SINGAPORE, April 2 — While most other South-east Asians (57.7 per cent) regard unemployment and economic recession as the region’s most pressing concern, less than a third of Singapore (27.8 per cent) express such fears.

Instead, climate change is Singapore respondents’ top fear (64.8 per cent), which is also among the highest in the region — just behind Vietnam (75 per cent) and Brunei (64.9 per cent), a regional survey has found.

If given an opportunity to relocate, Singapore is the top choice (28 per cent) for respondents who prefer to stay within the region.

These findings were published today (April 2) in the sixth State of South-east Asia report. The annual survey by the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute gauges the views and perceptions of South-east Asians on key international affairs and geopolitical developments affecting the region, to inform or influence policies.

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The institute surveyed 1,994 respondents, aged 18 and above, from 10 South-east Asian countries — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — between Jan 3 and Feb 23 this year.

The respondents belonged to one of the following five categories:

  • • Academia, think-tankers or researchers,
  • • Private sector representatives,
  • • Civil society, non-governmental organisations or media representatives,
  • • Government officials, and
  • • Regional or international organisations personnel

TODAY looks at five key takeaways from the State of South-east Asia report:

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Climate change is Singapore respondents’ top fear

Across the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean), unemployment and economic recession ranks as the number one fear, with more than half (57.7 per cent) of respondents indicating it as the biggest challenge that the region faces.

Respondents also perceive the following to be key regional challenges:

  • • Climate change and more extreme weather events — such as droughts, floods, cyclones and rising sea levels (53.4 per cent)
  • • Intensifying economic tensions between major powers (47 per cent)
  • • Widening socioeconomic gaps and rising income inequality (44.4 per cent)
  • • Increased military tensions arising from potential flashpoints — such as South China Sea, Taiwan Strait and Korean Peninsula (38 per cent)
  • • Domestic political instability, including ethnic and religious tensions (36.8 per cent)
  • • Deteriorating human rights conditions (12.8 per cent)
  • • Terrorism and extremism (10 per cent)

For Singapore respondents, climate change emerged as the top challenge (64.8 per cent), up from 60.1 per cent in 2023.

On their top concerns about Asean, more than three in four (77 per cent) of all respondents in the region worry that Asean is slow and ineffective, and thus cannot cope with fluid political and economic developments, such that it becomes irrelevant in the new world order.

Singapore respondents, however, indicated the fear of Asean becoming an arena of major power competition, and its member states becoming major power proxies, as their foremost Asean-related concern (81.7 per cent).

Singapore is the preferred relocation choice within South-east Asia

More than a fifth (22.4 per cent) of the survey’s respondents stated a preference for living and working in an Asean country, if given an opportunity to relocate.

The next most popular choices for relocation were Japan (17.1 per cent) and the United States (15.9 per cent).

Among respondents who chose an Asean member state as their preferred relocation choice, Singapore emerged as the top choice (28 per cent), followed by Thailand (13 per cent), Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam (all three at 9.7 per cent).

Still, most respondents preferred living and working in their home countries if given a choice.

The only exception was Myanmar respondents who favoured relocating to Singapore (35.7 per cent) over living and working in their own country (28.6 per cent).

The Israel-Hamas conflict is Singapore’s top geopolitical concern

Respondents’ top three geopolitical concerns are the Israel-Hamas conflict (46.5 per cent), aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea (39.9 per cent), and concerns over both the Russia-Ukraine war and global scam operations (39.4 per cent), which tied at third place.

In Singapore, more than half (57.9 per cent) indicated the Israel-Hamas conflict among their top geopolitical concerns.

Singapore respondents worry that the conflict would impact South-east Asia in the following ways:

  • • Rise in extremist activities impacting domestic and regional security (41 per cent)
  • • Erosion of domestic social cohesion due to religious divisions (20.9 per cent)
  • • Diminished trust in international law and rules-based order (19.4 per cent)
  • • Greater Asean disunity due to differences in member states’ positions (15 per cent)

Only 3.7 per cent in the country believe that the Israel-Hamas conflict would have no impact on South-east Asia, compared to 9.9 per cent across all Asean respondents.

Almost half (46.2 per cent) in Singapore also believe that Israel’s attack on Gaza had gone too far.

About two in five (40.7 per cent) in Singapore approved the Government’s position on the Israel-Hamas conflict. More than one in 10 (12.1 per cent) disapproved or strongly disapproved the Government’s position, while 30.8 per cent were neutral.

China is the region’s prevailing choice in the ongoing US-China rivalry

China has maintained its position as the country or regional organisation perceived by respondents to have the most political and strategic influence in South-east Asia (43.9 per cent), up slightly from 41.5 per cent last year.

Overall, China also edged past the United States to become the prevailing choice if the region were forced to align itself on the ongoing US-China rivalry, the survey found.

Slightly more than half (50.5 per cent) of Asean respondents preferred to align with China, while the rest chose the US.

This is a notable shift in sentiments compared with 2023, where 61.1 per cent of respondents chose to align with the United States over China.

In Singapore, however, China as the preferred alignment choice fell slightly to 38.5 per cent in 2024, compared with 38.9 per cent in 2023.

When asked why they trust China, more than half (54.3 per cent) of respondents here cited its vast economic resources and strong political will to provide global leadership.

When asked why they distrust China, 35 per cent believed China’s economic and military power could be used to threaten Singapore’s interests and sovereignty.

Meanwhile, about four in 10 (39.4 per cent) in Singapore said they trusted the US because they believed its military power is an asset for global peace and security.

Almost half (46.9 per cent) here said they distrusted the US because they were concerned that it was distracted with its internal affairs and thus could not focus on global concerns and issues.

In the event of a crossfire between Beijing and Washington for influence and leadership in South-east Asia, almost half (45.4 per cent) in Singapore said Asean should enhance its resilience and unity to fend off pressure from the two major powers.

Fear that Taiwan-China conflict could severely disrupt supply chains

South-east Asians also recognise that any hostilities in the Taiwan Strait would have significant implications for the region, given the region’s geographical proximity and economic ties with both China and Taiwan.

Almost half (44.2 per cent) believe that the outbreak of hostilities in the Taiwan Strait would severely disrupt supply chains between China, Taiwan and South-east Asia. This figure is higher among Singapore respondents, with 50.5 per cent expressing such a concern.

One in four (25 per cent) also believe South-east Asian countries would be forced to choose between the US and China in the event of hostilities.

Among the 10 South-east Asian countries surveyed, this fear is most pronounced in Singapore, with 37.7 per cent of respondents here fearing that countries in this region would be forced to choose between the US and China. — TODAY