Most foreign visitors stepping into Junction Square in Yangon are in for a shock.
The medium-sized mall is packed with imported items and boasts an ice-cream parlour as well as air-conditioning and a gleaming tiled floor.
It looks much like any big community mall in Bangkok.
Compare that with a mall in Shenzhen, China. The one I visited about five years ago shocked me with goods placed haphazardly in a poorly ventilated dusty interior.
Given that Myanmar only opened its doors to the world in 2011, Junction Square shows it is catching up with other countries fast thanks to development policies and willing help from the international community.
In his traditional-New Year message this month, Myanmar President Htin Kyaw highlighted better standards of living as one of the government’s four main goals. The others are national reconciliation, internal peace, and the establishment of a democratic federal union.
To help meet those aims, the International Finance Corp is busy extending loans to improve the country’s infrastructure. Just recently, it loaned nearly US$100 million to two projects – the expansion of a port and a retail business.
Rapid changes are taking place in other cities in this region, too. In Singapore, Marina Bay has transformed the city, with developments that portray the new work-life environment being promoted. Five-star hotels have been erected in Phnom Penh, while new malls are being introduced in Vientiane.
Further in South Asia, after decades of civil war, Sri Lanka has refocused its effort in rebuilding the country. One of the effort is to turn Colombo – the capital city - into a regional megacity. Lamudi, an online real estate marketplace, told a local newspaper The Island that the city has the potential to become even more popular with investors and property developers than other cities in the South Asian region.
Colombo boasts of a number of modern projects, including the development of malls, parks, hotels and more, uplifting this growing megacity.
Chief among them is the Arcade Independence Square, converted from the old Auditor General’s buildings into one of the grandest shopping and entertainment arcades in Asia.
Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts is investing US$600 million to build Galle Face, Colombo’s first internationally developed integrated lifestyle destination that makes living, working, entertainment and hospitality possible all in one location.
Once completed, Colombo Lotus Tower could also compliment the city’s ambition. Set to be the tallest in South Asia, it will incorporate the first sky dining venue and other attractions.
If Thais are not too busy with domestic conflicts, they should have learnt that Laos recently launched its first communications satellite. The country also mulls employing the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) which can be used to pinpoint geographic locations in the various development sectors in the country, including agriculture. A workshop was recently hosted, participated international satellite experts from the Building European Links towards Southeast Asia (BELS). Yes, Laos also wants to enhance cooperation in science and technology development for socio-economic development.
Vietnam is expected to benefit the most from its membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Foreign direct investment is flowing in, guaranteeing that the country’s economic growth would remain above 6 per cent in the coming years. This would surely allow more people to subscribe to better services. One estimate is the number of smartphone users in Vietnam would reach 26 million this year, from 22 million in 2015.
A large number of young population also makes this country attractive. According to Singaporean Alvin Koh, who opened a coffee shop in Hanoi, Vietnam is among the most attractive emerging markets for start-ups in Southeast Asia because of the young population and the many still untapped needs in the market.
“Everyone knows Singapore is a place to start, but it’s not really a place to make money because the market is very small. The population size of Hanoi is like Singapore, and then you still have Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang,” he told Viet Nam News.
Looking back to Thailand, what is there to cheer up local people and foreign visitors in the coming years? Hopefully, the planned high-speed train and new mass transit routes would be materialized. Hopefully, all the government schemes earmarked to keep SMEs afloat would be successful.
There are some plans to make things better, but as we have witnessed in the past decade, progress has been always clouded by political uncertainties. The situation is expected to be more chaotic ahead of the charter referendum on August 7, given the junta’s harsh policy on “negative” comments towards the draft charter. The prime minister may lose his temper more often and more critics could be detained despite concerns from the international community. Looking ahead, if people cannot express opinions on the supremacy law that will govern all, how can all be assured of inclusive participation in the country’s development?
Htin Kyaw, Myanmar’s first civilian president in six decades, in his New Year remark urged full public participation in driving the country forward.
“The people can criticise our defects and offer us suggestions, too. All the people are urged to actively participate in our tasks. The entire people unanimously supported us in the previous general election, so our government managed to take over all the duties of the state,” he said.
Thailand has a lot to catch up with neighbours. Should we start with catching up with Myanmar in the area of public participation?