IIE Blog Opening Minds
IIE Blog Opening Minds

Understanding Southeast Asia: A Primer for Successful Engagement

By: Jonathan Lembright on Thursday, March 19, 2015

Recently moving from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok, I’ve found that the conversation regarding a “rising Southeast Asia” is just as lively and engaging in Thailand as it was in Malaysia. One of the key drivers of this buzz is the much-anticipated launch of the ASEAN Economic Community at the end of this year (more on that below). In the following post I’ll dig a little deeper into some of the unique features of the region, which I hope those unfamiliar with Southeast Asia will find useful, interesting, and perhaps a prompt for if or how to be invested in this unique area of the world.

ASEAN MapThe Balkans of Asia

The territory covered by ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is one of the most culturally diverse regions of the world. The 10 Southeast Asian countries grouped under the ASEAN banner (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) account for over 600 million people, upwards of 50 minority languages per country (with many more in Indonesia and the Philippines), and remarkable religio-cultural diversity symbolized by an estimated 240 million Muslims, 150 million Buddhists, 125 million Christians, 7 million Hindus, and 50 million followers of other belief systems. The region also encompasses a wide variety of political systems from democracies, to one-party states, to monarchies. And all of this is found within a fairly compact geography; for example, it’s a 3 hour flight from Bangkok to Manila (for U.S. comparison, a three-hour flight from Denver puts you in Atlanta).

ASEAN GDP growth 2001-2011In addition to the above, a significant amount of diversity and dynamism is found within the economies of the region. For example, ASEAN as a region has the second fastest growing economy in all of Asia between 2001 and 2013 and is expected to rank as the world’s fourth-largest economy by 2050:

And while this is impressive as a region, there are also large economic realities separating the region exemplified by Indonesia, accounting for roughly 40 percent of ASEAN economic output (and a G20 member), and Myanmar which is considered a “frontier market”, that is, one step below emerging market status. This being said, one common thread in ASEAN is that poverty levels across the region have dropped notably. For instance, over a ten-year span (2000–2010) in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam, the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day fell by roughly 30 percent.

Its high level of diversity has earned the region the nickname “the Balkans of Asia,” the label originating from the British political geographer Charles Fisher in the 1960s. He noted that just as the Balkans were understood as the space between German-dominated central Europe and the Russian-dominated lands to the east, so does Southeast Asia occupy the domain between Indian-influenced southern Asia and Chinese-dominated eastern Asia. Fisher noted that both areas, the Balkans and Southeast Asia, are “crossing-places”, i.e., areas of historic transition, cosmopolitanism, as well as cultural and political complexity.

But unlike what happened in the Balkans at the end of the Cold War, Southeast Asia has been tracking on a relatively peaceful trajectory of regional integration that is exemplified by the upcoming launch of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). Due to be in place by the end of 2015, the AEC is designed to facilitate a high level of economic integration and political cooperation not unlike the European Union. Two anticipated impacts of the AEC relevant to this discussion are: (1) regional economic growth driven by a freer flow of goods and people and (2) English language improvement driven by its designation as the language of the AEC and the competitive advantage that it provides.

Academic Growth and Mobility

SEA Outbound StudentsThe economic growth alluded to earlier is understood as a key driver of student mobility in the region; more ASEAN students are studying outside of their home country than ever before. For example, the total number of ASEAN students going abroad has increased by more than 40 percent since 2006 (higher growth than Brazil and India). And, as shown below by the UNESCO data charting “Total tertiary students abroad by country,” the two main drivers of this growth today are Malaysia and Vietnam—accounting for half of all outbound students from the region.

The top destination for these students continues to be the traditional English-speaking educational hubs of Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom. However, China, Malaysia, and Japan are close competitors for ASEAN students and are expected to continue gaining ground. For example, IIE’s Project Atlas reports that more Indonesians and Thai students are now studying in China than in the Untied States. There are concerted efforts by governments and institutions in Southeast Asia and within the larger East Asia/Pacific region to be a hub for both top regional and international academic talent.

And within ASEAN, this is partly driven by market forces, as it is simply more economical to study abroad within the region given the lower tuition compared to traditional Western destinations—even for those seeking an English-speaking environment, e.g., Singapore and Malaysia. In addition to cost, this is also a demographic question with large populations of young people eager for a quality university experience that many national infrastructures cannot accommodate, thereby driving students to look abroad for opportunities.

In line with ASEAN’s overarching theme of integration, there is also a push to create a regional framework for higher education harmonization and a “Common Space” designed to facilitate student mobility, credit transfer, quality assurance, and research clusters. The idea draws in part upon the notion of national comparative advantage, which allows for students to easily study in other countries based upon the expertise and research strengths a country has in particular fields of study. In this arrangement, a student might begin studying in Vietnam and then move on to the Philippines and eventually graduate with an ASEAN accredited degree recognized throughout the region.

Engaging Well

Southeast Asia is ripe for engagement. Perhaps the biggest challenge is determining where and in what manner to do so. The overarching qualifier for success likely has to do with the level of commitment. Experience has demonstrated that those individuals and organizations that carry a deep and long-term commitment to the region have been most successful over time.

Taking into consideration the above qualifier, engagement opportunities will expand as the regional economy continues its upward trajectory. As noted by the Boston Consulting Group, six ASEAN countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) will see 100 million people enter the consumer class this year, which points to a fast growing market more finely attuned to quality tertiary education and openness to global experiences.

One of the key areas of discussion among both educators and economists in the region is human capital and workforce development (the recent COMET project being one example of a push to address the issue). With some exceptions, there is a general concern that educational standards are below what is required for the skilled roles needed in moving ASEAN forward towards the ambitious goals it has set for itself. As projected by McKinsey & Company, Indonesia and Myanmar alone will witness an undersupply of 9 million skilled and 13 million semiskilled workers by 2030.

I’ll plan to go into greater depth on both country and education-related ASEAN specifics in forthcoming posts. My hope is that this initial post serves as a solid jumping off point for going deeper into the issues. The ASEAN region is certainly on the rise, and a better-informed strategy for engagement should maximize success for all involved.


New IIE/AIFS book, Asia: The Next Higher Education Superpower? critically examines the local and global trends driving higher education policies in Asia and their impact on the local and regional knowledge economies.

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For more than nine decades, the Institute of International Education has been at the forefront of international education. The Opening Minds blog is IIE’s take on how this field continues to change. Here the Institute’s leaders will explore international educational exchange, global student mobility, institutional partnerships, international development, and other topics and trends that are shaping higher education around the world.

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