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Waning approval for Asean governments' handling of Covid-19, survey finds

SINGAPORE — Disapproval over how Southeast Asian governments have handled the Covid-19 crisis has grown over the past year, likely due to how the Delta variant of the coronavirus wreaked havoc across the region last year, according to a survey released on Wednesday (Feb 16).

A worker adjusts an Asean flag at a meeting hall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Oct 28, 2021.

A worker adjusts an Asean flag at a meeting hall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Oct 28, 2021.

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  • Researchers at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute's Asean Studies Centre surveyed Asean respondents on how their respective governments handled the Covid-19 pandemic
  • They also asked for views on Asean’s response to the Myanmar crisis, China and climate change, among other topics
  • The results showed that disapproval over regional governments’ Covid-19 handling rose from 23.8 per cent in 2021 to 30.6 per cent this year
  • More than half of the respondents still felt that their governments handled the crisis “well or adequately”

SINGAPORE — Disapproval over how Southeast Asian governments have handled the Covid-19 crisis has grown over the past year, likely due to how the Delta variant of the coronavirus wreaked havoc across the region last year, according to a survey released on Wednesday (Feb 16).

The State of Southeast Asia: 2022 survey, now in its fourth edition, polled a total of 1,677 respondents from the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) member states across all age groups over seven weeks from Nov 11 to Dec 31 last year.

It found that disapproval over how regional governments handled Covid-19 rose from 23.8 per cent in 2021 to 30.6 per cent this year.

Aside from seeking opinions on how their respective governments handled the pandemic, the survey also sought the respondents’ views towards Asean’s response to the Myanmar crisis, China and climate change, among various other topics.

The authors of the study, who are from the Asean Studies Centre at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, said their objective was to “present a snapshot of the prevailing attitudes among those in a position to inform or influence policy”.

APPROVAL OF S'PORE'S PANDEMIC RESPONSE DIPS

The researchers said that the share of respondents who said that their governments performed “very poorly” in relation to the handling of the pandemic more than doubled from 7.1 per cent last year to 15.9 per cent in 2022.

As for those who were sitting on the fence, the proportion rose slightly from 15.2 per cent to 18.4 per cent this year.

Notwithstanding the colder sentiments this year, more than half of the respondents still felt that their governments handled the crisis “well or adequately”, even if those who felt so dropped by 10 percentage points to 51 per cent.

Those who were “almost unanimous” in their support of their government’s handling of the crisis were the Bruneians at 98.1 per cent, followed by Singaporeans, of whom 87.8 per cent thought their governments did "well" or "adequate".

Nevertheless, the figures showed that support amongst Singaporeans has dropped somewhat, as the proportion of those who felt that the government did "well" or "adequate" last year was 92.4 per cent.

Commenting on the findings during a virtual panel discussion on the results, Singapore's Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee noted the survey was held late last year, and people were experiencing "Covid fatigue", which affected their evaluation of the governments.

Moreover, it was not just the Delta variant that the respondents had to deal with, but the Omicron one as well — both factors which would have lowered their spirits, she said.

There were also concerns over livelihoods, a point Professor Evelyn Goh, a strategic policy studies professor at Australian National University, agreed with.

Prof Goh said that the "reserved responses" likely had to do with the perceived slowness with economic recovery efforts across the Asean countries.

Prof Chan added that even in Singapore, which "did well" in the way it approached the pandemic, people are getting "impatient at the lockdowns".

Nevertheless, she highlighted that Asean, as a whole, has come together to respond to the pandemic such as through the creation of the Covid Response Fund to buy vaccines, a recovery framework that covers areas such as the economy, and other measures such as building up a regional reserve of medical supplies.    

DISSATISFACTION IN VIETNAM, MYANMAR

On the flip side, the survey found that the Vietnamese government’s “poor” ratings increased dramatically from 1.1 per cent last year to 23.7 per cent this year.

“Vietnam was highly admired at the start of the pandemic for its efficient handling of the outbreak but its slow national vaccination roll-out in 2021 may have resulted in higher disapproval ratings,” said the researchers.

On the proportion of Vietnamese respondents who remained neutral towards their government’s Covid-19 response, the survey found that it, too, jumped drastically from 2.3 per cent to 34 per cent, “indicating that while they don’t disapprove, they are not exactly satisfied with the outcome either”.

As for respondents in strife-ridden Myanmar, researchers said “it goes without saying” that their unhappiness with their country’s political situation was unanimous in their disapproval of the State Administration Council's Covid-19 response at 93.4 per cent.

Feb 1 marked the first year since the military seized power in Myanmar, which ended a decade of democratic reforms and economic progress.  

The report also found that concerns among respondents over Asean's inability to overcome the current pandemic challenges remained the third of the top three concerns they had about the bloc. 

This year, 49 per cent of the respondents felt this way, down from last year’s 51.4 per cent.

The top concern pertained to Asean being unable to cope with fluid political and economic developments because it is “slow and ineffective” (70.1 per cent).

This was followed by concerns that Asean is becoming an arena of major power competition, and its member states may become major power proxies (61.5 per cent).

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THE ‘MYANMAR ISSUE’

Turning to how respondents felt about Asean’s response to the Myanmar crisis, the survey found they were equally split.

Some 37 per cent said they either “approve” or “strongly approve” of Asean’s response, while 33.1 per cent said they “disapprove” or “strongly disapprove”. The remaining 29.9 per cent said they were neutral.

Of the 517 respondents who chose either “approve” or “strongly approve”, the survey found 42.5 per cent said Asean had taken active steps to mediate during the crisis, such as convening a leaders’ meeting last April, agreeing on a five-point consensus and the subsequent appointment of the Asean chair’s special envoy.

The next most popular reason given was that Asean is doing its best given institutional limits, but is “unable to override intransigent attitudes of Myanmar stakeholders, thereby blaming factors that are beyond Asean’s control”.

Close to half (45.5 per cent) of the 691 respondents who either chose “disapprove” or “strongly disapprove” said they did so because they felt Asean was “too slow in its response to the escalating political and humanitarian crisis due to its internal disunity”.

On how Asean should move forward with the “Myanmar issue”, the majority of the respondents (37.8 per cent) suggested it should engage in independent dialogue with all key stakeholders in Myanmar.

“This is perhaps in recognition of the polarity in differences between different groups in the country,” said the researchers.

The second most preferred option was for Asean to mount a coordinated and unified response with international partners (24.4 per cent), followed by Asean employing harder methods of suspension, such as sanctions, to curtail Myanmar's State Administration Council (19.6 per cent).

The survey found that Myanmar respondents were the strongest proponents of the third-ranked option at 43.4 per cent.

Myanmar respondents (21.4 per cent) were also the “strongest in their views” about expelling their country from Asean, even though the total proportion of all respondents who preferred this option was just 9.8 per cent.

The least popular option was for Asean not to interfere, with only 8.4 per cent opting for this.

VIEWS ON CHINA

More than seven in 10 respondents also regarded China as the most influential economic power in Southeast Asia — a trend researchers said has remained consistent since 2019.

Trailing behind was the United States at 9.8 per cent — an increase from 6.6 per cent last year — and Asean at 7.6 per cent.

The researchers found that the highest levels of recognition for China’s economic influence were registered among respondents from:

  • Brunei — 84.9 per cent
  • Cambodia — 84 per cent
  • Laos — 86.4 per cent
  • Myanmar — 83.4 per cent
  • Singapore — 81.1 per cent

Nevertheless, the researchers also said that the region continues to be worried about China’s growing regional economic influence, with more than three in five respondents expressing this view.

When it came to perceptions of trust towards China, the survey found that it rose to 26.8 per cent this year, compared to 19 per cent last year.

Yet, more than half of the respondents (58.1 per cent) still said they have little or no confidence the economic powerhouse will “do the right thing” to contribute to global peace, security, prosperity and governance.

Among those who distrust China, close to half (49.6 per cent) think that China’s economic and military power could be used to threaten their country’s interest and sovereignty.

The researchers said this view was shared strongly in Cambodia (71.4 per cent), the Philippines (70.7 per cent), Vietnam (50.5 per cent), Brunei (50 per cent), and Malaysia (49.3 per cent).

In contrast, 38.1 per cent of the Singaporean respondents felt this way, a drop from 58.9 per cent last year.

Professor Zha Daojiong, from the School of International Studies at Peking University, said during the panel discussion that these results showed there is a need for "introspection and self-reflection and eventually self-change" among Chinese diplomats and scholars.

Thus far, he said China has done its overall imagery "no good, by being so blunt" when it came to engaging on various issues, and said such topics could be better explained both domestically and overseas.

"The findings are important, and probably down the road research institutions like ours can... come back to revisit some of the framing of these issues," he said.

However, he also held the view that the world seems to be returning to an ideological lock-in that was characteristic of the formative years of the Cold War in the 1950s and "that is dangerous".

The top three answers respondents gave about how China can improve relations with their country were:

  • Respecting a country’s sovereignty and not constraining their foreign policy choices — 77.3 per cent
  • Resolving all territorial and maritime disputes peacefully in accordance with international law — 64.6 per cent
  • Making bilateral trade truly mutually beneficial by addressing trade imbalances — 33.3 per cent

MORE CLIMATE CHANGE DENIERS

Geopolitical concerns aside, about half (50.3 per cent) of Southeast Asians continue to see climate change as a “serious and immediate threat to the well-being of their country”, even though this was a slight dip from 51 per cent last year.

Such views, said the researchers, were more pronounced in countries like the Philippines (73.8 per cent) and Vietnam (55.6 per cent), as they were the two countries most affected by a series of extreme weather events last year, including super typhoon Rai last December.

The proportion of climate deniers, however, has also gone up.

Researchers said those who shared the view that “there is no scientific basis for climate change” and “it is a long-term challenge and will not impact me in my lifetime” increased significantly from 4 per cent last year to 9.2 per cent this year.

These views were seen more keenly in Cambodia (17.2 per cent), Vietnam (15.2 per cent), Thailand (12 per cent), Indonesia (11.5 per cent), and Myanmar (10 per cent).

The proportion of Singaporeans who felt this way was 6.8 per cent, up from 1.9 per cent last year.

The researchers said that “unsurprisingly”, climate change is also a generational issue in some Asean countries.

Respondents between 21 and 35 years of age in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore were more likely to say that climate change is a “serious and immediate threat to the well-being of their country” than the older age groups.

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Related topics

ASEAN COVID-19 coronavirus China Myanmar climate change

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