Singapore firms wary about rushing into Myanmar

Chief executive of logistics firm Keyfields, Mr Tan (in glasses), moved into Myanmar after feeling his firm lost out from entering the Shanghai market late.
Chief executive of logistics firm Keyfields, Mr Tan (in glasses), moved into Myanmar after feeling his firm lost out from entering the Shanghai market late.PHOTO: KEYFIELDS

The expected wave of investment from Singapore firms venturing into Myanmar following the nation's reforms has not occurred, mainly due to wary companies waiting for clearer policy direction.

Many thought the rise to power of Ms Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) a year ago would trigger the piling of investors into the once closed-off nation.

Singapore Business Federation chief executive Ho Meng Kit said results from its National Business Survey released in January showed that Myanmar was the most popular market for Singapore companies wanting to venture overseas.

But that enthusiasm has not translated into investments.

Singapore's investments from January to September last year reached US$2.03 billion (S$2.87 billion) but the amount for the nine months to Sept 30 this year was only US$588.75 million, according to Myanmar's Directorate of Investment and Company Administration (Dica).

The numbers differ from those collated by Singapore's Department of Statistics. They show that Singapore's investment in Myanmar jumped from $332.2 million in 2013 to $1.93 billion in 2014.

Mr Romain Caillaud, senior director at corporate advisory firm FTI Consulting, said the Dica includes investments from both Singapore companies and companies from other countries that could have structured investments through here.

But he said Singaporean investment likely peaked between 2013 and last year, with a slowdown since last November.

He said this was partially because "the Myanmar Investment Commission was not active between early April and mid-June 2016, as it was waiting for a new leadership to be nominated by the NLD administration", with no large investment projects approved in that period.

Ms Audris Tan, International Enterprise Singapore's centre director in Yangon, emphasised that the investment slowdown was across the board. She said: "Myanmar had targeted US$6 billion in foreign direct investment for this financial year, which will end in March 2017. They have not yet achieved this."

Myanmar media reported the Dica as saying the countryreceived about US$3.2 billion in investments in the seven months to Oct 31.

Ms Tan said Singaporean interest in Myanmar was "sustained", noting the Myanmar Investment Law was passed last month.

The interpretations and adoption of the by-laws under this new law will only be released in the first quarter of next year, she said, adding that many investors are "keeping a close watch" on that.

She noted encouraging signs for investors, saying the investment law "apportions more equitable treatment between foreign and local businesses".

Several well-known Singapore companies, such as Keppel Land, Soilbuild and Ya Kun, are already established in Myanmar, and there is much opportunity in infrastructure, as well as services for the country's rising middle class, such as in food and beverage (F&B) and retail, she added.

The uncertainty of the new laws has not deterred some from testing the waters. In August, 12 local food companies brought their products to Myanmar for the first time, said Ms Tan, while F&B business Harry's opened in Yangon this April.

Mr Kenny Tan, chief executive of local logistics firm Keyfields, ventured into the country in January after feeling that his firm had lost out from being a late entrant to the Shanghai market.

He expects not to "make money" for the first two to three years, and has put aside a $2 million budget. He has also had to cut prices by 30 per cent and has encountered challenges in hiring, noting that "people job-hop like nobody's business".

But he is undeterred. "We are one of the first to be there from Singapore and our competitors are big multinational companies, which may be too expensive for the local market. The Singapore brand may carry more weight."

More companies from Singapore are expected to make inroads there next year. Calling Myanmar "its last frontier in Asia", BreadTalk said it will open its first boutique bakery next year through its franchise partner Shwe Taung Group.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2016, with the headline 'S'pore firms wary about rushing into Myanmar'. Print Edition | Subscribe