Climate change as well as more intense and frequent weather events have been cited by Singaporeans as the top challenge facing South-east Asia in 2023.
However, for their Asean counterparts, bread-and-butter issues such as unemployment, inflation, a commodities crunch and rising cost of living were the biggest worries in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The findings, published in the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s The State of South-east Asia 2023 report, indicated that 59.5 per cent of the 1,308 survey respondents polled across the 10 Asean member states ranked unemployment and economic recession as a more pressing concern than climate change – the second-biggest challenge at 57.1 per cent.
The widening of socio-economic gaps and rising income disparity was tied at third place, with increasing military tensions arising from potential flashpoints.
More than 60 per cent of the Singaporean respondents listed climate change as the biggest problem, followed by the United States-China decoupling, and widening socio-economic gaps and income disparity.
The respondents included people from academia, think-tanks, research groups, businesses, civil society, media and non-governmental organisations as well as governments.
A key finding was that 82.6 per cent of respondents saw Asean as a slow and ineffective body unable to cope with fluid political and economic developments, making it irrelevant in the new world order. In Singapore, this view was even higher, at 89.9 per cent.
There were also concerns that Asean is becoming an arena of major competition and its member states may become proxies of major powers, with 73 per cent of the Asean respondents and 83.2 per cent of Singaporeans espousing this view.
China continues to be seen as the most influential economic power in the region, followed by the US. But the 59.9 per cent support for China marked a steep decline from 76.7 per cent in the 2022 survey.
This came on the back of a rise in the Asean bloc’s own economic influence – almost doubling from 7.6 per cent in 2022 to 15 per cent in 2023.
China was also ranked as the most influential and strategic power in South-east Asia, followed by the US and Asean.
Notably, an increasing number of South-east Asian countries, including Singapore, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines, ranked the US as a more significant power than China, reflecting increasing wariness of Beijing’s growing regional clout.
In that regard, the US retained its position as the region’s favoured superpower to maintain a rules-based order and uphold international law, with 61.1 per cent of all respondents backing the US, compared with just 38.9 per cent for China.
In a telling sign that China’s willingness to use coercion to achieve its goals does not sit well with most South-east Asians, even those who believed future relations with Beijing will improve saw China’s growing economic dominance and political influence in their countries as a potential problem.
Another top concern was China’s interference in Asean nations’ domestic affairs, including influence over ethnic Chinese citizens in these countries.
This was followed by concern over China’s strong-arm tactics in Taiwan, the South China Sea and the Mekong. Singaporean respondents cited their fear of China using economic tools and tourism to punish the Republic’s foreign policy choices as their greatest worry.
Highlighting the divide in perceptions of the US and China in South-east Asia, 46.5 per cent of South-east Asians viewed the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity favourably. Among Singaporeans, it was 37.5 per cent.
In contrast, 44.5 per cent of all respondents and 44.2 per cent of Singaporeans had little or no confidence that China’s Global Security Initiative would benefit the region.
When it came down to brass tacks, South-east Asian respondents continued to favour the option of boosting Asean’s reliance and unity to fend off pressure from both the US and China amid their escalating conflict.
The second-most popular or traditional option of Asean not siding with either China or the US saw more support this year than in 2022, while a third option was for Asean to seek out “third parties” such as Japan or India to increase its strategic space and options.
On a potential conflict over Taiwan, 43.3 per cent of respondents were apprehensive that such an event would destabilise the region. Another 28.7 per cent expected that Asean countries would have to take sides in the event of a conflict.
When it came to possible responses their countries could take in the event of hostilities, 45.6 per cent of South-east Asians believed their governments should oppose the use of force through diplomatic measures. Among Singaporean respondents, this strategy was preferred by 58.2 per cent.
There was little appetite in the region for imposing sanctions on the aggressor, facilitating military support for Taiwan, or showing support for China.
Nearly half – 47.9 per cent – of all respondents were “very concerned” about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, compared with 51.9 per cent of Singaporean respondents. Just over 58 per cent felt the rise in energy and food prices was the war’s most serious impact.
In Singapore, 40.9 per cent of respondents said an erosion of trust in the rules-based order was the second-most serious impact of the conflict. Nearly 33 per cent “strongly approved” and 35.6 per cent “approved” of the Government’s response to the invasion.
On a crisis in Asean’s own backyard, following the Feb 1 coup in Myanmar in 2021, respondents had mixed views, with about a third saying they were neutral on Asean’s five-point consensus bringing about peace in Myanmar.
Singaporean respondents were more critical, with 41.8 per cent believing the plan would not work due to the junta’s intransigence.