Viewpoint: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

In emerging and frontier markets such as Myanmar, micro-, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) are estimated to provide four in five new jobs in the formal sector – some 90% of total employment when the informal sector is also included. Having travelled widely within ASEAN and further afield throughout these past several years, it has become clear to me that Myanmar must make every effort to upskill and reskill our workforce in preparation for a forward-learning, future-ready, fully empowered Myanmar 4.0. It is only by doing so that we shall meet the future technological and market demands posed by ASEAN 4.0. Our success in this endeavour will, I believe, be defined by the ability of our private sector, our most reliable engine of sustainable and inclusive growth, to survive, and then thrive, to participate and to draw benefit from the monumental, broad-ranging shifts under way.

In Myanmar it is our MSMEs that are on the front line of this transformation. Our MSMEs are a driving force within our economy. Not only are they crucial employment generators, they are also a source of innovation, wealth creation, poverty reduction and human empowerment. Ensuring the health of this critically important sector as we make our transition will be vital to ensuring sustainable, inclusive, quality growth, and to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Today, we stand witness to a period of irreversible global social and technological transition. It is a transition characterised by the fusion of technologies and the blurring of lines that once separated the physical, digital and biological spheres. It is a transition that involves the breaking down of boundaries amid the reshaping of technological and production networks. It is a transition which offers unparalleled opportunities, no more so than for Myanmar. And yet, as Myanmar knows too well, thriving amid change is never easy. It is perhaps harder today than it has ever been.

The IMF has further downgraded its global economic outlook, with global growth said to be the weakest experienced since the 2008 financial crisis. Whereas in the past, the world looked to South-east Asia for signs of hope, the World Bank now projects that growth within our region will slow from 6.3% in 2018 to 5.9% in 2020. This is the first time since the Asian financial crisis that growth within our region is predicted to drop below the 6% mark. Yet I believe that, despite this moderate recent regional slowdown, the still rapidly growing economies of South-east Asia remain well positioned to thrive in the new world of ASEAN 4.0.

Myanmar faces a multitude of challenges, but we can still afford to be cautiously optimistic. Myanmar has undergone, and is still in the midst of, multiple, simultaneous, complex transitions. Much like our transition to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, these transitions have affected all aspects of our country’s social, political and economic life. As a result of our collective efforts, we have maintained high rates of economic growth – around 6% to 7% – for several consecutive years now, among the fastest in Asia. This growth has been sustained in ways that do not threaten economic stability nor risk economic overheating. We are committed to using this economic vibrancy to support greater human development by enhancing our creative industries, encouraging investment in innovation and research, and supporting digital entrepreneurship.

Guiding these efforts is our new Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan (MSDP) 2018-30, our comprehensive, forward-looking social, economic and environmental reform agenda fully aligned to the global sustainable development agenda. Providing a long-term vision of a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Myanmar, our MSDP offers a unifying, coherent roadmap for all future reforms, and will guide us as we embark upon a new and exciting phase in our country’s development. With our MSDP and through the pursuit of greater integration within ASEAN via regional value chains, people-to-people connections and the efficient application of cybertechnologies, Myanmar 4.0 will provide our people with access to new cashless, mobile, contactless payments. Both young and old will have access to infinite information via new sources of learning, online courses and virtual classrooms. Smartphone-powered telemedicine will revolutionise our health care industries. Our MSMEs – previously constrained by a lack of access to finance and business services – will trade across boundaries in ways we can only begin to imagine. Already a reality for much of our region’s business community, the technologisation of ASEAN holds such great promise for human empowerment, and yet, as our physical and digital worlds converge, sometimes it may feel as if every fibre of our existence is becoming digitalised.

For communities and countries held back, be it due to long-term legacy issues or new challenges, this transformation brings with it a high degree of uncertainty. Any major transition involves uncertainty. In this regard, we would do well to remind ourselves that in Myanmar, three in four of our people do not yet hold a bank account, and just 5% of our people hold debit cards. Through the liberalisation of our financial and banking sectors, and by doing away with red tape, the potential to convert these development gaps into investment opportunities will be significant.

As our region becomes reliant on digital technology, the nature of jobs will change fundamentally. Disruption will be widespread as artificial intelligence, advanced robotics and smart factories are integrated into our industrial, manufacturing and service sectors. Humans and machines will need to find ways to work together while playing to their respective strengths. We must work with the machine, not against it.

To take full advantage of the situation, we must transform our communities, our cities and our region into learning societies capable of meeting future demand, whatever form it may take. Though Myanmar is arguably in the early stages of this transition, we are primed and ready. Just eight years ago, less than 1% of our population enjoyed access to the internet, yet today Myanmar is home to one of the region’s fastest-growing mobile internet markets, with a SIM penetration rate of 105% and smartphone penetration rate of 80%. Our average 4G download speeds are today well ahead of global figures. To sustain this growth, we have developed a Universal Service Strategy to ensure all our people have access to modern telecommunications services by 2022. This growth, when combined with the future rollout of 5G infrastructure, offers immense opportunities for new and innovative technologies via internet of things platforms.

We are hard at work upgrading our soft, hard and digital infrastructure to better facilitate quality investment in Myanmar. Examples include but are not limited to the realisation of our new Project Bank, which provides a more transparent, predictable and competitive project identification and procurement process, complemented by a new Land and Property Bank that will expedite the lease of state-owned land and properties through centralised electronic means.

With a view to providing the type of timely support that our investors require, another such measure is the rollout of single-window systems where all permits and all licences required by investors can be applied for and granted, without the need to visit additional government agencies. The successes of this approach have been proven within our Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ), and we are confident that it will be successful when introduced within the Myanmar Investment Commission and in other SEZs over time.

These initiatives, combined with other reforms implemented over the past 24 months, have allowed Myanmar to make a significant improvement on the World Bank’s ease of doing business index, rising 17 places in just a few short years.

This viewpoint was adapted from a speech given at the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Bangkok, Thailand in November 2019.