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Trends in Southeast Asia

The Trends in Southeast Asia series serves as in-depth analysis of contemporary geopolitical and socio-economic forces in the region. The series is written for policymakers, diplomats, scholars and students of the region with emphasis on empirical and observable trends, and less on theory-building or historical accounts of events.

The aim of Trends is to offer concrete accounts of the dynamism in the region as transnational processes impact local communities, national governments as well as bilateral and foreign relations. Subjects that are of interest to the series are national elections; economic patterns and growth; demographic changes and their social implications; migratory patterns; religious and ethnic trends; bilateral relations and geopolitics in the region in relation to the larger powers of Japan, China and the US. This series undergoes a peer-review process.


“Beyond Slacktivism: The Dynamic Relationship between Online and Offline Activism among Southeast Asian Youths” by Iim Halimatusa’diyah



• As digital platforms continue to evolve, youths increasingly employ social media, online forums, and digital campaigns to advocate for social and political change. While this phenomenon is often considered disparagingly as slacktivism, recent studies find that individuals engaging in digital activism often also participate in other conventional forms of activism.

• Despite a surge in youth activism across Southeast Asian countries, comparative analysis in this region remains scarce. Using data from the World Values Survey of several studies, and case studies on Indonesia, this article examines the extent to which online political activism serves as a catalyst for mobilization, awareness and community building among young people in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.

• Additionally, it examines the interplay between online and offline political activism and its impact on traditional forms of activism.

• The study argues for a reciprocal relationship between online and offline political activism, particularly noting the potential for digital efforts to influence real-world action, especially on cohesive issues such as corruption.

Trends in Southeast Asia 2024/10, April 2024


“Shifting to a Higher Gear: The Saga of Malaysia’s National Carmaker Proton” by Pritish Bhattacharya and Francis E. Hutchinson



• Proton has been a vital part of Malaysia’s industrialization journey and a key pillar of its modernization drive.

• Launched in 1983 to fulfil then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s vision of a pride-infused national car company, the state-owned Proton grew quickly and captured a dominant share of the country’s domestic car market, aided in no small measure by generous protective measures and subsidies.

• However, in the subsequent decades, the car giant lost market share and power due to a variety of challenges, such as non-market performance requirements, less effective protection, and growing competition from a second national car firm and from global car companies.

• The automaker has had a variety of ownership structures over time, but was resolutely kept in domestic hands—public and private. This did increase control over the corporation, but did so at the expense of exposure to and adoption of leading-edge technology.

• This impasse was resolved in 2017, when Proton sold a 49.9 per cent share to the Chinese auto firm Geely. The joint venture has rejuvenated the carmaker, which has begun to reconquer market share through a number of popular SUVs.

• Despite this, the Malaysian auto market is becoming increasingly competitive. Going forward, Proton will need to begin to export significantly to expose its vehicles to new niche markets as well as global standards, obtain and retain skilled workers, and continue to rationalize costs in its supply chains and distributorship.

Trends in Southeast Asia 2024/9, April 2024


“Scrutinizing the DAP’s Success in the 2023 Malaysian State Elections” by Ong Kian Ming



• Following the formation of the Unity Government in December 2022, two of its component coalitions, Pakatan Harapan (PH) and Barisan Nasional (BN), jointly campaigned during the state government elections held in August 2023. A key question arising from this cooperation between PH and the BN lead party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), was the extent to which it would strengthen the appeal of both coalitions, especially among Malay voters.

• Using granular polling station and polling stream data for forty-seven seats contested by the PH member Democratic Action Party (DAP), this paper explores the effect of this relationship on voter support. This Trends in Southeast Asia finds that, contrary to expectations, DAP actually gained voter support from campaigning with UMNO.

• DAP gained an average 5 per cent increase in the level of support from 2022 to 2023, with an 8 per cent increase in Malay support and a 2 per cent increase in Chinese support.

• DAP would probably still have won at least forty-one of these state seats without transferring BN/UMNO votes, but working with UMNO allowed the DAP to win by comfortable margins some of what would usually be marginal seats for the party.

• The increase in support for the DAP was highest in Negeri Sembilan, at 6.7 per cent, followed by Selangor at 5.2 per cent Penang at 4.3 per cent and finally Kedah at 1.4 per cent.

• In general, DAP gained the largest transfer of Malay votes from older voters who show stronger allegiance to BN. These findings show that UMNO’s grassroots outreach is still somewhat effective among older voters but much less so among younger voters.

• The average support for PN in these DAP-contested seats increased from 13.1 per cent in GE2022 to 19.2 per cent in the 2023 state elections. Clearly, more of the Malay votes that previously supported the BN went to the Perikatan Nasional (PN) than to PH. The calculations in this article show that four out of five Malay voters who previously supported BN in these seats voted for PN in the 2023 state elections.

• Going forward, the DAP’s stranglehold over these seats may well become weaker, due to demographic changes, and if turnout and support for PH and the DAP should decrease among non-Malay voters.

Trends in Southeast Asia 2024/8, April 2024


“ASEAN Post-2025: Reimagining the ASEAN Economic Community” by Julia Tijaja, Simon Tay and Sanchita Basu Das



• ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) building is a long journey. For continued relevance and impact, the AEC must remain dynamic while taking into consideration evolving contexts and emerging opportunities and challenges.

• Notable progress has been made under the two AEC Blueprints (2015 and 2025), particularly in laying down the frameworks for regional economic integration and community building. Nonetheless, gaps remain in implementation, calling for a more streamlined but result-oriented agenda and stronger institutional coordination.

• Today, the AEC is faced with a markedly different context and unprecedented challenges resulting from a poly-crisis, involving geo-economic fragmentation, supply chain restructuring, and climactic changes. Without adjustment, ASEAN’s pillar and sector-centric approach can be expected to fall short in effectively responding to these challenges.

• As AEC 2025 enters its final quarter, ASEAN needs to recalibrate its priorities. It also increasingly needs to take a whole-of-community approach to integration, as issues and their solutions are spread across multiple sectors. Furthermore, as it develops the AEC Post-2025 agenda, it needs to strike a balance between ambition and pragmatism, and to support substance with institutions and processes.

Trends in Southeast Asia 2024/7, March 2024


“Prosperity or Predicament? Decoding Certification Challenges in Malaysia’s Palm Oil Industry” by Serina Rahman and Lee Poh Onn



• Oil palm was brought to Malaysia from West Africa as part of British colonial agricultural development initiatives, but the refining of crude palm oil only began in the 1970s as part of the move by the Malaysian government to industrialize the country’s agrarian economy.

• Malaysia is the world’s second-largest producer of palm oil, after Indonesia. Both countries account for about 85 per cent of total exports. Incidentally, smallholders produce about 40 per cent of the total output of palm oil in Malaysia.

• The palm oil industry is mired in controversy. Global campaigns originating in Europe and the US have branded the crop the biggest cause of deforestation, with proposed bans to follow in December 2024.

• Certification has been proposed as the solution to address gaps in sustainability. Sabah is used as an illustrative case study of an effective approach for statewide certification using both the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) and Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) schemes.

Trends in Southeast Asia 2024/6, March 2024


“How Thailand’s Move Forward Party’s Fandom Strategy Shaped the 2023 General Election” by Alexandra Colombier



• The concept of political fandom, the state of being fans of a politician or of a political party, played a crucial role during Thailand’s General Election in 2023. Fandom contributed to the popularity on social media of politicians, such as Pita Limjaroenrat, the Move Forward Party’s leader and prime ministerial candidate.

• The strategies involved in achieving celebrity status for politicians are varied. This paper provides a case study of the factors behind the success of Pita and the Move Forward Party and contrasts these with reasons why Pita’s key political opponents were less effective.

• It argues that the digital age and the transcendence of politics into pop culture, where celebrity status and fandom can drive electoral outcomes, signify a profound shift in democratic participation, political engagement and the very fabric of Thai politics.

• While fandom has become a stream in participatory democracy, it also highlights the polarized and temperamental nature of Thailand’s contemporary hyper-partisan political scene.

Trends in Southeast Asia 2024/5, March 2024


“China’s Cultural Diplomacy in Indonesia: The Case of a Transnational Singing Contest” by Chang-Yau Hoon and Ardhitya Eduard Yeremia



• The emphasis on cultural connectivity in China’s growing presence and involvement in Southeast Asia highlights the importance China places on people-to-people exchanges as part of its global engagement strategy.

• The remarkable ascension of China over the recent decades has precipitated a proliferation of anti-China sentiments, particularly galvanized within the crucible of a “discourse war” with Western powers, as expressed in the latter’s “China threat” narrative.

• In response to such challenges, China has made substantial investments in cultural diplomacy, to augment its soft power through orchestrated global outreach initiatives.

• This article examines Chinese cultural diplomacy in the realm of entertainment, specifically “The Melody of Spring: Transnational Spring Festival Gala” hosted in Nanning, Guangxi, and disseminated globally each Chinese New Year.

• Against the legacy of China-Indonesia bilateral relations as well as Indonesia’s treatment of its Chinese minority, this study explores China’s cultural diplomacy and soft power in contemporary Indonesia.

• Through the case study of the “Transnational Spring Festival Gala”, this article posits that China’s cultural dissemination as an instrument of soft power has yielded little influence on the Indonesian public and has limited impact on the formation of a transnational imagined community.

Trends in Southeast Asia 2024/4, February 2024


“Enhancing ASEAN’s Role in Critical Mineral Supply Chains” by Sharon Seah and Mirza Sadaqat Huda



• The clean energy transition momentum is gathering pace globally, and in Southeast Asia as well. The transition is dependent on an uninterrupted supply of critical minerals and metals that are essential for the production of low-carbon technologies.

• The supply of critical minerals is impeded by several constraints. First is the dominance of a handful of countries in both the upstream and downstream parts of the supply chain. Second is the current geopolitical race to secure supplies leading to greater protectionist behaviours, exhibited through export bans and trade impediments.

• This study focuses on four selected critical minerals which are important to the region. Two criteria are used in determining a mineral having high significance: (1) There are significant deposits of it which can be tapped on to bolster Southeast Asia’s strategic position in the supply chains; and (2) It is an essential input in industries and sectors of importance in Southeast Asia. The four critical minerals examined in this study are: copper, nickel, bauxite (alumina), and rare earth elements (REEs).

• The study makes three recommendations to enhance ASEAN’s role in the critical minerals supply chains. The first addresses the insufficiency of investments in early-stage exploration and exploitation of critical minerals and, in the process, calls for an embracing of circular economy principles. The second appeals for investments at all stages, including in technology to tap into downstream activities beyond refining and purification, and in the manufacturing of component parts such as battery cell storage and permanent magnets. The third calls for improvements in sustainability management in the mining sector, which is generally extremely environmentally and socially damaging to communities.

Trends in Southeast Asia 2024/3, February 2024


“China as a Rising Norm Entrepreneur: Examining GDI, GSI and GCI” by Manoj Kewalramani



• This paper discusses Chinese President Xi Jinping’s flagship global initiatives’ normative implications for the world order.

• It argues that the Global Development Initiative (GDI), Global Security Initiative (GSI) and Global Civilization Initiative (GCI), which are key pillars of China’s proposal to build a community of common destiny for mankind, are driven by Beijing’s desire to cultivate authority in the international system.

• Analysing the speeches by Chinese leaders, policy documents, media and analytical discourse in China, along with policy decisions, this study provides an assessment of the Chinese leadership’s worldview. It places the launch of GDI, GSI and GCI within this context, before detailing the elements of each initiative and offering a critical analysis.

• This study concludes that through GDI, GSI and GCI, the Chinese leadership hopes to shape an external environment that not only ensures regime security but is also favourable to China’s development and security interests. In doing so, however, it is reshaping key norms of global governance towards a fundamentally illiberal direction.

Trends in Southeast Asia 2024/2, January 2024


“TIMOR-LESTE IN ASEAN: Is It Ready to Join?” by Joanne Lin, Sharon Seah, Sithanonxay Suvannaphakdy and Melinda Martinus



• After more than a decade of deliberations, ASEAN leaders agreed on 11 November 2022 in principle to admit Timor-Leste as the eleventh member of the regional organization and to grant Timor-Leste observer status to attend all ASEAN meetings. Timor-Leste has demonstrated positive developmental progress, and fact-finding missions across the three ASEAN Community pillars have returned generally optimistic results.

• However, an assessment of Timor-Leste’s ability to fulfil its commitments and obligations reveals that the country will need to close the gap with the ten existing members on matters such as the ratification and implementation of legally binding agreements and derivative work plans. Creating enforcement mechanisms and finding ways to implement commitments at the local level will be important.

• Timor-Leste has put in place institutional structures and implementing agencies for advancing cooperation with ASEAN. It is also moving towards harmonizing its laws with ASEAN instruments. However, its capacity remains in question due to a lack of substantive knowledge and technical expertise among government officials, as well as inadequate infrastructure, logistics and facilities for hosting ASEAN meetings.

• Strengthening human capital will be a top priority for Timor-Leste. This includes not only enhancing its personnel’s knowledge and technical expertise on ASEAN processes and procedures but also skills such as English language proficiency and negotiation. Coordinated capacity-building assistance from ASEAN and dialogue partners will be important. These efforts must also be met with economic diversification and growth of its nascent private sector.

• Apart from bridging gaps, ASEAN needs to grapple with its reservations that Timor-Leste’s economic limitations may slow down the realization of the ASEAN Economic Community. There are also concerns that Timor-Leste’s membership may entrench differences within the bloc, particularly with regard to geopolitical issues, and dilute the organization’s effectiveness or further complicate the consensus-based decision-making process.

Trends in Southeast Asia 2024/1, January 2024