In this inaugural webinar of the “Well-being in Southeast Asia” series, Professor Mahar Mangahas examined the trends and salient dimensions of well-being in Southeast Asia through the indicators of security and good governance, social and economic well-being, and subjective well-being.
REGIONAL SOCIAL AND CULTURAL STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Well-Being in Southeast Asia Webinar Series
Tuesday, 29 September 2020 – ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute organised a webinar on “Present Well-Being in Southeast Asia”, the first of the series on “Well-being in Southeast Asia” supported by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS). The webinar was delivered by Filipino economist Professor Mahar Mangahas, President of Social Weather Stations, and moderated by Dr Kevin Tan, Visiting Senior Research Fellow of ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.
The webinar opened with remarks by Mr Christian Echle, Director of the Regional Programme Political Dialogue Asia of KAS who emphasised the importance of understanding the landscape of well-being in Southeast Asia among policymakers and politicians. He said that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed rising social inequalities and gaps within the population which calls for a pressing need to understand what it means to be well.
Professor Mangahas began his talk by arguing that well-being is a complex multi-dimensional concept that entails an understanding of its various dimensions in various regions at certain periods of time. Current attempts at measuring human well-being have also largely involved evaluations that are made by officials and experts (top-down evaluations) as well as with the participation of people whose well-being are being measured (bottom-up). Professor Mangahas said that three dimensions of well-being are particularly pertinent to Southeast Asia and offer a relatively comprehensive gauge of human well-being in the region –– security and good governance, social and economic well-being and subjective well-being.
Drawing on security and governance surveys – Global Peace Index, Democracy Index, and Corruption Perceptions Index – Professor Mangahas observed that Southeast Asian countries have become slightly more peaceful between 2014 to 2020, and the region as a whole was ranked as a ‘middling’ region of peace in the world. Within Southeast Asia however, the levels of peace vary vastly, with Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia indicated as relatively insecure; Malaysia and Singapore as relatively peaceful; and Indonesia, Lao PDR and Timor-Leste as having average levels of peace.
While the level of democracy – in terms of electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties – in Southeast Asia as a region has risen slightly from 2006 to 2019, Professor Mangahas noted that its countries still consisted of ‘flawed democracies’ and authoritarian regimes. Turning his attention to the Corruption Perceptions Index, Professor Mangahas noted that citizens in Vietnam and Singapore are found to demonstrate high levels of satisfaction with their countries’ political regimes, while low levels of satisfaction registered among citizens in the Lao PDR, Myanmar and Cambodia. As compared to regions around the world, however, corruption perceptions among citizens of Southeast Asia have improved from 2012 to 2019. Professor Mangahas noted that Southeast Asia is once again ranked the middle in terms of corruption perception, on par with the rest of Asia Pacific and Americas.
Professor Mangahas explained that the social and economic well-being of countries is most commonly measured by the Human Development Index, which consist of indicators such as life expectancy, education and income per capita. He noted that Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia and Thailand scored above average in social and economic well-being, while the rest of Southeast Asia were assigned a below-average score in relation to the rest of the world. Professor Mangahas also discussed findings from the Global Gender Gap Index that measures levels of gender equality through indicators such as labour force participation among women and female representation in political, civic and corporate sectors. He drew attention to the Philippines which ranked the highest among all Southeast Asian countries, followed by Lao PDR, Singapore, with Timor-Leste and Myanmar considered as less gender-neutral.
Using data from the World Values Survey, Professor Mangahas noted that more than 80% of Singapore’s population perceived themselves to be in very good or good health in 2012, as compared to 51% of the population in the Philippines and 59% in Myanmar. The World Happiness Report also reported Singapore as scoring the highest level of ‘happiness’ among all Southeast Asian countries, and Myanmar the lowest level. Professor Mangahas suggested that the level of happiness that citizens perceive at the present and future is associated more with the level of economic development and governance rather than levels of democratisation.
In the final part of his webinar, Professor Mangahas said the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has introduced complications to population well-being across much of the world. He noted that Southeast Asia, however, has relatively lower number of infections and fatalities. Professor Mangahas suggested that measuring human suffering, such as the levels of hunger would provide a more comprehensive policy overview and understanding of well-being from a bottom-up perspective. He highlighted the recent work of the Oxford Stringency Index in tracking and comparing worldwide government responses to the pandemic in relation to human suffering. Myanmar ranked highest and Timor-Leste lowest in terms of their stringency policy in the region. In closing, Professor Mangahas emphasised the importance of ongoing monitoring and measurement of human well-being that would contribute towards more impactful and sustainable public policies in Southeast Asia.
The webinar was attended by about 80 participants from both Singapore and abroad. Issues that were discussed during the virtual Q&A session included the importance of independent parties rather than government actors in conducting well-being studies; the links between the country’s levels of democratisation and citizens’ satisfaction with the workings of democracy and levels of happiness; people’s health and economic well-being in times of COVID-19 pandemic; and the potential cultural biases of these reportedly ‘international’ measurements of well-being.