Serge Pun (born 1953)

Alexander Zimmermann

Serge Pun with the Shwedagon Pagoda in the background

Introduction

Serge Pun led an eventful life. Even though his role in the history and political development of Myanmar cannot be compared with that of General Ne Win or Chief of Intelligence Khin Nyunt (with whom he shared ethnic Chinese roots), he can be considered one of the most interesting  and – in his alleged role as a ”crony” of the disliked military – most controversial personalities in Myanmar. His life and career are testament to the economic potential of Myanmar but also show the downsides of big business in a country which lacks a strong legal and economic framework.

Biography

Serge Pun (Chinerse: pan jize – 潘继泽) spent the first eight years of his childhood in Yangon, where he was born as Theim Wai in 1953. He lived together with his parents and four siblings. His early childhood fell into the so-called democratic phase in Myanmar between 1948 and 1958 under the leadership of U Nu. His father worked at the Chinese Bank of Communication (jiaotong yinghang – 交通银行). As a Chinese banking family Pun’s family belonged to the upper middle class in and provided Serge Pun with a privileged youth in Burma, where he visited the St. Pauls Catholic School in Yangon until 1962.

As his ancestry shows, Serge Pun was an ethnic Chinese. Even though the Chinese in Myanmar make up only around three percent of the overall population, they play an important role in the country’s trade and business.

Domestic political unrest resulted in a military coup in 1962 and the establishment of the Ne Win regime based on a socialist model.1 As part of his non-alignment policy during the cold war, Ne Win pursued a policy of self-sufficiency which led to the isolation of the country. Non-governmental schools like that attended by Serge Pun were closed and privately owned businesses were gradually nationalized.2 Also, ethnic minority groups such as the Chinese in Myanmar were increasingly marginalized.

In 1965 Serge Pun’s father decided to leave Myanmar. The family moved to China. In Beijing, Serge Pun and his siblings attended a school for Chinese from overseas, but the anticipated peace was short lived. In Beijing, the unrest of the Cultural Revolution was already awaiting Serge’s family. The Cultural Revolution finally broke out in 1966, nine months after the Pun family’s  flight to Beijing.

Since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the so-called „Red Guards“ (红卫兵) recruited their ranks from pupils and students, and played a major role in the movement. Like many other students, Serge Pun became a member of the Red Guards.  He himself recalled: “We ran around and did all the things that young revolutionary youngsters did. Riding around the country, writing big-character posters.“

After the Red Guards had become politically unacceptable because of factional infighting, many of their were sent to the countryside. Hence, at the age of 12, Serge Pun was separated from his family and sent to Yunnan with 1,500 other children.3

In Yunnan he had to survive on a remote state farm, isolated from other farms and villagers, with only rudimentary supplies and hardly any opportunity for further education.

Pun later remembered: “For four years, we built a dam with our bare hands. We lived in huts we built from bamboo and constructed beds from branches. We had no electricity and bathed in a stream – even in winter. We were given the bare staple, rice, and the rest was up to us. If your battalion was good, planting vegetables and raising pigs, you could eat meat. Otherwise, it was dried vegetables – they tasted horrible”. (Financial Times)

In 1973, Serge Pun managed to make his departure to the British colony of Hong Kong after China had started to loosen its border controls. The details of this escape remain unclear. After his arrival in the British colony, he worked as a day labourer and port worker initially, but later became a sales agent for scent trees (air freshener), of which he had become aware through a newspaper advertisement.

Elmar Busch

Finally, his professional career led Serge Pun into the real estate sector, which was booming at that time due to strong demand in Hong Kong.4 In his function as a sales agent, Serge Pun met the German real estate broker and entrepreneur Elmar Busch, born 1944. Serge Pun showed his entrepreneurial spirit. He tried to sell air freshener in his broken English; he stood out due to his stubbornness. Elmar Busch made him a job offer, which Pun accepted. Pun however demanded that Busch had to buy an air freshener from him in exchange. This was the last scent tree Serge Pun sold in his career as a sales agent.

By joining Busch’s company, Serge Pun was introduced to the real estate business. Elmar Busch helped him to become adept in all tricks of the trade within the ten years Serge Pun worked for him. Busch even invited Serge Pun to accompany him on his business trips to Europe and Canada, which broadened Serge Pun’s horizon. Until then, he had known little about the world because of his lack of formal school education.

In 1983, he dared to take his next step and the founded the Serge Pun & Associates Group (SPA). From 1988 onwards, SPA opened branches in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Shenzhen, Chengdu, Dalian and Taiwan. In this stage of life, he met his wife, a Hong Kong Chinese, working at a Chinese investment forum.

During his time in exile, Pun always longed to return to his place of birth. His chance for a return finally came after the military coup of 1988 that resulted in a liberalization of the economy and the easing of state control. One central move of the new policy was opening the country for forein investment.5 From 1992 to 2003 the country experienced a steady economic growth, which is why Serge Pun often speaks of the first economic spring in Myanmar.

In 1992, Serge Pun founded his flagship company in his country of birth, First Myanmar Investment Co Ltd. as one of the first public corporations in Myanmar first concentrating on the real estate sector. At the same time, Pun’s SPA Group benefited from investment in the property market in China and allowed him to finance his endeavours in Myanmar. In addition, Pun expanded his business to other industries. In 1993, he obtained a banking license and founded Yoma Bank, which is the second largest private bank in Myanmar today. For Serge Pun „The business just kept growing“ (Financial Times).

Serge Pun experienced a first setback during the banking crisis happening in early 2003 after rumours caused customers of Burma’s banks attempted to withdraw their money leading The crisis finally resulted in the closure of three private banks the most prominent being the Asian Wealth Bank (AWB) during the following years that were accused of money laundering. Serge Pun kept the license of his bank that was regarded to rather “clean” but but was barred from taking deposits or making loans for some time. He enjoyed good relations with long standing “No. 3” of the country and short-time Prime Minister, Intelligence Chief Khin Nyunt, kept out of direct involvement politics. The removal of Khin Nyunt by junta chief Than Shwe was later described by him as „the beginning of cronyism because there was no real economy left.“ In contrast, Serge Pun describes Khin Nyunt as a liberal and rational man: “You could talk logic and reason with him. He was open-minded.”(Montlake).

Due to his economic basis that he had built up over the years, it was possible for Serge Pun’ business enterprises to stay relatively independent during this time. Most of the land development rights held by Serge’s SPA Group had already been acquired in the 1990s. Moreover, most of his enterprises were profitable and did not depend on government grants. In addition, he was able to repeatedly use his own Yoma Bank to get financial resources and to lend to his own companies. In order to obtain additional capital, Yoma Strategic Holdings Ltd. got listed as the first company in Myanmar at the Singapore stock exchange.6

Despite all this, it was impossible for Serge Pun to live through this economic crisis after 2003 without violating any restrictions and regulations. Yoma Bank exceeded the 15 percent credit limit for affiliates, and some private investors had to wait several years before they could withdraw their money. Serge Pun admits that his Yoma Bank had broken bank regulations during the „five dark years“ as Pun called them. Only in 2012 the full banking license was granted again.[R7] 

An end to the „five dark years“ only started to become apparent with the announcement the adoption of a new constitution in 2008 and the holding of elections in 2010. These and the reforms, launched in 2010, marked the start of the second economic spring for Serge Pun.

Success, Business Philosophy, Critique

and CritiqueCurrently, Serge is the Chairman of the Board of the SPA Group. In just 21 years, Serge Pun’s ‘business empire’ has grown to nearly 5.000 employees and 40 different subgroups. These include the First Myanmar Investment (FMI) and the Yoma Strategic Holdings. SPA Myanmar is one of Burma’s largest conglomerates and operates in eight different sectors, including banking, financial services, real estate, developing automotive industry, logistics, tourism, technology, and as well as agriculture and medicine.

Serge Pun might be not as popular as other people from Myanmar, but he must be regarded as one of the most influential business men of the country. His success can hardly be explained without his early experiences outside of Myanmar. The experiences during the Cultural Revolution and the ensuing deportation to the countryside played an important role in shaping his business spirit, as he said in an interview with Gwen Robinson: „Not only do I not re­gret the hardships I went through in China, I actually treasure them. Because whatever I learnt and en­dured over those years laid the foundation for what I achieved in my later years.”

With his sharpened sense for politics and business, he quickly managed to achieve his professional goals. During his time in the Red Guards, Serge Pun’s duties included to propagate the Maoist ideology. To this he himself says: „I have done a good job of selling the ideology“.

It is therefore hardly surprising that during his work as a sales agent, Serge rose to the best seller within a month and was later discovered by Elmar Busch as a business talent. His Chinese roots also contributed to his success. Through a network of personal contacts and relationships (guanxi – 关系)7, he was able to acquire orders in Hong Kong and later also throughout the region and expand his business ever further.

ersonal acquaintances and connections have also made it easier for Serge Pun to expand into Myanmar and expand his business to today’s extent. It is therefore significant that one of his most important projects in Myanmar was a 600 acre (2,43 square km) golf club that opened in 2000 under the name of Pun Hlaing Gold Resort. It developed into a centre of the golf scene in Myanmar and counts the most important representatives of the economy of Myanmar and the so called elite, including leading militaries as its members. Therefore, the Golf Club played and still plays an important role in establishing new economic contacts and networks.

Pun Hlaing Golf Cluc, Yangon

However, his close contacts with military brass and influential business people exposed Serge Pun to the suspicion of exercising personal advantages. Critics say that the formation of a company group with extensive business relationships in different industries in Myanmar could not have been achieved without close cooperation with the military junta. Thus, he was accused of belonging to a circle of selected individuals who had a sort of symbiotic relationship with the government, to undermine the sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union after 1996 and, in return, gain access to lucrative business. His contacts with government and business people were indeed so close that in 2008 the US government was considering to sanction Serge Pun and his Singapore-listed Yoma Strategic Holding and to exclude them from operating in the US.

Serge Pun always denied any accusation of looking for personal advantages although his close contacts to the Myanmar government make the allegations appear comprehensible. However, since the downfall of Khin Nyunt in late 2004 it is at least plausible to see Serge as an opponent of corruption and cronyism. With the overthrow of Khin Nyunt as the leader od what he and others regarded as a “Liberal Group” within the military in 2004 the economic climate in the country began to change. The economically stable situation in Myanmar was shattered overnight by the easing of monetary policy, which led the country into an economic recession. Accordings to his view, corruption and cronyism gained momentum after 2004, which is why Serge Pun speaks of the following period as of the „five dark years“. Since he himself was unable or unwilling to participate in this practice, he always regarded cronyism as a severe economic hindrance.  He says: „I never paid a cent for any favours … The pressure was huge, but I can say honestly: I have never received a sweetheart deal. We landed deals that needed performance – and we delivered, every time, the right way and in right time”.

Because of the political changes in 2010 and Serge Pun’s contacts to the new government, he however remains a controversial personality. Thus, by virtue of his actions before and after 2010, he is treated by some as a role model, while his critics still regard him as the crony of the former military junta.

Despite having denied any political ambition within Myanmar, Serge Pun has been a long-time member of the People’s Political Consultative Conference of Dalian (辽宁省大连市的中国人民政治协商会议) and a member of the Asia Business Council. Especially due to his network outside of Myanmar, Serge Pun continues to be perceived as the type of crony who represents a foreign interest group. However, on the other hand Sege Pun had also been a member of the Global Agenda Council for Transparency and Anti-Corruption of the World Economic Forum from 2014 to 2016, which sends a contrary message to the above.[R6] 

While international organizations such as the World Bank are considering cooperation with Serge Pun, critics are concerned. According to them, an inclusion of Serge Pun and his group in the rebuilding of Myanmar would only cement his position as a crony and hinder the goal of development and combating poverty in Myanmar. However, Serge replies to these and similar allegations: „Many organisations are required to conduct thorough due diligence, including the likes of the World Bank, ADB (Asia Development Bank), IFC and the U.S. Embassy, and they have ongoing dealings with us because of our reputation. That would give clear evidence, over the circumstantial allegations.

Assessments

Today, Serge Pun is living in Yangon together with his wife and four sons. Despite his Chinese roots, he poses as a representative of the Burmese culture.  He often appears in a collarless shirt and a Longyi (traditional Burmese wrap skirt). He says, „Myanmar is my first home, I have deep feelings“, which also had motivated him to return to the country.

His proximity to Myanmar as well as his business experience and contacts make him a sought-after expert for business and development in Myanmar. He is often consulted by the new government; whose program contains hardly any specific new approaches for economic and business matters.

According to Serge Pun, structural deficits continue to be the main obstacles for development in Myanmar, as well as a relatively high rate of inflation. Despite the visible progress in the country’s development and the abolition of the economic sanctions, investors often hesitate, because Myanmar as a market can hardly be reliably assessed in many sectors including his own enterprises.8 Nevertheless, Serge Pun sees the reform process that began in 2010 as a second „economic spring“, which is to be used. According to Serge’s view, foreign investors should not only rely on short-term profits or enter the market in Myanmar with too high expectations. Companies should rather be more long-term oriented, in order to be successful. Only in this way it is possible for the companies to leave a positive impact in society and to profit from the general development.

Due to his business relations both at home and abroad, as well as his long-term oriented business stance, Serge Pun is seen to function as a potential catalyst for the development in Myanmar. Where the government is not yet able to push the economic development due to encrusted structures, lack of expertise or lack of contacts abroad, pioneering work is needed. Hence, the infrastructure already set up by Serge Pun is believed to have the potential of directing foreign capital to Myanmar and creating new business opportunities.

Whether his supporters or critics are right, only time will tell. One may say that to assess his contribution to Myanmar society is as open as an evaluation of Myanmar politics since 1988. Nonetheless, as early as 2008, some aid organizations had worked directly with Serge Pun after the Cyclone Nargis instead of approaching the government and thus regarding him a part of the country’s civil society.9

Today, the IFC (International Finance Corp)10 is planning to cooperate with Yoma Bank to provide loans worth around 30 million US-Dollars to small and medium-sized businesses. Due to the shortcomings in areas such as infrastructure and financial services in Myanmar, cooperation with Pun offers the opportunity to use the funds effectively and reach as many people as possible.

Literature

Auswärtiges Amt (April 2017): Länderinformationen. Hongkong. Wirtschaft. Web. http://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/DE/Aussenpolitik/Laender/Laenderinfos/Hongkong/Wirtschaft.html (01/05/2017)

Ben Yue (18-24/06/2014): Rebuilding Myanmar. Hard Work Helped Serge Pun Escape Turbulent Childhood To Become A Tycoon Instrumental In Nation’s Development. In China Daily, Asia Weekly, S. 32.

Central Intelligence Agency (12/01/2017): The World Factbook. Burma. Web. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/bm.html (01/05/2017)

Chinatownology (N/A): Overseas Chinese in Burma. (Myanmar). Web. http://www.chinatownology.com/overseas_chinese_burma.html (01/05/2017

Dawson, Stella (June 11, 2017): World Bank’s financing of luxury projects in Myanmar and man linked to military faces criticism. In: The Independent. http://www.theindependent.sg/world-banks-financing-of-luxury-projects-in-myanmar-and-man-linked-to-military-faces-criticism/ (12/06/2017)

Montlake, Simon (September 2013): Golden Return: Serge Pun Constructs A RealEstate Empire In Myanmar. In: Forbes. Web. https://www.forbes.com/sites/simonmontlake/2013/08/28/golden-return-serge-pun-constructs-a-real-estate-empire-in-myanmar/#3ef2be892321

Oxford Burma Alliance (N/A): The Ne Win Years: 1962-1988. Web. http://www.oxfordburmaalliance.org/1962-coup–ne-win-regime.html (01/05/2017)

Oxford Business Group (N/A): OBG talks to Serge Pun, Chairman, Serge Pun & Associates (Myanmar). Interview: Serge Pun. Web.https://www.oxfordbusinessgroup.com/interview/obg-talks-serge-pun-chairman-serge-pun-associates-myanmar (01/05/2017)

Property Report (25/06/2016): The story of Serge Pun: Myanmar’s 2016 Real Estate Personality. One of Myanmar’s most recognised businessmen will be honoured by Property Report at the country’s biggest industry event. Web. http://www.property-report.com/the-story-of-serge-pun-myanmars-2016-real-estate-personality/(01/05/2017)

Robinson, Gwen (SEPTEMBER 9, 2012): A business school of hard knocks. The Monday Interview. In: Financial Times. Web. https://www.ft.com/content/f9093c8a-f8cd-11e1-b4ba-00144feabdc0 (01/05/2017)

Tan Hui Ann, Connie (17/06/2015): Myanmar must plan for the long-term: Top tycoon. In: CNBC. Web.http://www.cnbc.com/2015/06/17/myanmar-must-plan-for-the-long-term-says-yomas-serge-pun.html (01/05/2017)

The Economist (19/06/2008): Myanmar after the cyclone. Chrony charity. Web. http://www.economist.com/node/11579356 (01/05/2017)

Footnotes

1The so-called „Burmese Way to Socialism“contained elements from Marxism, Buddhism and extreme nationalism. (http://www.oxfordburmaalliance.org/1962-coup—ne-win-regime.html)

2Private Hospitals were nationalized as well. (http://www.oxfordburmaalliance.org/1962-coup—ne-win-regime.html)

3At the end of 1968, Mao Zedong called the Red Guards „go out into the world.“ This led to the deportation of about ten million students who were told to learn from the peasants at the country and spread Mao’s ideology.

4Due to the rapid development and the high demand for housing, the colonial administration launched a program in 1972, which was to create housing for about 1.8 million people over the next ten years. Later this program was extended until 1987.

5A significant move of the turning away from the socialist economy was the Foreign Investment Law issued already in November 1988, two months after the coup.

6To date, Yoma Strategic Holdings Ltd. ss the only company in Myanmar, which is listed on an international stock exchange. (China Daily).

7Guanxi describes a basic personalized network of relationships that plays a central role in Chinese society.

8The evaluation of Serge Pun’s group of companies is often difficult, as international benchmarking in Myanmar is hardly possible due to the lack of a market development. (Financial Times).

9The organisation “Save the Children” and Singapore’s Red Cross used both Serge Puns boats and warehouses to distribute food, medicine and tents to the crisis regions. (The Economist)

10The International Finance Corp is the World Bank’s financing arm.