By SGN | 10 Nov 2020
How did you get into the field of developmental work? Could you tell us more about what working in this field is like?
I always knew I wanted to work within the field of international development, specifically on issues regarding gender and health.
I started out by interning with Transitions Global in October 2013, a non-profit focusing on restoring the lives of young girls affected by sex trafficking. This was my first real-world experience in developmental work right after graduating from Clark University with a Bachelor of Arts in International Development and Social Change.
In the 6 months I was there, I worked on developing a life skills curriculum for survivors of sex trafficking (aged 13-18) living at a safehouse. Being cognizant of the traumatic experiences these young survivors had lived through, we developed a trauma-informed curriculum with lessons on self-esteem, consent, body awareness, among other topics to complement and enrich their school curriculum.
How did this bring you to Myanmar?
After my stint with Transitions Global in Cambodia, I spent four months as a Program Leader with Rustic Pathways, a global youth adventure and community service travel company. I helped run some of their culture immersion and community service based programs in Thailand and Myanmar, which are designed to expose high-school to college-level students to critical global issues. As part one of the programs, students had the opportunity to learn about lives of refugees from Myanmar living in Thailand and what their life was like, an experience that can really impact perspectives especially at that age.
These stints in the field opened up doors for me. I fell into a position with DKT International, a non-profit organization which focuses on leveraging social marketing to develop brands addressing family planning, HIV/AIDS prevention, and safe abortion in developing countries such as Myanmar.
We hear that you worked on increasing awareness of female contraception products in Myanmar with DKT International. Tell us a little more?
DKT International was a really interesting transition for me. I joined as a brand manager for Lydia, a female contraception brand that we were launching in Myanmar. This role then grew into a communications and education manager position. They needed help with planning communications strategies for raising public awareness on family planning, reproductive health, and the various female contraceptive methods offered by the brand.
Working with DKT International on Lydia was at the intersection of commercial and public work, which was really challenging and engaging because gave me exposure to both sides. I had the opportunity to craft communications strategies that helped to normalise contraceptive use and sex positivity, subjects which most people in Myanmar lack knowledge of because it’s considered to be taboo in society and there wasn’t very much information available in local languages.
As part of this public communications work, I developed and curated one of Myanmar’s first Burmese-language sexual and reproductive health websites for youth, thiloyarmay.org. We also created a few Facebook pages, including one for Lydia aimed at women, since it’s a huge platform Myanmar.
Through these platforms, we would share information about contraception, family planning, healthy relationships, and sexual and reproductive health. People were able to reach out to us with any questions they had, and trust me, this was well used! We’d get questions about anything ranging from relationship advice to NSFW photos from people asking for an online diagnosis (which of course is not something we would give)!
During my time there, we ended up reaching 1.1 million followers on the Lydia Facebook page and over half a million views on thiloyarmay.org. It was really fun being part of their conception and to continue watching its growth today.
What are you up to these days?
Before the pandemic hit, I was looking to earn my Master’s in Public Health next year, but that’s been delayed because of the current situation. Until then, I wanted to do something that is more creative and out of my wheelhouse.
My partner runs an artisan yoghurt brand in Myanmar called Annie’s All Natural. While it is a small but growing business, it’s very popular with its customer base. Currently, we’re working on a plant-based yoghurt as well as a few other products we’d like to launch by next year. Prior to the pandemic, we were visiting farms in upper Myanmar to build better relationships with farmers, with the goal to create more transparent supply chains. It’s been fun to now look at strategic thinking through the lens of strengthening supply chains, product development, marketing, and growing a values-based business. Many of the skills I’ve learned in development have helped a lot with framing my thinking for this new venture.
You shared that in recent years, Singaporeans have started to venture into Myanmar to set up more businesses. Would you be able to share more on what types of businesses these are, and share some names of such businesses if possible?
My family moved to Myanmar in 1991, and even then there was an active, albeit small, community of Singaporeans! I think what’s different now is the demographic of Singaporeans that Myanmar attracts. We see more young entrepreneurs, both Singaporeans and Burmese nationals who were raised or educated in Singapore, who are excited to start something of their own in Myanmar. These include the marketing agency Chilli Agency, popular café Easy Cafe, and the recently opened bar, Madame Em’s.
You’ve experienced a really transformative period in Myanmar’s history. How has Myanmar changed over the years?
My dad is Singaporean, and when we moved to Myanmar when I was one, it was because he was looking for different business opportunities in emerging markets. It was a very small community of foreigners because Myanmar at the time was still a military dictatorship.
This need to build community is what inspired my dad to help found the Singapore Association Myanma in 1993. He was very tight with the community there. Both my parents were heavily involved and they organised lots of fundraisers and community events, which were important because until the country opened in 2010, there wasn’t a lot to do.
Yangon was still under curfew for the first few years we were there. We couldn’t go out from 9pm to 5am, and it was hard to travel within Myanmar because of all the border controls within the country. But they found ways to have fun; because you couldn’t leave the house after 9pm, my parents held all-night parties till the curfew was lifted again at 5am!
Myanmar may not have the robust infrastructure that Singapore does, but it has rapidly changed in the past 10 years and while it still has a ways to go, it has come far. In terms of impactful strides, nationwide access to the internet and cheaper mobile technology has totally revolutionized how connected the country is within its borders and the world at large.
Myanmar has also made it more streamlined for foreigners to start a business and is more keen to work with foreign businesses and endeavours which seek to better the country.
What are some cultural sensitivities foreigners would need to navigate, in doing businesses in Myanmar?
I think it’s important to be cognizant of the fact that Myanmar is a multi-ethnic and multi religious country, although the majority of the population in Burmese and Buddhist. I live in Chinatown in Yangon, where you’ll find generations of Chinese living next to a mosque, next to the Myanmar equivalent of a Nasi Padang shop – it’s really diverse! This also means that culture and language may change depending on which part of the country you’re in.
In general, people tend to be non-confrontational and have a more indirect sense of communication. It’s also a culture that’s quite hierarchical and historically has a rigid social hierarchy. For example, deference based on age is really important.
This may mean that if you’re looking for a collaborative, open workplace, this is something you have to encourage and work to create because people are more averse to saying “no” or disagreeing. You don’t know if a ‘yes’ really means ‘no’ because people often times don’t want to offend you or lose face. But seeing how work culture in shifting with a new generation of enthusiastic and ambitious Myanmar nationals in the workforce, it’s definitely becoming more accepted.
Other little things unique to Myanmar include never stepping ‘over’ someone if they’re sitting on the floor because it’s a sign of disrespect; when you meet someone who’s older, you want to bow subtly. You may also want to put your left arm at your right elbow when shaking someone’s hand as a polite form of first meeting someone.
There’s also this unique phrase that’s commonly used in Myanmar: “Ah-na-day”. This loosely translates to “hurting strength/pride”. You use it to express ‘feeling bad’ – e.g. feeling bad about someone else helping you carry bags. It comes from not wanting to intrude or bother other people.
Overall, people in Myanmar tend to be really hospitable and warm which is a quality I love. They’re also really curious – every taxi driver always asks me about where I come from and why I speak Burmese so well. There’s a sense of wanting to know and learn, which is really nice to be around! For me, it’s as much my home as Singapore and a country I have come to deeply love over my many years of living there.
What brings you back to Singapore?
In March 2020, we decided temporarily shift here due to the pandemic and because a lot of my family lives here. While my parents live in Dubai, all of my father’s siblings and their families live in Singapore. We were worried that if the virus spread in Myanmar, it would be hard to leave at a later point as my partner and I are from different countries.
Back in March in Myanmar, no one was really social distancing nor wearing a mask. The government starting access further funds for their healthcare system, getting tests in the country, and cancelling nationwide celebrations like water festival, but there wasn’t a level of caution within the general population and a lot of uncertainty about regulations and steps to be taken to prevent spread.
That’s why we left; at that point in Singapore there’s a much clearer indication of what was happening, and there’s comfort in that transparency. We feel grateful we had the option to come here.
It must be quite the adjustment coming back, since you’ve spent most of your life overseas. What was it like to return as a ‘foreign’ Singaporean?
I feel very privileged and lucky to have grown up abroad because it’s made me how I am in many ways – flexible, easy-going, more resilient. Living in Myanmar makes you very adaptable because it’s unpredictable and makes you comfortable with being in unpredictable situations and navigate challenges that maybe you wouldn’t face in Singapore.
My family moved to Myanmar when I was one, so I’ve never picked up the colloquialisms you would have if you grew up here. I wish I could code switch a little better. I have that in Myanmar but I don’t have that here; sometimes I wish I had those cultural cues that are so innate and easy for some, which I have to work at a little bit more.
At the same time, living here now – though unexpected – has been really nice. I’ve gotten to spend much more time with family and understand how Singapore works a little more. I also really appreciate the access to travel within SEA from Singapore, which is important to us because we value connections to other countries.
I used to harbour misconceptions about Singapore; that it’s not as interesting as other places, or that there’s less to discover because it’s a small city. Now I really appreciate her efficiency (Singapore had the best public transportation system!) and how every neighbourhood has its own unique vibe. I’ve enjoyed living here more than I had expected myself to and so has my partner!
It is strange, but it’s been nice, and the longer we’ve been here, the more we see Singapore as a place where we can settle down in the future.
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About Haanee Tyebally
Haanee Tyebally is a Non-Profit Consultant specialising in the areas of gender and health and has been engaged in social work across Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar. Her areas of focus lie in reproductive health education and health communications strategies. Connect with Haanee here to talk about developmental work in developing economies.