Singapore keeps its surface image relatively clean, but allegations persists that the city-state has become an economic tool for the region’s worst regimes
The slightly dilapidated five-story building in Singapore’s business district known as Burma Mall houses numerous small shops, cafes and under-the-counter, cash-remitting services.
It’s a familiar sight across East Asia’s richer cities, from Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong, wherever contracted Indonesians, Thais, Filipinos and, to a lesser extent, Burmese work.
Burma Mall—real name, Peninsula Plaza—caters to the lowly laborer or homesick student seeking out a bowl of moh hin gha (fish and noodle soup) and probably money launderers, too.
But it’s not a visible hangout of Burma’s big money dealers in Singapore, like Tun Myint Naing, also known as Steven Law, and his father Lo Hsing Han, or the junta generals who make frequent visits to the city-state for medical treatment and, perhaps, a little business on the side. They move in much more exalted circles.
Singapore’s opposition Democratic Party leader Chee Soon Juan would probably say over-privileged circles.
Singapore ranks a noble fifth in the world index compiled by the Berlin-based, anti-corruption-monitoring organization Transparency International. Burma is ranked 160th out of 163 investigated countries.
But the two countries have curiously close business relations that seem incongruous for a Singapore government seemingly so obsessed with being perceived as squeaky clean.
While ranking Singapore highly on its anti-corruption index, a report by TI says: “Singapore could do more to discourage corruption in a broader regional context, in cooperation with … government leaders of neighboring states.”
Chee Soon Juan has tried without success to force the Singapore government to disclose the extent of its business dealings with the Burmese company Asia World, run by Lo Hsing Han and Steven Law, both barred from the US for alleged drug-running rackets but who move freely in and out of Singapore.
Alongside most other countries in Southeast Asia, Singapore is a model of rectitude, but even TI finds fault with the city-state’s failure to hold itself accountable to inquirers like Chee Soon Juan.
“National Integrity Systems in East and Southeast Asian countries still have profound weaknesses,” says the TI report. “Even Hong Kong and Singapore still have significant room for improvement, for example in involving civil society in government decision-making processes.”
Efforts by Chee Soon Juan to get the Singapore government to make public the details of its investments in Burma—supposedly made on behalf of Singaporeans—have been met with silence or vague answers. on one occasion he was baldly told that government investment in Burma was “above board.”
Chee Soon Juan told The Irrawaddy: “I have not received any recent information on Burma money laundering in Singapore, although I understand that the practice is rife with respect to many other countries, for example China, Indonesia and Russia.”
Chee has been jailed for speaking in public without a permit and was declared a bankrupt in 2006—debarring him from elections until 2011—for failing to pay fines of US $330,000 after being convicted of defaming government leaders such as Lee Kuan Yew. He is now also barred from traveling abroad because of his debt.
“Singapore’s relationship with the Burmese junta is pragmatic, in both commercial and what one might call ‘national need’ terms,” suggested a Western embassy regional analyst in Bangkok, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Singapore’s foreign minister, George Yeo, was one of the first regional government officials to trek out to that oddly located new capital Naypyidaw earlier this year. But he did not go there to admire the place, it was for national need. Singapore needed building materials, such as a supply of sand that Indonesia had just stopped delivering,” the analyst said.
“Likewise, Singapore’s construction companies need somewhere to expand. Burma has got absolutely no infrastructure worth the Singaporean government-owned investment agencies such as Temasek to buy into, like Thailand, but hotel developments would do nicely. In return, we do not dig too deep,” the analyst added.
About 50,000 Burmese live and work or study in Singapore, and many families back home depend on remittances. But Burma Mall, wedged between the trendy nightlife Quays quarter and the ritzy hotel district that includes world famous Raffles, is believed to serve more as a conduit for others who aspire to emulate the success of Steven Law and his family.
Burma Mall is not the most fashionable shopping venue in Singapore, but there’s big property price inflation in the city—fueled, many analysts believe, by investors parking money to avoid tax and other official obstacles to money movements.
The monthly rent on a shop in the mall is around $2,000. Some of the tenants would have to sell a lot of jars of dried foodstuffs, leather trinkets or Burmese-style clothes to cover overhead and still turn a profit.
“No one can prove anything, but some of us suspect that many of those shops inside that so-called Burma Mall are fronts for other activities, where the real business is going on,” said a Singaporean running a street-level business adjacent to the mall.
Singapore is estimated to have invested up to $2 billion in Burma since the country’s tightly shut economic door opened a crack in 1988. Much of the money has gone to develop the tourism industry, despite efforts by Western countries to boycott holiday visits on the grounds that it benefits the regime.
Asia World is a major construction contractor, and much of Singapore’s investment in Burma is linked to that company. Steven Law has a Singaporean wife with business and political contacts in the city-state.
For the 2006-7 financial year ended in March, Singapore was listed by Burma’s Ministry of Commerce as the third-largest trading partner behind Thailand and China, with bilateral trade for the year totaling $1.21 billion.
Financial analysts are perplexed by Singapore’s current luxury property development boom—hence, the need for that Burmese building sand—with land and condominium prices and rents soaring by as much as 150 percent. The overall economy is not on fire, but the consensus view is that the city-state has become a haven for no-questions-asked money “parking.”
Indonesia (ranked 130 in the TI corruption index) is considered to be a major source of such money and Singapore is not fussy about requiring its banks to report large incoming transactions or interest payments. The EU eyes Singapore with some suspicion as a tax shelter.
It’s not surprising, then, that Singapore comes near the top of another global ranking – the tiny city-state is home to more than 50,000 US dollar millionaires.
Ong Ying Ping, the founder of a Singapore-based law company that provides advice on spotting and thwarting illegal money movements, notes: “While anti-money laundering laws have been or are being adopted in over 100 countries around the world, no country yet requires its financial institutions to detect money laundering.
“The effectiveness of anti-money laundering laws has been mixed, falling far short of the ideal of strict, fair and universal enforcement with well-knit international cooperation.”