It’s been a while.
In the two years that I was gone, Yangon seemed changed but remained the same in so many ways. I had managed to drop by every 6-8 months, and each time, the change was incremental, yet drastic. This post is just me taking note of the sentiments I have noticed personally, from the sidelines, behind the major headlines you may have seen in the news.
THE WELLNESS TREND
First, if I have to start at the personal level, I am noticing that the Keto diet is ALL. THE. RAGE. across Yangon. People outside of Myanmar normally do not associate the country with a £180-meal plan, or the lifestyle of certain parts of Yangon. In holiday parties in London, I still get asked by the provincial types who have never lived abroad how I have managed come to London from Myanmar in the first place. I think they want to hear electricity cuts and censorship, not the Keto diet and chauffeured-cars. Yet, the truth is Myanmar, or any developing country, is a mix of both worlds.
This January, I am noticing that more than a handful of my friends are buying the Keto meal plan, priced at £180 just for two weeks, complete with a welcome dinner and a closing dinner. Participants are asked to share their daily weight with the service provider, too.
I am all for self-care. But I do not buy the Keto diet. I hope my friends see the Keto diet as only a temporary solution, which is terrible for your gut health in the long run. If you are doing this diet properly, you should be feeling a little bit dehydrated from the loss of carbohydrates in your body, drinking water more than the usual amount, and therefore going to the loo like a pregnant woman does. I hope you are getting your beef bone broth and eating nuts to get your minerals, if you are on the Keto diet. Ketoacidosis can be deadly, and high animal-protein content is acidifying and inflammatory – bad for both the body and the environment. As Alejandro Junger M.D. said in her “Clean” book, “The Atkins diet works; it is guaranteed to make you fit in your bathing suit by beach time. What it doesn’t guarantee is that you will be alive to enjoy it.” Guess what else burns off fat? Exercise. Eating fats does NOT make you healthy. Eating nutritious food does.
On the fad diet note, a spiritual person of sorts I met in Goa over the holiday said to me rather mystically that I should totes get on the macrobiotic diet, seek balance in life, and arrive at my truth. Almost 180 to the Keto diet, the macrobiotic diet is grains-based, recommends against eating fruit and drinking water unless you feel thirst. I am not into it.
My diet for 2019 remains: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants… and when drunk, go for KFC. I guess you could say my diet is Pollan-Sanders-esque.
My takeaway is that the popularity of the Keto diet is evidence of and part of the larger trend towards personal well-being and fitness. It is welcoming that there is a renewed focus on health among Yangonites. Gyms remain trendy and expensive, 3x what I pay in London. Farmers markets in Yangon University and the Karaweik Park are popular. With the availability of better packaging and an eye for the export market, many of the new products launched are exquisitely branded and well-packaged, which I wholeheartedly welcome.
People have additionally started discussing mental health candidly, and I dare say there is an unmet demand for counsellors and therapists in Yangon, even among the well-heeled, not to mention in rural villages that have gone through traumatic events and years of economic hardships.
PEACE & PROSPERITY
At a bigger level, I notice this time around that the mood for business and politics is particularly dire and gloomy.
In early-2017, people were still optimistic. One historian and a political analyst then suggested that the disapproval for the NLD government was limited to top 1,000 individuals. It was hugely controversial to critique the NLD policies then. By mid-2018, medium and large business owners have started echoing the negative sentiment more noticeably. There is even a joke that with the military government, if you pay a bribe, the job gets done, but the NLD government takes bribes and still under-delivers. I am not encouraging bribes here, merely noting that there seems to be some sort of half-truth in these jokes that go around tea shops.
This time around, I was also surprised to hear a cab driver complaining about the economic mismanagement of the NLD government. Cab conversations are particularly illuminating – why is this person telling a complete stranger his political opinions in a country with heavy censorship up until recent times? I find it rather unusual, this outright disapproval. He said that he had faced more economic hardships under the NLD administration, and seemed quite distraught with the management. State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had often said that Myanmar could not have prosperity without peace first. Yet, the two are not mutually exclusive in such a poor country. Three years after the landmark elections, Myanmar has neither peace nor prosperity – nor progress toward any direction.
The one area where peace and prosperity intersect and get tricky is the illicit drug trade in regions with conflicts between the Burmese army and ethnic autonomous forces.
Back in 2015, I wrote my MBA personal essay with a business idea on persuading farmers against growing opium. My startup idea is already outdated with changed circumstances, problem to be fixed has already mutated into something far sinister. Myanmar used to be known for its opium, turned eventually into heroine, one of the major exports of the country. Today, farmers are not really into growing opium as much anymore. The synthetically produced meth trade has picked up consistently and indeed alarmed many observers this year due to a dramatic surge. Meth labs are harder to seize, and meth made in the Golden Triangle goes all the way to New Zealand, Japan, and Australia. Occasional seizures have been valued in millions, once up to US$1.4bn. All this illicit money is probably going into the illicit arms trade. The aforementioned political analyst notes that it cannot be good for Myanmar that there are too many guys with too many guns and too much money.
Seen Narcos recently, anyone?
TIMING THE MARKET
Personally, I think back on the recent times in Myanmar and can reasonably conclude that I have timed my post-graduate studies well.
There was no way of knowing for sure how the reforms would have panned out a few years ago. Hindsight is 20/20. The years that my peers and I were working in Myanmar as young professionals were the most exciting times in recent memory, from the business perspective. The mood was not so gloomy back then. Since the new administration came into power, not much has happened economically, save for Uber’s entry and subsequent acquisition by Grab.
Sure, there are new shops, bars and restaurants, and Sofar Sounds made it to Yangon. The expat neigbhourhood of York Street has given away to new condominiums that have finished construction and come online, and my god, even the known realtor David Ney has left town. Starbucks announced to enter and quickly withdrew. A couple of international law firms have closed shops. Samsung gave up its idea of building a manufacturing facility in Myanmar, which I still think is a huge loss in terms of job creation.
The only thing I do feel encouraged by is the new crop of entrepreneurs, some of whom are featured on Irrawaddy’s 2018 Persons & Issues to Watch. There are still many others quietly working away without much attention from the media, and I do feel FOMO every time I see them. The businesses that will become an institution are these same guys that survive the next few years.
And that is a goal worth striving for: to become an institution. It is far too easy to start a business in Myanmar (capital goes far here) but it is much harder to scale with consistency and transition into an institution of sorts. Even in the past five years, I have seen many big brands that have shone bright but passed just as quickly. Examples range from Myanmar Peace Centre in politics to TS1 / Port Autonomy brands in the business sector, having attracted the IG crowd for a fleeting moment. The individuals behind these experiments simply have moved onto greater things. Yangon simply exudes a distinct entrepreneurial spirit, and I am rooting for them. It requires faith to invest in Myanmar, and a first-mover advantage is not always there, as I have drawn my lessons from my own investments.
I also know only with the benefit of the hindsight that I was fortunate to have ended up at an MBA school in London, rather than in the US, at these peculiar times. If I had gone to a US business school, I’d be graduating into the Trump era, with its added restrictions on Burmese passports. In the UK, Brexit happened – but I knew that going into my MBA. As a result, the tuition fees were 20% cheaper, and I finished school and started earning again just as dollar strengthened.
If there is anything the recent years have taught me, it is that I really agree with all the cliched sayings. Location, location, location. Timing is everything. Context really is all.
With that note, I thank my guardian angels / the universe / luck, and feel ready to start the new year.