Business against corruption Expert opinion International review

‘Anti-corruption a competitive strength’

UPCOMING DEVELOPMENTS: Artist's impression of Yoma Central and The Peninsula Yangon, projects which Yoma has undertaken in collaboration with several international corporations and financiers. Source: YOMA STRATEGIC HOLDINGS.

This material belongs to: The Business Times.

Corruption in Myanmar is widely described as “endemic”, and experts trace its roots to the decades of military rule.

The country scored 28 out of 100 (100 is a perfect score and signifes “very clean”) in terms of perceived level of public sector corruption in a study by Transparency International, and was ranked 136th out of 176 in its Corruption Perceptions Index in 2016.

So how are Yoma Strategic Holdings and Serge Pun & Associates (SPA) able to hold themselves to a different standard? The group’s founder Serge Pun is widely referred to as “Mr Clean”.

Melvyn Pun, chief executive of Yoma and son of Mr Serge Pun, recounts a family discussion in the late 1980s when the family mulled over a return to Myanmar. In those years, the family lived in Hong Kong. Mr Pun himself was studying in the UK.

“There was a lot of anxiety within the family because Myanmar is known to be very corrupt. At that time a number of countries were going after businessmen or politicians on the back of corruption.”

“There was a specific discussion in the family that we’d make this a hard line. There is no point pursuing business in Myanmar, or giving up opportunities outside if my father was to end up in jail. It was a hard line: we decided we’d prefer not to do certain businesses. In the worst case scenario if we had to pull out of Myanmar, that’s fine.”

“In a way it was a dumb thing to do – here’s a project where you can make a lot of money, but you had to do something you would rather not do, so why would you not do it? But that hard line and the fact that we were able to talk openly about it helped us.”

Mr Serge Pun performing a traditional Burmese ritual at the groundbreaking ceremony of Yoma Central in February this year. He is widely referred to as “Mr Clean”. Source: YOMA STRATEGIC HOLDINGS.

Mr Pun reckons that the fact that his father’s business success was initially established outside Myanmar worked in his family’s favour, giving the group a sheen typically accorded multinational corporations.

“If you are from Myanmar and always lived there, you don’t want to cut off all potential roads. We’re a Burmese company but at the end of the day, we have another route – we can go back to places like Singapore, Hong Kong or China. That allows us to be clearer on what is black and white.”

“That clear line is very good. It makes it easier for our staff. I feel extremely confident about our business ethics especially on the anti-corruption front. We’ve made it into a competitive advantage. In some areas it would have been a short cut to do things differently, but overall, anti-corruption has become a competitive strength, so why compromise on that?”

On wealth, Mr Pun says he grew up comfortably, not “dirt poor” nor excessively wealthy at that time. He counts his grandparents among his major influences. “When you look at that generation, what they went through – the war, rebuilding the nation – they were very frugal. Wealth had a different meaning to them. I’m lucky to have a perspective where wealth was not a given.”

Today, Mr Serge Pun, however, ranks among Singapore’s wealthiest. Forbes magazine puts his net worth at US$800 million.

Family in Hong Kong

For the sake of his two young children – ages 4 and 6 – the younger Mr Pun has resisted the idea of living in Myanmar. The family currently lives in Hong Kong. “My wife is extremely focused on making sure my children have a normal life. We don’t want them to be spoiled; they have to tidy up themselves, and not travel in luxury all the time. That’s why we didn’t want them to live in Myanmar for now. They are too young and will be too spoiled.”

Children are his pet charitable interest. He and his wife support OneSky, which designs and implements programmes to help communities and care-givers unlock the potential of the world’s most vulnerable young children.

He is also passionate about the environment. He sits on the Asia Pacifc Council of The Nature Conservancy, based in Hong Kong. The organisation’s mission is to conserve land and water, and build a sustainable world for future generations. In Myanmar, it has worked to reduce deforestation and forest degradation.

“Hopefully we’ll do more in Myanmar; the key is awareness. Myanmar is very conscious about environmental impact issues and sustainability. It’s also about bringing in international best practices.”

Yoma itself has embarked on a joint project with Norfund, a Norwegian state-owned investment fund. The project sets out to build distributed generation micropower plants and minigrids to generate and distribute electricity to telecommunication towers and rural communities.

The investment, he says, is commercial in nature but it also has a social element. “We’re in the pilot phase … We’ll have a distributed power network, with minigrids around the country which are solar powered, which is very clean and easy to maintain.”

“If this is successful it can impact many lives. Families with access to the national grid are only a third of the population at most. Even for that third, most of the time they have access to power for only a few hours a day. This way we give affordable electricity in a way that’s very clean.”