There are lessons that Malaysia can learn from Myanmar’s journey, as much as Myanmar had learnt from us.
MY first visit to Myanmar was in 1985 – it was at a time when the country was still struggling to find its footing from years of internal strife and international disdain.
There is really no need to describe a country in this situation, where its political and economic struggles are visible in the streets and in the villages and the sad effects of poverty stare you in the face.
Over the years, I had the opportunity to visit Myanmar a few times. During my last visit a month ago, I noticed immediately a new vigour, a new energy and drive in Myanmar – I’d like to call it ambition.
I was in Naypyidaw – literally translated as “Royal City in the Sun” in Burmese, it is Myanmar’s new government centre much like our Putrajaya – with our Prime Minister for the 24th Asean Leaders meeting.
As we moved about the city, I noticed its contemporary feel.
Featuring modern and well developed infrastructure, wide boulevards and the like, Naypyidaw exuded a quiet confidence – the kind that says it is ready for a new challenge, an “adrenaline surge”.
I have been informed that Naypyi-daw is one of the world’s top 10 fastest-growing cities and construction only began in 2002!
I was particularly impressed by the newly-built Mount Pleasant Hotel which stands 1,557 feet (474.5m) above the sea level, overlooking the capital.
The signal was loud and clear. “We are open to do business with the world!”
Indeed, Myanmar has shifted from its previous inward-looking policy and practices to embrace openness and global values.
I believe the change is a result of this country’s aspiration to become a bustling Asean nation and an economy capable of standing tall amongst its more established peers.
The Asean Leaders meeting, themed “Moving Forward in Unity to a Peaceful and Prosperous Com-munity”, was the biggest international gathering organised by the country in a few decades and can be seen as a “coming out” party for Myanmar.
They spared no efforts to boldly showcase the country’s phenomenal growth as a result of political, economic and administrative reforms embarked on since 2011.
Myanmar’s GDP per capita has grown 11 times since it joined Asean. Asean makes up for 13% of Myanmar’s total exports and 20% of their total imports. The previous year’s FDI was US$4.1bil (RM13.2bil), a three-fold increase from US$1.4bil (RM4.5bil) the year before.
Some milestone reforms achieved include having released pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and the government’s willingness to engage her, setting up of the National Human Rights Commission, the introduction of new labour laws that allow the establishment of labour unions, relaxation of press censorship and currency regulations, among others.
I inwardly contemplated on what can make a regime so obsessed with control over the country’s people and resources embark on such brave and risky reforms?
The answer can lie in only one thing: an irrepressible appetite for growth and development.
Malaysia – a country that is also on a growth trajectory – is witnessing a strengthening relationship with Myanmar. Bilateral trade has expanded by 36% for the first three months of 2014 from US$208mil to US$283mil (from RM669mil to RM911mil). And Malaysia is Myanmar’s 7th largest investor, with investments totalling US$1.65bil (RM5.3bil) as of March 2014.
I believe there are lessons that Malaysia can learn from Myanmar’s journey, as much as Myanmar had learnt from us.
Malaysia is an open economy that significantly depends on trade with the outside world. Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Myanmar – these are all attractive emerging markets in the region that are getting their act together. Investors eye these markets hungrily.
Is Malaysia able to offer the same if not more compelling pitch to the world?
I believe the fundamentals are in place. We have a very clear roadmap in the National Transformation Programme that will take us towards high income status by 2020 via the Government and Economic Trans-formation Programmes.
There is always room for improvement of course, but like the new Myanmar we must be careful to avoid being trapped in a miasma of insular insecurities and insensibilities.
Dear Malaysia, there is no running away from it – the world truly is our oyster – and we must do all we can to benefit from it.
While we adhere to our core values and principles, at the same time we must be more open, align ourselves with global trends and practices as well as adopt a progressive spirit because what we want collectively is growth so everyone can benefit.
The Government will do all it can to facilitate a conducive platform for our economy to grow but we all need to rally together to realise this dream. The possibilities and potential to be released when Malaysia embraces these values are endless.
Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed is International Trade and Industry Minister. Fair and reasonable comments are most welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.