E-Launch and Discussion of “the State of Southeast Asia: 2021” Survey Report

The third edition of The State of Southeast Asia: 2021 Survey Report was officially launched on 10 February 2021 followed by a panel discussion on the key findings of the survey and implications for the region.

ASEAN Studies Centre E-Launch Event

Wednesday, 10 February 2021 – The ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute officially launched its annual The State of Southeast Asia: 2021 Survey Report to an online audience of over 225 attendees from Singapore and overseas. Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and shifts in regional geo-political and geo-economical forces, the survey canvassed the views of 1,032 respondents who are regional experts and stakeholders from regional governments, policy, research, business, civil society and media communities. During the webinar, major survey findings were presented for discussion and analysis by a distinguished panel of experts.

Prof Dewi Fortuna Anwar, Professor Joseph Chinyong Liow, Dr Walter Lohman, and Dr Chen Ding Ding
Speakers of the panel include Prof Dewi Fortuna Anwar, Professor Joseph Chinyong Liow, Dr Walter Lohman, and Dr Chen Ding Ding, with Mr Choi Shing Kwok moderating the discussion. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Opening Remarks

In his Opening Remarks, Mr Choi Shing Kwok, Director of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Head of the ASEAN Studies Centre, shared that the survey has gained traction with policy-makers, media and academia around the world seeking to understand the diverse and rapidly changing Southeast Asian region. The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a long shadow over the world, and over this survey as well. This year’s edition therefore featured new questions on how the pandemic has changed Southeast Asians’ regional outlook, what they think of their governments’ pandemic responses, which ASEAN countries have provided the best leadership and which Dialogue Partners have given the most assistance on COVID-19.

This year’s survey also continued with a number of key questions from the previous years, especially those related to the top challenges and concerns about the region and ASEAN, perceptions of soft power and the status of influence and leadership of the major powers. With this year’s survey being the third edition, users now have the benefit of a three-year time series to observe the continuity of existing trends and the emergence of new ones. On the timing of the survey, Mr Choi highlighted that the survey was launched after the US presidential elections in November and closed before the recent political developments in Myanmar.


Ms Sharon Seah, Coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Centre, explained the methodology behind the survey and the two sampling criteria of ASEAN nationality and requisite knowledge of regional and ASEAN affairs to determine respondents’ suitability. Almost half of the respondents were from academia, think tanks or research institutions whereas almost a third were from the public sector. Ms Seah also explained the deviation in age and affiliation categories in this year’s survey.

Ms Sharon Seah
Ms Sharon Seah explained the methodology behind the survey. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Major Survey Findings and Panel Discussion

Mr Choi highlighted key findings from five major sections of the survey: Regional Outlook and COVID-19, Issues of Concern to ASEAN, Regional Influence and Leadership, ASEAN in the Middle and Perceptions of Trust.

Under the section on Regional Outlook and COVID-19, Mr Choi highlighted that 76% of respondents saw the threat to health from COVID-19 as the top challenge facing Southeast Asia, followed by concerns of unemployment and recession and the widening socio-economic disparities. China was the ASEAN Dialogue Partner seen as providing the most COVID-19 help to the region. Dr Dewi Fortuna Anwar, Co-Founder of Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI), stated that the survey clearly reflected the issues that are at the top of the mind of Southeast Asians, namely the public health concerns of the COVID pandemic as well as its economic impact. She also highlighted the respondents’ disappointment that ASEAN had been unprepared in dealing with the pandemic. While acknowledging that ASEAN’s organisational capacity and decision-making process may not be equipped to deal with a pandemic of this scale, she was of the view that it was worth exploring how ASEAN could invest in emergency preparedness to help the region deal with such crises in the future.

Under the section on Issues of Concern to ASEAN, Mr Choi highlighted that both the South China Sea and Mekong River were issues that respondents expressed concerns about. On the South China Sea issue, Dr Chen Ding Ding, Professor of International Relations, Jinan University, China, noticed positive synergies between Southeast Asia and China pertaining to the proposed Code of Conduct (COC). He opined that if the desire in the region to conclude a COC with China quickly was exhibited by all ASEAN member states, this will be met with a favourable response from China. Dr Chen stated that geopolitical as well as public health issues would be the two most important issues moving forward and that cooperation in these areas would bear dividends for ASEAN as well as for regional stability and peace.

Under the section on Regional Influence and Leadership, Mr Choi highlighted that China remained the undisputed influential economic power and was seen as the most influential political and strategic influence in Southeast Asia. However, China’s influence worried the majority of respondents as well. In response, Dr Walter Lohman, Director of The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, highlighted the stark contrast of the survey results to the official ASEAN figures on trade and investment in the region. For example, the US’ investment position in ASEAN, even across a 10-year average, was twice as large as China’s investment position. On the trade front, though the region imported three times as many goods from China than the US, the US remained a major export market for many ASEAN countries. Professor Joseph Chinyong Liow, Dean of College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, also highlighted that in contrast to US and Japanese investments that led to job creation in Southeast Asia, majority of the Chinese investments that were in the real estate sector did not carry the same effect. Dr Lohman opined that the US thus needed to articulate better trade policies. 

Under the section on ASEAN in the Middle, Mr Choi highlighted that ASEAN appeared to be leaning more towards the United States compared to China and there was a huge jump in the expectations of an elevation in US engagement in the region under the new Biden administration. Professor Liow agreed that the expectations were high for the Biden administration. While Southeast Asia hoped for deeper engagement and it was not pure altruism for the US, there was a value proposition here in Southeast Asia for the US in terms of economic opportunities and offering some kind of pathway in terms of Sino-US relations. Professor Liow emphasized that it deserved at least some consideration in Washington.

Under the section on Perceptions of Trust, Mr Choi highlighted that the only major power whose perceptions of distrust increased was China whereas all other major powers’ perceptions of trust increased. On that, Professor Liow highlighted the dichotomy between trust-based relationships and transaction-based relationships. In the case of China, the figures tell the story of a more transaction-based relationship. This explained the dilemma that Southeast Asia had in terms of wanting to deepen the economic engagement with China even though the trust dial had not moved. It was also intriguing that COVID-19 was identified as the single most immediate major challenge in the region. Professor Liow pointed out that China had extended by far the most assistance to the region, yet trust in China had not increased. Instead, it had decreased based on the survey results.

The Q&A discussion touched on relevant issues including ASEAN unity and solidarity, ASEAN states’ regionalism strategy, China’s role in the South China Sea issue and the key messages from the survey for the upcoming Shangri-La Dialogue and World Economic Forum.

Download the Survey Report here.