July 6, 2023
SINGAPORE – Singapore has not imposed a general trade ban on Myanmar as it does not want to worsen the suffering of people in the country, said Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on Monday.
But, at the same time, the Republic remains committed to implementing its policy to prevent the sale of items that have potential military application to Myanmar and can be used to hurt unarmed civilians.
Dr Balakrishnan was responding in a written reply to Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) and Workers’ Party MP Dennis Tan (Hougang), who had asked about a report published on May 17 by United Nations Special Rapporteur in Myanmar Tom Andrews.
The report had flagged how Singapore-based entities were involved in the flow of supplies to Myanmar’s military, among other things. It had supposedly found that US$254 million (S$343 million) worth of “arms and related goods” were shipped to the military through the Singapore-based entities.
Dr Balakrishnan noted that an initial list of 47 entities was identified, and more recently, another 91 entities were flagged as well.
“We take Mr Andrews’ report very seriously, and have requested him to provide specific and verifiable evidence to aid our efforts,” he said, adding that this was an interim update and that investigations are ongoing.
The aim, however, is not to bar trade with Myanmar, said the minister. He said that in 2022, Singapore’s total bilateral trade with the country was $5.8 billion.
“Let me make clear that it is not the Singapore Government’s policy intention to block legitimate trade with Myanmar. Doing so would further set back the country’s development and exacerbate the suffering of the civilian population of Myanmar,” he said.
The allegations in the report refer to how goods with potential military application had been shipped from Singapore-based entities over a two-year period to Myanmar, where thousands have been killed after its military overthrew the democratically elected government in a coup in February 2021.
The report also said that Singapore banks have been “used extensively by arms dealers”, and that “substantial reserves” of Myanmar are suspected to be held in DBS Bank, UOB and OCBC Bank.
In his reply on Monday, Dr Balakrishnan said that nine of the entities that were flagged are no longer registered with the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority, which means they can no longer carry on business or operate as legal entities in Singapore.
“This includes entities that were allegedly involved in the transfer of components and spare parts for fighter aircraft, equipment for the Myanmar Navy, as well as radios, research and equipment for electronic warfare,” he said.
Most of the 47 entities initially flagged no longer have business facilities with Singapore banks. The banks will review the remaining accounts and take appropriate measures, including enhanced scrutiny, to ensure that the transactions processed by these entities are not suspicious.
“Such measures would curtail their ability to continue with any undesirable business,” said Dr Balakrishnan.
He added that as Myanmar is on the money-laundering blacklist of the Financial Action Task Force, financial institutions in Singapore have also been applying enhanced due diligence for Myanmar-linked customers and transactions that present higher risks.
In May, Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to the allegations in the report, saying that the Republic has worked to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar while remaining committed to providing humanitarian assistance to its Asean neighbour.
A Monetary Authority of Singapore spokesman also said that month that it had alerted banks here based on the information provided in the UN report, and that several of the entities mentioned no longer have business relationships with the banks.
Arms and related goods
The Government is looking into specific details of the “arms and related goods” that were shipped through Singapore-based entities to the Myanmar military, said Dr Balakrishnan.
He noted that in Mr Andrews’ report, there were no indications that specific armaments were being transferred to the military. Instead, only spare parts and equipment were cited under the category of “arms”, without details of what they were.
The report also contained the major category of “dual use supplies”, which included items such as computers, electrical components and medical equipment, as well as “manufacturing equipment” like welding machines and overhead cranes. There was also a category called “raw materials”, which covered items such as steel beams, aluminium ingots, pipes, valves and fabric.
Based on these descriptions, it can be seen that they do not necessarily constitute weaponry, noted Dr Balakrishnan.
He said: “Many of them, such as computers and medical equipment, are also non-controlled items. It is difficult to isolate specific suspicious transactions from such broad categories.
“We are therefore seeking more details such as export transaction documents to ascertain how these transactions are connected to the manufacture of weapons in Myanmar, so that our checks and investigations can be more thorough, and effective based on objective evidence.”
Singapore has not conducted any military sales to Myanmar in recent years, including during the period covered in the report – between February 2021 and December 2022, stressed Dr Balakrishnan.
He noted how Mr Andrews had reaffirmed in his report that “there are no indications the Government of Singapore has approved, or is involved in, the shipment of arms and associated materials to the Myanmar military”.
“We will continue to work closely and constructively with Mr Andrews to seek specific, verifiable and, where possible, court-admissible information to advance our investigations,” Dr Balakrishnan said.