Burma poised for great growth

Mergawati Zulfakar in Naypidaw/The Star
Asia News Network

Naypidaw (The Star/ANN) - Naypidaw looks set to be a melting pot of gold.

Naypyidaw is one hot place. The daytime temperature can hit as high as 40°C and unlike Burma's former capital, Yangon, where you can enjoy the cool windy air in the evening, the weather is humid right through the windless night in Naypyidaw, the current capital of Burma.

Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak seemed to be unfazed somewhat with the weather. During the welcoming ceremony at the President's Office, the heat was scorching but it did not seem to bother him as he was given the red carpet welcome by President Thein Sein.

The Prime Minister is here for business. He wants to pave the way for more Malaysian trade and investment in Burma's booming economy.

He was in Burma in the early 90s and when he returned this week, he sensed the changes.

"It was the old Myanmar at that time and as I set foot here again, I sense there is a new country, a new Myanmar that has taken a decision to change and reform," the Prime Minister recalled.

Naypyidaw is a sprawling new city which is 10 times bigger than Putrajaya. Visitors will see the massive development taking place, rows of hotels under construction, shops and restaurants already open for business.

There are also bungalows and apartments already occupied and new ones still being built. There is even a stretch of its highway with 10 lanes on one side.

Naypyidaw is getting ready for more visitors leaders, businessmen and tourists thanks to political reforms and new trade and investment laws being introduced by the new civilian government.

During a bilateral meeting with President Thein Sein on Wednesday, the message to Najib was clear Burma desired to see more trade and investment from Kuala Lumpur.

But it is not just money that Burma is interested in, they want their people to have the necessary skills to develop the country which has been in isolation, voluntarily or involuntarily, for decades.

Malaysia is offering capacity building and training. Burma is already a recipient of the Malaysian Technical Cooperation Programme and will continue to be one.

Malaysian companies are coming in but they need to be more aggressive.

A Malaysian who has been doing trading business in Burma since 2000 said Thailand and Singapore are way ahead in making their presence felt.

"We are slow. I wish our agencies and companies have come in much earlier."

That said, Malaysia's close ties with Burma over the last five decades have allowed trade and investment to grow. In fact, as of last year, Malaysia is the seventh biggest investor with US$977million total investment.

Still, our investments are way behind China, Thailand, Hong Kong, South Korea, United Kingdom and Singapore.

Consider this China's FDI is more than $13billion, Thailand ($9.56 billion), UK ($2.66 billion) and Singapore ($1.8billion).

Malaysia needs to catch up fast. Burma is hosting the SEA Games in 2013 and will take over the Asean chair in 2014.

Stadiums, sports complexes and convention centres are being planned. Telecommunication is still very poor.

As industries grow, Burma would need chemicals, machinery, supply of oil and gas and as population grows, there will be demand for pharmaceutical and healthcare products.

The potentials are big for Malaysian companies to say the least.

In the euphoria of changes in Burma and that opposition leader Aung San Su Kyi's expected victory in the by-elections this weekend, a Burma chief operating officer cautioned that change will take time.

"We have been under military rule for so long. Now, we have a parliament and when we have a new law to implement, it goes through the various stages for approval. Last time, it just needed one chop from the military.

"The world expects us to change overnight. We need to change the mindset of the people, we need to do so many things and this will definitely take time.

Najib is also mindful of this.

"Their commitment towards towards reforms and changes is irreversible. They should decide their own time frame to open up.

"But what we can do is to encourage them, support them so that the pace of change is not only irreversible but can be accelerated," he added.

The Prime Minister was in the capital for hardly 24 hours but he left feeling extremely encouraged and confident his visit would spur bilateral trade to jump by leaps and bounds.

Before he departed, Najib witnessed the signing of five memoranda of understanding between Malaysia and Burma companies in the fields of oil and gas exploration, financial and business consulting as well as banking, real estate and infrastructure development.

Thein Sein has given the greenlight. It is now up to Malaysia to make full use of the open doors.

Burma, and especially Naypyidaw, will continue to be a hot, hot place. And it is not just the weather.