Leading the way on economic reform

We can send a message by choosing which businesses we support and reward those who are trying to bring about positive change.

AT TIMES, it can feel like we are stuck in the old ways. For all the talk of change, it’s often the same old faces, the same practices, the same vested interests, and the same cronyism and corruption.

The public, the people whom the government and parliament are supposed to represent, are all too often the loser in this equation. For them, it’s the same frustrations and sense of hopelessness.

Unfortunately, the Yangon Bus Service has come to epitomise the failed promises of the National League for Democracy government in the country’s commercial capital. It’s become little more than a running joke, whether you prefer the English version (YBS=You’ll Be Sorry) or Burmese, in which the official slogan Pyithu Atwet YBS (YBS for the people) has mockingly become Pyithu Seik Pyet YBS (YBS disappointing the people).

To be fair, there is merit in the government’s arguments that it has not been given enough time to turn things around, and that some stakeholders are trying to sabotage its reforms. Certainly, few would disagree that the old system, managed by Ma Hta Tha, was thoroughly broken and needed to be replaced. For still-suffering commuters, though, that is scant consolation.

Amid the doom and gloom, though, there are sometimes rays of light. Ko Tayoke Lay and his No 21 bus line is one example that Frontier has highlighted in this week’s issue.

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In our profile, we explain how he has managed to buck the YBS trend by delivering a standard of service that meets (or even exceeds) customer expectations while also making money. This last point – financial success – is important, because without it there will be little incentive for others to follow his lead.

The principles that Ko Tayoke Lay espouses are principles that more businesses in Myanmar need to follow. They might not realise it, but they also have little choice. The economy is shifting and liberalising, offering the tantalising prospect of a more equitable future. For many businesses, then, it will be a case of change or die.

This was emphasised in the recent introduction of the Myanmar Investment Law rules, which did away with many local partner requirements for foreign investors. Why should foreign businesses be saddled with partners who are just there to make up the numbers? It’s the same old rent-seeking in a new form. In the end, it’s consumers who are penalised, through goods and services that are inferior and more expensive than they need to be.

Of course, huge inequality remains. Those who hold the wealth – particularly real estate, accrued as a means of parking and securing money – have a huge advantage. Yet this is no guarantee of success, particularly when it’s not coupled with the right mindset and skills.

Conversely, many of those who take a risk will fail – it’s certainly a lesson that Ko Tayoke Lay learned the hard way. But some will succeed and show a path forward.

As consumers, we need to remember that old mantra, vote with your feet, and recognise that we wield significant power to shape the future of the economy. We can send a message by choosing which businesses we support and reward those who are trying to bring about positive change.

In the process, you may just bring about the change you’ve been craving all along.

This editorial originally appeared in the May 11 issue of Frontier.

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