Singapore’s Myanmar Liability

Updated On: Oct 12, 2007

After China and IndiaSingapore has become the next country to come under international limelight over its economic relations with Myanmar

Last week, activist groups urged the United States Senate Foreign Relations committee to force Singaporean banks to freeze the accounts of junta leaders, and prohibit United States institutions from dealing with those that refuse.

Sann Aung, a Bangkok-based leader of the government-in-exile set up after the junta ignored the 1990 election results, told Reuters, “There are not many countries that the military regime can rely on today, and Singapore is one of them.”

Myanmar expert David Steinberg of Georgetown University told Reuters that Singapore could play a big role to end the crisis. He explained, “(The junta) consults with Singapore leaders…. I think a strong stand by Singapore will be helpful. But a strong stand has to be a quiet stand. The private advice is absolutely critical.” Steinberg added he favoured a ‘quiet’ approach.

Both the Singapore government and media have been active in defending itself. The Singapore government has been quick to defend some of its links with Myanmar and to criticise the military junta at the same time.

In an interview with CNN, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong denied that the Myanmar generals were using Singapore as a money-laundering centre. He said, “We don’t play dirty money, we don’t condone money laundering. Our rules against that are as strict as any other financial centre - LondonHong KongNew York.” When asked by CNN news anchor Anjali Rao if Lee would consider making banking secrecy laws in Singaporemore transparent, he replied, “Our rules against (money laundering) are as strict as any other financial centre - LondonHong Kong, you name it.”

The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) director of communications, Ms Angelina Fernandez, said in a letter published in the Financial Times yesterday that Singapore “operates a rigorous regime against money laundering and financing of terrorism. We require all financial institutions to institute strict procedures, including the need to identify and know their customers and to report all suspicious transactions.”

Lee also defended Singapore’s willingness to allow senior Myanmarleaders to visit Singaporefor regular medical checks. For instance, Myanmar prime minister General Soe Win, 59, was treated for cancer at Singapore's General Hospital for months before he reportedly died on 2 October (this however has yet to be confirmed). Senior General Than Shwe, 73, similarly visits Singapore regularly for medical treatment. Lee explained that denying them medical treatment would be inhumane.

He told CNN, “I mean, somebody is sick, he wants to come to Singapore, he needs treatment and you’re telling me that I shouldn’t treat him because he’s not a good man?”

As an indication of the seriousness in which the Singapore government regarded the various allegations, Singapore Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew gave an interview on the issue of Myanmar. He told two academics in an interview, extracts of which were carried in The Straits Times, “In Myanmar, there are rather dumb generals when it comes to the economy. How can they so mismanage the economy and reach this stage when the country has so many natural resources?”

However, he cautioned that the army must be part of the solution to the problems facing their country, because if it were to be dissolved, all of Myanmar's administrative instruments would go with it, and the country would have nothing with which to govern itself.  (11 October 2007)


Singapore under pressure to get tough with Myanmar (Reuters, 10 October 2007)

Report: Singapore leader criticizes Myanmar junta for mismanaging economy (Associated Press, 10 October 2007)

Myanmar generals cannot survive indefinitely, says MM (Straits Times, 10 October 2007)

Report naming S'pore as money laundering centre 'baseless': MAS (Straits Times, 10 October 2007)