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Politics, Society, Blackbox Briefings

ASEAN 50th Anniversary Citizen Survey: Strong Support for ASEAN But It Lacks Identity

Blackbox Research, a Singapore-based independent business and policy research consultancy, released a research paper titled ASEAN Turns 50: A Study of Southeast Asian Perceptions’ today.

ASEAN Turns 50 covers key findings from a survey conducted by Blackbox to coincide with ASEAN’s 50th anniversary. The study sought to measure how people across the region feel about ASEAN, its impact on their lives, and their desires for the Association’s future development and progress.

Conducted in October 2017, the poll of 3,040 ASEAN citizens is the first major public survey to be carried out amongst adults (aged 18 and over) across all tenASEAN nations.

ASEAN Image Strong but Southeast Asians Are Less Certain About Its Impact

The findings show that although nearly four in five Southeast Asians (78%) have a positive view of ASEAN, only 53% believe their country is better off because of ASEAN existing and less than half say it has been a major success (47%) in the first 50 years.

Southeast Asians are also more likely to describe their feelings towards ASEAN still as one of hope (63%), rather than trust (49%), enthusiasm (32%) or affection (22%).

Commenting on the findings, David Black, Managing Director and Founder of Blackbox Research said, “People across Southeast Asia are firmly behind ASEAN but more as an abstraction. Their true emotional connection to the Association is less strong. They very much see it as a work in progress, even after 50 years and the findings show that there is still a common identity or shared purpose lacking in the region.  Indeed, only 43% of those we surveyed actually describe themselves as Southeast Asian.”

An Economic Entity More than a Political Bloc

Although the ASEAN Declaration articulates the Association’s goals of accelerating “social progress and cultural development in the region”, alongside “economic growth”, much of ASEAN’s energy is perceived to be directed towards economic progress and trade.

Key findings supporting ASEAN’s strong reputation for influencing economic development include:

  • Nearly three in four (72%) of Southeast Asians feel that economic growth should be ASEAN’s top priority over the next five years. 48% want ASEAN to prioritise defence and security, and 36% would like to see emphasis on free trade.
  • Amongst topics typically associated with ASEAN, economic growth in the region ranks top at 65%. The second most widely-associated topic was security and defence at 38%.
  • 54% of Southeast Asians define ASEAN as an ‘economic association’. 20% view ASEAN as a political grouping, and 13% perceive ASEAN as a social organisation.

David Black, Managing Director and Founder of Blackbox Research, noted again, “Southeast Asians are far more likely to enthuse about and assign ASEAN’s primary contribution as an economic one. However, they still view ASEAN’s achievements to date in very broad terms rather than being able to single out or applaud any single highlight. Looking ahead, it is clear that people are right behind the elimination of trade barriers and the improved alignment of business regulations across markets.”

Connectivity and Technology Crucial to ASEAN’s Future Progress

When asked which sectors are most likely to improve quality of living in ASEAN, three of the top five selected were technology- and connectivity-related industries. The telecommunications sector takes top spot at 53%, with information technology and technology/digital devices both ranking third at 46%. Medical, health and wellness secured second place at 50%, but scored in highest in Singapore at 65% – a country with a fast aging population.

Southeast Asians also see Google as the company best-placed to help with future economic progress in the region (58%) with Facebook coming in second at 55%, and Samsung third at 44%. Toyota, the world’s largest automotive maker with a strong manufacturing presence in the ASEAN region (esp. Indonesia and Thailand) only scored 36%.

Although the emergence of digital businesses is seen as crucial amongst Southeast Asians (ranks 3rd out of 10 sectors), at this point in time less than 10% actually associate ASEAN with the digital economy. This highlights the work ahead for Singapore, which chairs ASEAN in 2018 and has singled out the digital economy as a focal point under their chairmanship.

ASEAN and External Players

The study also examined Southeast Asian perceptions of major global economies (and their influence in the region). Southeast Asians view Japan the most favourably (91%) while India has the lowest favourability (60%) amongst major international players engaging in the region.

With the United States and China now battling for global supremacy, the U.S. still enjoys a higher favourability rating (74%) compared to China (65%) in the region.  However, Southeast Asians are four times more likely to view strong ties with China as a key ASEAN priority rather than the US (17% to 4%). More than half (61%) of all Southeast Asians also view China’s emergence as a major power to represent more of an opportunity than a threat to ASEAN.