When people in Southeast Asia talk about economic sanctions imposed by the United States, they invariably assume the discussion is about Myanmar. Think again: Washington imposes similar prohibitions on most other neighboring nations, even staunch allies like the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand.
The U.S. Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list identifies individuals, companies and organisations that Americans are barred from doing business with. In the long period of junta rule, virtually all Myanmar businesses were blacklisted, making that draconian state of affairs a focus of public and media attention.
Few bothered to notice that the same treatment was given to hundreds of other companies and individuals in Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.
No one has taken to the bully pulpit to angrily ask when all these Indonesian companies, Malaysian organizations, and Filipino and Thai businessmen were going to be free to deal with their U.S. counterparts. Even, you’ll notice, mythically clean Singapore has lots of blacklisted companies, although many, like Htoo Trading and Max Singapore, are offshore units of their Myanmar parents.
That is hardly surprising, given that Myanmar’s Directorate of Investment and Company Administration recently revealed that Singapore edged out Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan as the country’s top investor earlier this year.
Spectral business district
It’s surprising how Singapore has become the regional hub for ghostly finance by dodgy companies, diverse conmen, football fixers, bent casino kingpins—and shady Myanmar politicians and their business cronies. In past years, Myanmar’s SDN-listed generals, along with their financial sidekicks, habitually used Singapore banks, insurance companies and hospitals—and still do.
The republic remains happy for blacklisted companies to set up branch offices and conduct their global affairs from Shenton Way and other elite financial addresses. There are no questions asked. It is good business, and the welcome extends not only to frauds and cheats from Myanmar, but to those from around the world.
Last year, France’s former budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, was nabbed for money laundering and tax fraud after admitting he kept undeclared bank accounts in Singapore.
Like the Cayman Islands, Singapore’s reputation as an offshore haven for crooks garners relatively little attention, except when a big shot like Cahuzac or football’s global match-fixer, Dan Tan, gets caught.
‘We are the new Switzerland’
“We are the new Switzerland for stashing away undeclared assets,” said one Singapore banker. “You can open an account with just your passport and then deposit large sums with no problem.”
The situation in Singapore, while perhaps the most acute, is replicated in all other countries around the region that also host scores of SDN-listed businesses.
So Myanmar need not feel so bad. And as a practical matter, most of its sanctions have been removed after the government of President Thein Sein introduced its dramatic reforms and liberalization measures.
It is now assumed, perhaps naively, that the remaining sanctions will go once the constitution is amended to allow the opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to run for the presidency in next year’s elections.
Recent soundings, however, suggest that the chances of such a constitutional change being made before the elections are becoming less likely by the day. At the end of last month, the Constitutional Review Joint Committee recommended greater devolution of authority from the capital Nay Pyi Daw to the states, but pointedly did not advise changing Article 59F.
That article bars spouses or parents of foreigners from becoming president, and thus it disqualifies Daw Suu Kyi. If the committee’s advice is followed and she continues to be forbidden, Washington has signaled that its sanctions will stay.
So what if sanctions stay?
So what, one may rightly say. The corresponding sanctions will also remain on Singapore and the rest of this region, and they have proved pathetically ineffective.
Plainly, the threat of maintaining sanctions on Myanmar if Daw Suu Kyi is not allowed to run for president isn’t and will not work. A better reason must be found—and fast.
On the other hand, the way Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize awardee is setting aside justice, rights and compassion, especially on ethnic persecution, in her unabashed bid to win popular support, one wonders who is compromising principles more: the blacklist-busting bankers in Singapore or the ambitious woman whom US sanctions are aiming to propel to the top.
(Roger Mitton is a Southeast Asia regional consultant and a former senior correspondent for Asiaweek magazine and The Straits Times of Singapore.)