When Singapore lawyer Chester Toh starting working in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial centre, 18 months ago, his commute to the centre took 15 minutes; now it’s a 45-minute slog through increasingly clogged streets.
Call it the price of progress, or reform to be more exact.
Toh, a partner at law firm Rajah & Tann, told The Straits Times during a recent visit home: “Back then, the roads had old rickety vehicles moving at a really slow pace, not much traffic. Now you see a lot of brand new vehicles, roads being clogged up.”
Toh’s traffic woes reflect the rapid changes taking place in Myanmar. He travels regularly between Singapore and Myanmar.
After decades of military rule, Myanmar is beginning to enjoy more political freedom and more liberal economic policies. The freer climate has attracted increasing numbers of overseas firms, including Rajah & Tann, which set up shop earlier this year.
Heavier traffic, pricier rent
Yangon’s heavier traffic is not necessarily a bad thing. As Toh, 36, notes, it is a direct sign of growing business activity and wealth in Myanmar.
KPMG’s Anurag Chaturvedi agrees, though increasing traffic congestion has affected his movements around the city too.
Chaturvedi, a director at the accounting giant, leads its advisory business in Myanmar, which now has 14 on staff. He works in Singapore and Yangon on alternate weeks.
He says: “We have a quite a lot of clients downtown, where a lot of the banks’ main buildings are.
“Towards the end of last year, it took 15 minutes (to get downtown), but now, on a good day, it takes at least half an hour to one and a half hours.”
And these are not just any old vehicles clogging up the streets. Chaturvedi, 39, says he is seeing more and more Ducatis and Lamborghinis with locals at the wheel.
The burgeoning business sector has also lifted office rents to levels comparable to the Central Business District in Singapore.
Toh says for the three commercial buildings in Yangon – Centrepoint Towers, FMI Centre and Sakura Tower – which are popular with multinationals, rents can be “as high as US$75 per square metre, and still rising”.
Tina Singhsacha, 42, Standard Chartered bank’s Myanmar chief representative, notes: “There are limited hotels and office space that meet international standards and this has resulted in high pricing.”
StanChart reopened its representative office in February.
Cheah Swee Gim, one of two directors of law firm Kelvin Chia Yangon, believes office rents have increased fourfold since late 2011.
She has been managing the office since it opened there in 1995 from the Singapore headquarters and has been spending more time in Yangon in the last 18 months.
This is why firms like Rajah & Tann and KPMG have chosen offices outside the downtown area.
Business activity heats up
KPMG and Rajah & Tann are among many professional services firms that have had to ramp up their presence in Myanmar after just a few months of operations.
Client numbers are expanding rapidly and more of them demand top-notch advice.
Toh says: “Companies are looking for legal advisers, accountants, political risk consultants. With the concerns over corruption, people look for advisers to ensure they stay on the right side of the law.”
Cheah adds: “For a long time, Kelvin Chia Yangon has been one of the few foreign legal consultancy firms in Yangon. There are many more new entrants with the opening up of the economy in the recent years.”
Telecommunication infrastructure has caught up as well.
Cheah says: “The Internet connection has improved substantially in the past year.
“Our Sakura Tower office now has fibre optic connection, and most Internet lines here are good enough for Skyping. However, there were also cases of disruption to the Internet in late July for about a week.”
More changes to come
For all the changes Myanmar has seen in the past year or so, the country is still old-fashioned in some ways.
Toh notes that he gets local clients coming in carrying sacks of bank notes: “Just wads and wads of cash,” he laughs.
“A number of professional firms have safes built into their offices because clients do pay in cash sometimes. There is no culture of depositing monies into or maintaining bank accounts, but this is slowly changing.”
With over 30 foreign bank representative offices – most from countries such as Malaysia and Thailand – Myanmar is set to grow as an economic hub, says StanChart’s Singhsacha.
Three key laws were passed recently that show how fast the country is growing.
One gives the central bank greater independence, the Myanmar Citizens Investment Law allows a local to sell or transfer shares to a foreigner and the Securities Exchange Law “provides a framework for the establishment of a stock exchange”.
Besides StanChart, ANZ Bank has a representative office in the country and Singapore’s local banks – DBS Bank, United Overseas Bank and OCBC – have been there since 1994.
OCBC has just provided a S$22 million (US$17 million) loan to Sin Mian, a Singapore-registered procurement arm of Shwe Taung Group, a Myanmar conglomerate involved in real estate, construction and engineering.
Sin Mian will buy 100 coaches for Myanmar operators to be used for long-distance travel between the main cities of Naypyidaw, Yangon and Mandalay, as well as transport for the Southeast Asian Games in December.
Amid all the sometimes bewildering change, one thing is certain: The level of optimism among locals is sky high.
“You can attribute it to the fact that the country has opened up so rapidly over a period of one year or so, from being a completely closed economy,” says Chaturvedi.
“People are very optimistic of the potential growth of the country. They see a very bright future ahead of them. It’s a very young population that is very entrepreneurial as well.”
Source: The Straits Times