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Singapore brand flying high in Yangon
YANGON may be a three-hour flight and nearly 2,000 km away from Singapore - but it's difficult not to feel the Lion City's growing presence in Myanmar's largest city and its thriving commercial centre.
When I landed at the city's international airport on Monday and made my way to the immigration counters, I spotted a familiar logo along the way: Ya Kun.
As I later found out, the airport outlet is one of five that the popular Singapore cafe chain operates in the city.
Inside this particular branch, located in the public area of the terminal, locals and tourists alike were tucking into Ya Kun's signature set meal of kaya toast, soft-boiled eggs and kopi-o.
Many Singaporeans have ventured into Myanmar over the years to try their luck at breaking into the market, especially in the booming and competitive F&B industry.
There is a bustling street in Yangon that is peppered with Singapore-owned restaurants and cafes - so much so that Singapore's Ambassador to Myanmar Robert Chua quipped that the area could well become a "Little Singapore" of sorts in time to come.
Singapore companies big and small have been busy making inroads in this once-reclusive Southeast Asian state, now led by its first civilian president in half-a-century after last November's general election.
With Myanmar making its transition to democracy under a brand new leadership, it's little wonder that the country is fast catching the eye of many entrepreneurs and businesses from Singapore.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who is currently in Myanmar on a three-day official visit, cited some of these local firms during a dinner on Tuesday with President Htin Kyaw and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi at the presidential palace in Nay Pyi Taw.
One of them is Krislite, which has operated in Myanmar since the 1990s. The lighting specialist has provided lighting for infrastructure and hotels in Yangon, and for Parliament buildings, public streets, as well as stadiums in Nay Pyi Taw that were used when Myanmar hosted the SEA Games in 2013.
Another established name in the country is Keppel Land, which runs five-star hotels in Yangon and Mandalay. The Sedona Hotel Yangon (which is where Mr Lee and his delegation are currently staying) just opened a new 29-storey wing with 420 additional rooms.
Across the road from that hotel, the Myanmar Plaza (a mega mall that opened a few months ago) has tenants that include many well- known Singapore brands such as fashion retailers Charles & Keith and Iora, Western food restaurant Aston's, and another Ya Kun outlet.
Singapore has also made a significant mark in Myanmar in the field of education and training. The Singapore-Myanmar Vocational Training Institute, a building that sits on a plot of prime land in downtown Yangon, has already produced its first batch of graduates, with about 40 per cent of them having secured jobs to date.
This week's announcement that Singapore and Myanmar citizens will no longer require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days in each others' country from Dec 1 will inevitably give a major boost to commercial and people-to-people links.
This will translate to much greater demand for flights between the two countries over time; there are now 49 weekly flights between Singapore and two cities (Yangon and Mandalay), and travellers say they would like to see even more flights and routes.
As I settled into my hotel room on Monday night, I turned on the TV and flipped to a local channel showing a live broadcast of a football match from Thuwunna Stadium in Yangon.
The two teams playing were (who else?) Singapore and Vietnam. They were competing in the final of the Aya Bank Cup before thousands of spectators in football-mad Myanmar.
Be it sports, hotels or kaya toast, it's evident that the Singapore flag is flying high in one of the most vibrant and promising cities in all of South-east Asia.