Address of State Counsellor delivered at ASEAN Business and Investment Summit 2019 in Bangkok

The State Counsellor was present at the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit 2019 in Bangkok to deliver a keynote speech on digitisation and the enabling power it can give micro, small and medium enterprises in developing economies such as Myanmar’s.

The ASEAN Business and Investment Summit 2019

3 November 2019

Bangkok, Thailand

Mr. Arin Jira, Chairman of ASEAN Business and Advisory Council,
Mr. Kalin Sarasin, Chairman of Joint Standing Committee on Commerce, Industry and Banking (Thailand),
Mr. Supant Mongkolsuthree, Chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries,
Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen
I am happy to be with you once again, here in Bangkok, to attend this year’s ASEAN Business and Investment Summit.

This is my third year of participation in this Summit series, and once again I am convinced that this Summit offers participants an unparalleled opportunity to hear from our region’s most far-sighted reformers and to engage directly with our diverse and vibrant business community.
This Summit offers us an invaluable opportunity to contend with emerging issues and trends as we each navigate our respective transitions from Third Industrial Era to Fourth – a transition to which Myanmar is, perhaps in some respects, a latecomer.

In emerging and frontier markets such as Myanmar, our MSME are estimated to provide four in five new positions in the formal sector – some 90 per cent of total employment when the informal sector is also included. Therefore, in consideration of this year’s theme – Empowering ASEAN 4.0 – I very much welcome our focus on micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises, arguably one of our region’s most important sources of job creation, human empowerment and economic growth.

But before I continue, I would like to take this opportunity to recognize the active and valued role played by our ASEAN Business Advisory Council, facilitating dialogue with our private sector partners, and boosting ASEAN’s efforts towards greater economic integration.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:
Having travelled widely within ASEAN and further afield throughout these past several years, it has become clear to me that we 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 draw benefit from the monumental broad-ranging shifts now underway.

In Myanmar, it is our micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises that are currently at the front line of this transformation. Our MSMEs are a driving force within our domestic economy. Not only are they crucial employment generators, they are also a source of national 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.
It is therefore crucial that we put into place a supportive business and investment enabling environment that ensures our MSMEs can keep up with the relentless pace of contemporary change, better manage uncertainty, embrace complexity, and realise technology’s promise.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:
Today, we stand witness to a period of irreversible global social and technological transition.

It is a transition characterized 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 amidst the wholescale 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 amidst change is never easy.
It is perhaps harder today than it has ever been.

Just last month, the International Monetary Fund further downgraded its global economic outlook, forecasting a global synchronized slowdown for the remainder of 2019, with global growth said to be the weakest experienced since the 2008 Financial Crisis.

Whereas in the past, the world looked to us for signs of hope, the World Bank now projects that growth within our region will slow down from 6.3 per cent in 2018 to 5.9 per cent in 2019 and 2020.
This is the first time since the Asian Financial Crisis that growth within our region is predicted to drop below the 6 per cent 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.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:
Myanmar faces a multitude of challenges but we can still afford to be cautiously optimistic.

As you will know, 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.

No sooner had Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum Klaus Schwab introduced the phrase “Fourth Industrial Revolution” into our common lexicon in December of 2015 we took over the reins of government in a newly democratic Myanmar.

Since then we have remained fully committed not just to the pursuit of sustainable and inclusive economic development, not just to striking a careful balance between development and stability, but also to preparing our country, and our young people, in particular, to take hold of the new and emerging drivers of change that will enable Myanmar to make that much needed quantum leap into the 21st century.

As a result of our collective efforts, we have maintained high rates of economic growth – around 6 to 7 per cent – for several consecutive years now, amongst 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 through enhancing our nation’s creative industries, through encouraging investment in innovation and research and through supporting digital entrepreneurship.

Guiding these efforts is our new Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan, 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 and coherent roadmap for all future reforms and will guide us as we embark upon a new and exciting phase in our country’s development.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:
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 cyber-technologies, 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 revolutionize our healthcare 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 technologization 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 digitalized.

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 five per cent 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 increasingly reliant on digital technology, the nature of private and public sector jobs will change fundamentally. Disruption will be widespread, as artificial intelligence, advanced robotics and ‘smart factories’ are integrated into our industry, 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.

As in all things, if we fail to prepare, we must prepare to fail. And, as Myanmar contends with these challenges, we are blessed to find ourselves amongst friends, including our ASEAN and regional partners.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:
ASEAN, home to close to 650 million people a majority of whom are of productive working age, must seriously consider the impact that this transition will have upon human capital development and economic progress.

As digitalization will drastically impact the nature of production, trade and financial flows, the skill sets demanded from our workforces of the future will be vastly different from those of today.

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.

Quality public-private collaboration will be essential in identifying and then equipping the next generation with the skill sets necessary to compete in future job markets, helping to reduce the risks of skills mismatch and undersupply.

Such collaborations will also help us to better identify the talent, technology, infrastructure, cost minimization and business sustainability practices that will allow our businesses to successfully navigate this transition.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:
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 our region’s fastest-growing mobile internet markets, with 105 per cent SIM penetration and 80 per cent smartphone penetration. 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 telecommunication services by the year 2022. Our recent adoption of the global Unicode font standard will encourage Myanmar-language digital content development and delivery, and cross-border tech cooperation.

This growth, when combined with the future rollout of 5G infrastructure offers immense opportunities for new and innovative technologies via IOT platforms – from Smart Homes to Smart Factories.

As might be expected, it is our country’s enterprising youth who stand to benefit most from this technological transition. Our young people have already opened their arms to change and are eager participants in domestic and regional and Makerthons, Hackathons and Roboleagues.
Indeed, students from our University of Information Technology were recent runners-up in the annual ASEAN Makerthon, and our young people secured top place within ASEAN at the FIRST Global Robotics Challenge in Washington D.C.

In Myanmar, we place full faith and confidence in our young people whose talent cannot be underestimated.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:
Once referred to as Asia’s rice bowl, our rural and agriculture sectors continue to play a vitally important role, providing employment to some 53 per cent of our labour force, and offering a source of livelihood for 70 per cent of our population.

Yet, even this sector has not been spared from disruption.
The number of rural MSMEs has grown rapidly in recent years, generating new rural livelihood and non-agriculture opportunities. Access to rural credit has also been formalized and diversified. Rates of interest charged on informal loans are falling sharply. As a result, we have seen rural wages in our Delta and Dry Zones increasing by 40 per cent.

Our farmers, MSMEs in their own right, are investing in their businesses, with almost half of all paddy farms in the Delta region using combine harvesters today, up from almost zero in 2013.

While quite removed from the wonders promised to us by the Fourth or even Third Industrial Revolution, what we are witnessing in Myanmar is very much an agricultural revolution of the best possible variety.
And here too, we turn to our nation’s young people for impactful innovation and as tech pioneers.

The young winners of the hackathon I mentioned did so by developing the “Sein Lae Myay” agri-tech application, offering our rural farmers a platform that bridges the information gap between buyers and sellers of agricultural products, nutrients and machines.

The innovation and creativity on display continues to be supported by government, having made major investments in the nation’s digital infrastructure through initiatives such as Myanmar’s very own Earth Observation Satellite, “Myanmar Set 2” which will allow for improved connectivity throughout the country including in remote areas.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:
We are hard at work upgrading both our soft, hard and digital infrastructure to better facilitate quality investment into Myanmar.

Examples include but are not limited to the realization 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 centralized electronic means.

With a view to providing the type of timely support that our investors require, another such measure can be seen in the rolling out of single-window systems where all permits and licenses required by investors can be applied for and granted, without the need to visit additional government agencies.

The successes of this approach has been proven within our Thilawa Special Economic Zone and we are confident that it will be successful when introduced within the Myanmar Investment Commission, and in other economic zones over time.

I am particularly glad to see that these significant and very positive changes in our investment landscape are being recognised, with Myanmar having been featured amongst this year’s 20 most improved countries in terms of doing business, following the conferral of the Doing Business Star Reformer Award to Myanmar in 2017.

These initiatives combined with new reforms implemented over the past 24 months have allowed Myanmar to make a significant improvement on the Ease of Doing Business Index – rising 17 places in just a few short years.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:
The Third Industrial Revolution made possible the disruptive technologies that now enable our transition into its Fourth iteration.

As we embark upon this transition, all countries will be subject to disruption. Those who will prosper during this transition will be those that can swim with, not against, the tide of change.

In this regard, and every other regard, we look forward to stronger collaboration between Myanmar and ASEAN – including academia, civil society and of course our business sector – in pursuit of ASEAN 4.0.
My sincere appreciation to all for your commitment to supporting Myanmar’s development.

I thank you for your attention.

Image courtesy of the Myanmar State Counsellor Office

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