities anywhere in the country and the exaggerated picture often painted of a backward, military-ruled Myanmar in the outside world, it was understandable why Singaporean Gavin Gomez was worried when he came here to seek his fortune in 2004, at the age of 30.
Mr Gomez, now 38 and the Centre and Training Manager for RV! Centre - a Myanmar-Singapore joint venture education enterprise - said: "At the time, we heard stories about how we needed to have cash to bribe officials at customs to get in, that we couldn't go out at night, that there was military everywhere. None of this was true," he says with a laugh. "Even then, foreigners were left alone."
But he admits that, even after eight years in the country, some things still take getting used to. For example, the Internet connection to the outside world is not always reliable nor fast and there are limited recreational activities.
"There are a few music lounges here, and it's safe to go out till 1am or 2am, but there's not much else to do besides hang out with colleagues and friends or spend time with family," he said. Even a major city like Yangon boasts of just one Western hangout, a stand-alone Australian-themed bar and restaurant).
A YANGON MARATHON?
But all that may be slowly changing. While it will take some time for more recreation and entertainment options to develop, the influx of returning Myanmarese from abroad, and the arrival of more foreign businessmen, means such development is inevitable.
Come March next year, for instance, Myanmar may get its first Parkson department store in downtown Yangon, under a new joint venture involving Singapore-listed Yoma Strategic Holdings, among others. Yoma, a top real-estate developer in Myanmar, is also looking to revive the Yangon marathon early next year, after more than a decade since it was last held.
Such activities will add to the country's list of attractions which already includes pristine beaches and the magnificent golden pagodas such as Yangon's Shwedagon Paya.
Meanwhile, thanks to more frequent flights from destinations such as Singapore and Thailand, it is easier for expats living in Myanmar to get away to somewhere more bustling for the weekend.
There are concerns that too rapid a pace of opening up could overwhelm the Myanmar people if the development is rampant, uncontrolled and fails to take into consideration local sensitivities. Certainly there is much about the modern world that Myanmarese will have to adapt to.
One of Asia's richest countries early in the 20th century, Myanmar is now one of the world's poorest. Only a small percentage of people, reportedly, have bank accounts, while a third of its estimated 60 million population lives on less than US$1 (S$1.25) a day. Three in four do not have access to electricity.
Soaring inflation and a possible weakening of the kyat could make life harder for many.
On the other hand, the small middle- and upper-class - which includes the steady trickle of returning overseas Myanmarese - has much pent-up spending power. Consumer spending, along with confidence, is on the rise. HDB-style apartments at Star City (launched by Yoma) were snapped up almost as fast as they were launched, payment in cash.
With locals believing that the country is turning the corner, there is a genuine interest in keeping up with the Joneses, in this case Singapore and Thailand. But for ordinary Myanmarese to ride this wave of unprecedented growth and development, a cultural mindset change may be needed.
Said RV!'s Mr Gomez: "The traditional education model here takes it that the teacher is always right, and there are no questions from the students. This can create a lack of initiative when they come out into the workforce, so we're trying to make a difference in this area."
CLASSES IN DIPLOMACY
Again, the hints of change are already there. Two weekends ago, dozens of journalists held a petition drive to call for an end to censorship, in a very rare protest and sign of assertiveness (days later, Myanmar's media censors agreed to lift suspensions on two weekly magazines). Foreign media observers point out that senior newsroom positions in some publications are filled largely by people under 30.
Yet, some observers also point out, the country had been working to prepare for future growth even under the previous regime.
A senior government official, who declined to be named, said that a basic diplomatic skills course was organised for the public by the government under the instruction of former military head of state Than Shwe. The courses, conducted since 2000, aim to equip Myanmarese with basic skills needed to "represent Myanmar well" at home and abroad, and include etiquette and conversation skills. To date, almost 30 courses with 100 participants each have been held.
Such efforts will hold Myanmar and its people in good stead as they face a new beginning as part of the regional and global community. At the same time, it will be interesting to see if they retain their traditional grace and tranquillity, in the headlong rush into greater economic growth.
Nicholas Fang is Director at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and a former Business Editor at Channel NewsAsia. He spent a week in Yangon to put together this special report commissioned by TODAY.
A slow love affair
by Nicholas Fang
When Mr Gavin Gomez left Singapore to seek a career in Myanmar, he fell in love, literally. The Training and Centre Manager at the RV! Centre in Yangon arrived in 2004 and after two years found the love of his life, got married and now has two children.
Yet initially, as a 30-year-old in a new land, he had harboured doubts about lasting more than three months. "When I first got here, some of the things took a while to get used to. For example, there was water and electricity rationing, and calling back to Singapore was, and still is, expensive," he told TODAY in an interview in Yangon.
"There wasn't much connection with the rest of the world, and that was not easy. I actually spoke to my boss, but he convinced me to stick it out for three months before considering coming back to Singapore."
The former land survey executive began teaching an "O"-level class. "As I began to work with the Myanmar students, I found them all to be very enthusiastic and genuinely interested in learning. They were very respectful of the teachers and were focused on the work. I used to do relief teaching in Singapore and this was quite a different experience."
He came to appreciate the more relaxed lifestyle too. "The people were very warm and gentle, and were keen to make sure I was fitting in. They were so welcoming that I felt a sense of belonging."
Mr Gomez met his wife, Esther Ciin Sian Niang, at the RV! Centre where she was working as a student counsellor. They were married in 2006. "Our lives now revolve around taking care of our son and daughter, so we spend a lot of time at home," he said.
Despite having been away for eight years, he does not miss Singapore food much as a number of hotels serve such fare - including Keppel Land's Sedona and the Parkroyal, owned by the UOL group.
And while Mr Gomez says he may return to Singapore when his children are of school-going age, he is passionate about contributing to his current home: "There is a huge need for human development here, and the work we are doing at RV! will hopefully meet some of that need. Besides basic degrees, we are offering training for corporate organisations like the hotels, to provide the soft skills needed."
RV! is the leading management, training and educational services provider in Myanmar. Mr Gomez is also the Secretary of the Singapore Association of Myanmar, which has some 100 members. Started in 1993, it organises functions such as National Day celebrations. "We also run golf tournaments and charity bazaars to raise money for local charities, and offer our members the chance to network at such events," he added.