Thursday, 9 June 2016

Singapore, Myanmar 'old friends, important partners', says PM Lee Hsien Loong

Visa waiver among agreements reflecting close links, cooperation between the 2 nations
By Charissa Yong, In Naypyitaw, Myanmar, The Straits Times, 8 Jun 2016

Singaporeans travelling to Myanmar will no longer need to apply for a visa from Dec 1.

The two countries have eased visa requirements for their citizens.

It was one of several announcements made yesterday, the first day of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's official visit to Myanmar.

Singapore has invited Myanmar officials, including Yangon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein, to visit the country to learn more about its education policies and how it builds and operates hawker centres.

It will also sponsor short internships for top graduates of the Singapore-Myanmar Vocational Training Institute in Yangon, which trains Myanmar youth to be skilled workers.

The agreements underscored closer links and cooperation between Singapore and Myanmar, whose new civilian government came to power last November.

PM Lee, the first head of government to visit since, said Myanmar "is not only an old friend, but also an important partner" for Singapore.

"Over the last decade, during Myanmar's transition to democracy, we have walked alongside Myanmar," he said at a dinner hosted by President Htin Kyaw at the presidential palace in Naypyitaw.

Agreeing, Mr Htin Kyaw thanked Singapore for its "wholehearted and continuous support". He also said bonds between both countries have strengthened in working towards an ASEAN Community.

Singapore and Myanmar, which celebrate 50 years of diplomatic ties this year, have strong historical links and bonds between their people, said PM Lee, tracing their common past to the days when both were under British rule.

Today, Singaporeans live and work in Myanmar, and Myanmar citizens also contribute to Singapore society, he said.

At meetings with Myanmar's top leaders yesterday, PM Lee said Singapore will continue to support Myanmar's development by sharing its expertise where possible.

He added that he was very happy to see Myanmar's progress in political and economic development. "We wish you well and we look forward to continuing to be of help in a modest way," he said.

PM Lee will launch the training institute, Singapore's flagship project in Myanmar, tomorrow.

Its first batch of students graduated last month and many have found jobs or internships in Myanmar.

The school also held training programmes for 160 trainers and recruited 40 of them as its pioneer batch of instructors.

PM Lee said he looked forward to working with Myanmar in ASEAN. "I understand that your priority in this phase has to be domestic nation-building, but Myanmar has an important contribution to make to the region," he said.

Earlier in the day, PM Lee received a ceremonial welcome at the presidential palace before meetings with Mr Htin Kyaw and Myanmar State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi. They discussed how to strengthen economic ties and boost air links between both countries to increase tourist flows.

Singapore and Myanmar share historical links
By Charissa Yong, In Naypyitaw, Myanmar, The Straits Times, 8 Jun 2016

Singapore and Myanmar may have established diplomatic ties 50 years ago, but their historical links go much further back - and the proof is in their city maps.

Both countries share a British colonial heritage and an urban planner: Dr William Montgomerie, a British surgeon whom Sir Stamford Raffles appointed to help plan the growing city of Singapore.

When Dr Montgomerie moved to Rangoon, now called Yangon, he helped to design downtown Rangoon's iconic checkerboard layout.

"So while Singapore's streets are not a perfect checkerboard like those in downtown Rangoon, the waterfronts in both cities are dominated by important municipal buildings," said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

Nearly 200 years later, the peoples of both countries have kept up the links and grown closer, he said in a speech that highlighted the ties between Singapore and Myanmar and signalled closer cooperation between them.

Mr Lee noted that many of the 200,000 Myanmar nationals in Singapore contribute to the society, while many others have returned to contribute to their homeland.

He cited several individuals, including a scientist-turned-teacher, a lawyer and even an orchestra conductor, in his speech at a dinner banquet hosted by Myanmar President Htin Kyaw in the Naypyitaw presidential palace.

One of them, Ms Myo Thida, studied in Singapore for six years on a research scholarship and worked in the country for five years before returning home to join Myanmar's Education Ministry.

She is now vice-principal of the Singapore-Myanmar Vocational Training Institute, which Mr Lee will officially open tomorrow.

Singaporeans and Singapore businesses also have a presence in Myanmar, said Mr Lee, who will meet some of them at a reception in Yangon today.

One such business is Keppel Land, which built the Sedona Hotels in Yangon and Mandalay in the 1990s, contributing to Myanmar's tourism industry.

Similarly, lighting firm Krislite has been in Myanmar since the 1990s. It has provided lighting for infrastructure in Yangon and stadiums in Naypyitaw, among others.

These were used for Myanmar's hosting of the 27th SEA Games in 2013, noted Mr Lee.

The no-visa rule from Dec 1, announced yesterday, will "make it easier for both sides to visit each other", he said.

The visa exemption comes amid a rise in weekly flights between Singapore and Myanmar's two largest cities, Yangon and Mandalay.

The number of weekly flights has gone up from 44 in January to 49 last month.

The number of Myanmar tourists to Singapore has also risen - by 12 per cent from 2011 to last year, a yearly climb of 3 per cent. Last year, 105,452 Myanmar citizens visited Singapore.

Meanwhile, 45,125 Singapore tourists visited Myanmar last year, said Myanmar's Ministry of Hotels and Tourism.

At the dinner, Mr Lee also noted the links between the governments of the two countries.

For instance, when Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008, Singapore immediately sent relief and reconstruction aid to the victims, he said.

The relief team included MP and doctor Fatimah Lateef, who ran mobile clinics in a township east of Yangon River. She is in the Singapore delegation now in Myanmar.

Officials of both countries also visit each other regularly to exchange views. Over 12,600 Myanmar officials have attended training courses under schemes such as the Singapore Cooperation Programme.

Mr Lee ended his speech, to applause, with a toast to "the next chapter of flourishing ties between Myanmar and Singapore".

Singapore exploring multi-city flights in Myanmar
Such 'stopover flights' by a Singapore carrier via Yangon or Mandalay will benefit tourists, says PM Lee
By Charissa Yong In Yangon, The Straits Times, 9 Jun 2016

Singapore is looking to introduce multi-city flights within Myanmar by its carriers Singapore Airlines or SilkAir, as part of a series of ways the two countries can cooperate more closely.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave these updates yesterday at a reception with Singaporeans in Yangon at Sedona Hotel, which is built by Singapore developer Keppel Land.

These "stopover flights" from Singapore through Yangon or Mandalay would benefit tourists.

"When people come as tourists, they can come to Yangon, stop over for a couple of days, get back onto the next aeroplane, go on to Mandalay and then go home," PM Lee said, calling it a more attractive network of connections.

The 49 direct flights a week between Singapore and Myanmar are international, with flights to and from Singapore and Mandalay, or Singapore and Yangon.

PM Lee said the Myanmar government is keen to work with Singapore to improve connectivity. Both sides have also been discussing ideas that can improve things for their peoples and business communities, he said. "They listened to me. Some of this will move; some of the others, they will still study."

A key announcement on Tuesday was visa-free travel between Singapore and Myanmar for 30-day trips by their citizens. It will take effect on Dec 1.

PM Lee told the 300 Singaporeans at the reception: "I hope when your family members come back and forth, it will be more convenient for them. They won't have to apply for a visa, and you'll keep in touch with home more often."

The Singaporean community in Myanmar has grown from 150 a decade ago to at least 500 now.

The number looks set to soar as Myanmar is opening up and is "an adventurous place to be in", PM Lee noted. "Not everything is solved yet, so there is some uncertainty... but that's what it means to be on the frontier. We need Singaporeans to be out there, finding new opportunities and doing well."

Agreeing, Mr Lim Chong Chong, 38, group chief financial officer in a Myanmar company, told The Straits Times: "There are a lot of jobs and business opportunities in Myanmar for Singaporeans, but many are scared off by their negative impressions of the country."

He cheered the visa exemption, saying: "It will make life easier, not having to keep going to the embassy to get a visa."

Earlier yesterday, PM Lee had several meetings in Naypyitaw.

At Union Parliament building, he separately met Lower House Speaker Win Myint and Mr Mahn Win Khaing Than, the Upper House and Parliament Speaker.

They affirmed the strong ties between their peoples and Parliaments, said a statement from the Prime Minister's Office.

The two Myanmar leaders also expressed their appreciation to PM Lee for Singapore's support of their country's human resource development.

PM Lee later met the commander-in-chief of Myanmar's armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. They discussed regional and international developments, and bilateral cooperation in human resource development and security.

Before flying to Naypyitaw, PM Lee had tea with former president Thein Sein, whose Union Solidarity and Development Party previously ruled Myanmar.

PM Lee opens Singapore-Myanmar vocational school in Yangon
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 10 Jun 2016

YANGON (Myanmar) • Mr Ko Ko Lwin, 22, has a degree in marine engineering from Myanmar Maritime University. But that did not stop him from signing up for hands-on skills training at the Singapore-Myanmar Vocational Training Institute (SMVTI) last year.

"I wanted to improve my skills and get more practical training," he said, adding that at SMVTI, each student is assigned to one training machine while at his previous school, 40 students used one machine.

The school trains Myanmar youth to be skilled workers and was officially opened by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday, the final day of his three-day official visit.

PM Lee toured the campus, located on the site of a former polytechnic in downtown Yangon.

It will take in a total of 800 students in two groups, every year.

Modelled on Singapore's Institute of Technical Education, the SMVTI offers six-month courses in hospitality and tourism, electrical skills and electronics, facilities management and engineering services. It helps to match its graduates with jobs.

About 40 per cent of the pioneer batch of 400 who graduated last month have found jobs or internships.

Myanmar's director-general of technical and vocational education Win Maw Tun said the tourism industry is booming, adding: "You can see a lot of hotels around the city. We need qualified human resources for these businesses."

There are plans to replicate the school elsewhere in Myanmar, like in its eastern Shan state, he said.

Singapore will also sponsor internships to the Republic for the top graduate of each course in every cohort.

But Singapore will hand the reins over to Myanmar in time, said Mr Tan Seng Hua, chief executive of Institute of Technical Education Education Services. "Once the local team is ready, we'd be very happy to see them take over," he said.

Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung, who is part of the Singapore delegation to Myanmar, told reporters that the institute is Singapore's way of helping Myanmar.

"Myanmar is going through a very special period of its history. A lot of transitional issues - the democratising process as well as the liberalising of its economy to be more market-oriented," he said.

It is meaningful for Singapore to contribute to Myanmar in this period, especially since it has experience in training workers, he said.

"We live in ASEAN and ASEAN is one big family," said Mr Ong. "We find common causes in many issues of the world. And when help is needed, we will extend our help."

Singapore to help Myanmar in tough task of nation-building: PM Lee Hsien Loong
PM Lee says Republic wishes Myanmar well and hopes it will play a role in ASEAN
By Charissa Yong,  In Yangon, The Straits Times, 10 Jun 2016

Myanmar has a formidable task of nation-building ahead, but Singapore wishes it well and will lend a hand, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

"We have been friends of Myanmar for a long time including during the difficult period over the last 15, 20 years when Myanmar was going on this very difficult road of reform and path to democracy... We hope we are able to make a contribution and help in Myanmar's development and progress," he said at the end of his visit to the country.

But as Myanmar develops and focuses on nation-building, Singapore hopes it will contribute to ASEAN, he added in an interview with Singapore reporters that covered bilateral ties and areas of cooperation.

PM Lee's trip is the first made by a head of government after the landmark election in Myanmar last November that saw the country's civilian government swept to power.

He said Myanmar had fallen behind the rest of South-east Asia and needs to "catch up on lost time" by building up a team that can develop policies and unite the country.

Among the challenges Myanmar faces is having to integrate more than 130 different ethnic groups, some of which are geographically separated and still in armed conflict, Mr Lee said. "It is not just about getting them to use the same working language, but how to bring them together as one nation. I think that is preoccupying the government considerably."

Over the past three days, Mr Lee met top Myanmar leaders, including President Htin Kyaw and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. A key topic discussed was how both countries can cooperate more closely.

Visa-free travel between Singapore and Myanmar from Dec 1 was announced on Tuesday.

Mr Lee said Singapore's airport and port management firms are also interested as the country opens up.

Singapore also wants to work on a bilateral investment treaty, and update its avoidance of double taxation agreement with Myanmar.

But Mr Lee said it is understandable that Myanmar wants to work out its own investment laws first. He said a stable financial environment and rules are important for development and encouraged Myanmar to create these conditions.

He also hoped Myanmar would play a role in ASEAN, saying it will be helpful as the grouping is often included in major talks on world issues such as trade and regional security.

"Through ASEAN, each of us, small countries in South-east Asia, can have a voice in world affairs... Myanmar has a role within ASEAN to play and we hope we'll be able to help them," he said.






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