The case for reaching out 

Outgoing Forum Macao Deputy Secretary-General Rodrigo Brum highlights the institution’s achievements while underlining it also needs to improve its coordination and reaching out efforts. As for Macau, Hengqin, and the Greater Bay Area, they are opportunities the city “cannot miss”. 

When Rodrigo Brum took office as Deputy Secretary-General of the Permanent Secretariat of Forum Macao three years ago, one of his key tasks was to work on the preparation for the 6th Ministerial Conference of the Forum for Economic and Trade Cooperation between China and the Portuguese-Speaking Countries (Forum Macao). The summit was first scheduled for 2019, but was eventually postponed to June 2020, to avoid its overlap with the ‘changing of the guard’ between the administrations of Chui Sai On and Ho Iat Seng. However, the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic brought further complications, and international travel disruptions made another postponement inevitable, this time sine die. For Mr. Brum, who served as Deputy Secretary-General of Forum Macao appointed by the Portuguese-Speaking Countries, it was a major upset. “The postponement effectively puts on hold the development of the implementation of further policies and accomplishments by the Forum”, as the financing of further activities and projects was in the pipeline, Mr. Brum told Macau Business, as he was being replaced by Paulo Espírito Santo, as Forum Macao Deputy Secretary-General designated by the Portuguese Speaking Countries.  

“The Forum has lacked the capacity of reaching out and properly promoting its own work”.

Accomplishments and shortcomings 

When asked about the accomplishments he is proud of having achieved alongside former Secretary-General Xu Yinzheng and other deputy secretary-generals Ding Tian (appointed by China) and Casimiro Pinto (appointed by the Macau SAR Government), Rodrigo Brum underscores the missions they regularly went on, ideally once a year, to promote the Forum’s role and business opportunities in both Portuguese-speaking countries and Chinese municipalities and provinces. While he is touched by the “unanimous compliments” received from the heads of delegations of the Portuguese-speaking countries and China, Mr. Brum recognizes “the major objective, which was not reached, is the coordination of these many countries with different development stages and different priorities, but this is an ongoing process”.

A number of observers have been pointing out that 17 years after its inception, the Forum has yet to deliver solid results. One of them is the Portuguese Ambassador to China, José Augusto Duarte, who, in an interview given to TDM Radio Macau in October, said that the Forum is failing to produce concrete results and take advantage of Macau’s potential as a platform. With regards to the voices who cast a more sceptical eye on the Forum’s achievements and hold certain expectations on what should be carried out, Rodrigo Brum points out that “above all, there is a generalized lack of understanding of what the forum is actually doing, its missions in China and the Portuguese-speaking countries, as well as the training and promotion of the different countries”. On the other hand, “clearly, the forum has lacked the capacity of reaching out and properly promoting its own work”.

“This [creating projects and opportunities] can be done by establishing a a think tank of well-selected companies in all different countries”

A real business think tank

In the future, Mr. Brum is eager to continue to play a role in the wider conversation and interactions connecting Macau, China, and the Portuguese-speaking countries. This three-year term at Forum Macao was in fact his second stint in Macau, as this Mozambique-born Portuguese national worked and lived in the city for a decade starting in 1990, first as a Chief of Office for the Secretary for Economy and Finance for the last government under Portuguese administration, and later as the President of the Concordia Industrial Park.

When looking ahead, namely in a post-COVID-19 situation, Mr. Brum would like to make the best of his previous experiences and play a role in the creation of “projects and opportunities that can actually materialize the objectives we have been talking about and discussing in conferences, interviews, and multilateral meetings”. How could this be fostered? “This can be done by establishing a think tank of well-selected companies in different countries. At the same level of development, companies talk the same language and can relate to each other in a business-like form. They can benefit from their networking and discuss business opportunities as well as investments”. 

This is related to the much needed, but yet to come into fruition, “moderate economic diversification”, as Macau’s Sino-Lusophone connection is regarded as one of the avenues to attain this goal. However, a lot of hard work needs to be done, because they have realized that “this potential cannot be done by organizing conferences and delivering speeches alone”. It can be seen that over the years “it has been too easy to make money out of gambling and gambling-related operations”. As a result, “that has not induced any real long-term planning nor a business-like mentality in local entrepreneurs”. 

“Macau cannot miss this [GBA, Hengqin] opportunity. Were it to be missed, Macau would be less important than a third tier city of mainland China”.

The future next door 

The way forward will need to take into account structural trends, which are elevating China as the world’s leading powerhouse in terms of digital transactions. At the same time, as highlighted in the recent visit by President Xi Jinping to Shenzhen, the Central Government is determined to speed up the regional integration process within the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau-Greater Bay Area (GBA). “Portuguese-speaking countries should prepare to benefit from this future development”, Mr. Brum asserts, stressing Macau’s role as a Sino-Lusophone platform in the GBA blueprint. How can this be translated into real action and concrete results? Banking and finance can provide an answer. Rodrigo Brum notes that “Macau has a small but efficient financial banking sector with international banks, including some with Portuguese origins, where entrepreneurs can talk business. Not just in Portuguese and English, but in a business-like manner”. 

Notwithstanding the wider picture of the nine Guangdong GBA cities, for Macau the future lies next door: Hengqin, a potential “Second Macau”, as referred to by Chief Executive Ho Iat Sen. And Mr. Brum is certain that “Hengqin is totally complimentary to Macau and vice versa”, as he recalls having suggested back in the 1990s expanding Macau’s Concordia Industrial Park there. In other words, “Hengqin has the space and the vision that Macau has lacked, with business opportunities, office space, and land for setting up new investments existing there”, he believes. In Macau, there has been a lukewarm approach to Hengqin by some local businesspeople, despite Beijing’s reiterated calls for the city to wholeheartedly embrace the joint development with the neighbouring island. Considering an “apparent lack of understanding by local would-be politicians and strategists”, Rodrigo Brum cautions that “Macau cannot miss this opportunity. Were it to be missed, Macau would be less important than a third-tier city in mainland China”.