SINGAPORE—Singapore’s economy grew only 1.2 percent during 2012, while the Burmese economy—after years of stagnation—is predicted to grow more than 6 percent in coming years, if rapid reforms continue.
The dramatic change in their country’s economic fortunes has not gone unnoticed among the thousands of Burmese emigrants in Singapore, some of who are beginning to realize that there might be an opportunity to return home after working for years in the wealthy city state.
Stacking piles of batik, an Indonesian-style cloth, at her Myanmar Garden Fashion shop on the top floor of Peninsular Plaza, Khin Pyae Sone says, “Some people have gone back already, I hear.”
She has lived in Singapore for the past four years, arriving 18 months after her husband, a network engineer. “He wants to go back to set up his own IT service business,” says Khin Pyae Sone.
Burma’s political and economic reforms have prompted investors from around the world to mark the long-isolated country out as one of the world’s few remaining frontier markets with great investment opportunities.
However, rapid growth in GDP points does not always translate into jobs—particularly in natural resource-based economies such as Burma—and it seems the flow of Burmese looking for work abroad will not end any time soon.
A study by a Burmese parliamentary committee released last week put unemployment in the country at 37 percent.
Although Singapore is home to only about 5 million people, it has a US $255 billion economy, five times bigger than that of Burma—despite the fact that the latter has a population of almost 60 million, is bigger than France, and has a wealth of natural resources such as gas, oil, timber and gemstones.
But decades of repression, economic mismanagement and civil war meant that for millions of Burmese even menial, low-paying jobs in Thailand and Malaysia were long considered more attractive than staying at home.
The need to remit money to families—often indebted subsistence farmers in cut-off rural areas—meant that millions of Burmese were willing to run the gauntlet of exploitative employers and possible trafficking, as they made their way across to Thailand or Malaysia.
In Singapore—where the GDP per capita exceeds that of most Western countries—Burmese with the right skills have often had the prospect of well-paid work, though many Burmese, like other migrants workers in Singapore, do most of the menial, low-paid jobs in construction and domestic work that Singaporeans shun.
But even for Khin Pyae Sone’s husband, the high cost of living in Singapore means that it will be “three or four years” before the couple can save enough to return to Burma and set up their own coveted IT business.
For other Burmese in Singapore, staying put is the best option. “I came in …the 1980s, my kids are grown-up now, they are Singaporean,” says Lau, 60, a travel shop owner who prefers not give his full name.
“I am a grandfather now. I only go back to Yangon to see my mum and my dad, they are 93 and 94 now,” he says.
But he says if he was a bit younger, he would seriously consider returning home in search of work. “Before Myanmar was no good, now maybe,” he says. “The range [of possibilities] is wide, you could do tourism, transport, restaurant… there are more foreigners, more business, more traffic in Yangon now.”
“I hear some Burmese are going back, or plan to,” he adds.
This trend could be further aided by Singapore’s economy, which recently has begun showing signs of a slowdown, as its dominant trade sector has been hit by continuing economic woes in the US and Europe.
Last year, the city state’s growth slowed significantly to 1.2 percent, far below the growth figures from the previous decade, when its GDP increased 6.3 percent per annum on average.
In tandem with this bad economic news, there has also been growing anti-immigrant sentiment in Singapore, where foreign-born citizens now make up almost 40 percent of its population, while birthrates among the native population are falling.
But for now the number of Burmese coming to Singapore to seek work seems unlikely to drop.
“Nothing much changes, the workers are still coming,” says Eva Daw Moe Thi Da, manager of at Golden Dragon Employment Agency, a migrant worker recruitment agency. “Every day we get 10 to 20 applications from Myanmar.”
Eva Daw Moe Thi Da left Burma in 1995 and married a Burmese man she met in Singapore. Their children can speak some Burmese, but she doesn’t see the family moving home anytime soon.
“It could be ten to twenty years before we see such changes that Burmese people don’t have to go outside for work anymore,” she sighs.
Nevertheless, she thinks her home country has turned a corner. “This time the government will do the right thing,” she says. “They cannot undo it now, the world is watching.”
Former Burmese native Sandar Oo says however, that she will stay in Singapore. “I am a Singaporean citizen now, I have been here ten years already,” she says, her English a mix of Burmese and Singaporean accents and peppered with fragments of the local dialect, such as sticking ‘la’ on the end of her sentences.
“Yes there are a lot of changes in Myanmar now, but we just go back to visit and there are not yet enough improvements,” she says, while sitting at her desk at Asia Treasure Holidays.
Although she adds that at home she speaks Burmese with her four children, aged between 16 and 9 years. “They speak English at school and learn Chinese as well,” she says, “but I want them to know their mother tongue.”
Looking around her Myanmar Garden Fashion shop, where traditional Burmese dresses and shawls sell for SG$10-20, Khin Pyae Sone says Burmese Buddhist “New Year (Thingyan) is coming soon, so we sell more clothes these days. People get homesick at this time, they think of the fun at home.”
She says, “We hope that conditions in Myanmar will continue to improve.”