Government gets thumbs up for handling COVID-19

Azlan Othman

Respondents from Brunei Darussalam recorded the strongest approval in the government’s general assessment of COVID-19 response and rated it highly with 93.9 per cent, according to a survey by researchers from the ASEAN Studies Centre at the think-tank ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

The majority of respondents (60.7 per cent) approve of their governments’ handling of COVID-19, with respondents from Vietnam (96.6 per cent), Brunei Darussalam (93.9 per cent) and Singapore (92.4 per cent) giving their governments strong approval ratings in COVID-19 response.

Brunei, Singapore and Vietnam also recorded the lowest rates of disapproval at 3.0 per cent, 1.9 per cent and 1.1 per cent.

On government policy to better address COVID-19, 49.0 per cent of respondents across the ASEAN region think that their governments should “offer better financial relief and subsidies to citizens impacted economically by COVID-19”.

Meanwhile, 42.6 per cent feel that “politicians and public servants should observe public health measures, instead of flouting them”, while 41.4 per cent suggest that their governments should “invest in early warning systems for pandemic outbreak and research and development (R&D) for virus testing and vaccine development”.

The report added that Brunei Darussalam and Singapore stand out in their unequivocal support to “encourage more scientists and medical doctors to contribute to public policy discussions and heed their advice” and “invest in early warning systems for pandemic outbreak and R&D for virus testing and vaccine development”, both options at 100 per cent respectively.

In terms of COVID-19 leadership, respondents voted almost equally for Singapore (32.7 per cent) and Vietnam (31.1 per cent) for providing best leadership to ASEAN. In terms of provision of COVID-19-related assistance, 44.2 per cent picked China, followed by Japan (18.2 per cent) and the European Union (EU) (10.3 per cent) as providing most help to this region.

Meanwhile, the top three challenges facing Brunei Darussalam according to respondents are unemployment and economic recession (78.8 per cent), the threat to health from the COVID-19 pandemic (69.7 per cent), and widening socio-economic gaps and rising income disparity (45.5 per cent).

For the COVID-19 pandemic, the report said the degrees of concern are less pronounced among the respondents from Singapore (63.3 per cent), Thailand (64.9 per cent) and Brunei (69.7 per cent), possibly due to the relatively stable health infrastructure and adequate hospital capacities in these countries. The anxiety over COVID-19 is felt more strongly among Lao respondents (90 per cent), followed by Myanmar (87.8 per cent) and Indonesia (84.5 per cent).

Meanwhile, the top three concerns among Brunei respondents about ASEAN are: ASEAN is becoming an arena of major power competition and its member states may become proxies of a major power (87.9 per cent); ASEAN is slow and ineffective, and thus cannot cope with fluid political and economic developments (60.6 per cent); and ASEAN is becoming increasingly disunited (45.5 per cent).

Southeast Asians’ top concern about ASEAN is that it is slow and ineffective, and thus cannot cope with the fluid political and economic developments (71.5 per cent). In the same vein, 52.4 per cent worry that ASEAN is unable to overcome the current pandemic challenges. Geo-politics is also not far from everyone’s mind, as 69.1 per cent fear that ASEAN is becoming an arena of competition among major powers and its members may become their proxies. Fears that ASEAN may become irrelevant in the new world order is ranked last (22.1 per cent).

For the third consecutive year, the ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute conducted The State of Southeast Asia survey to capture the views and perspectives of opinion-makers, policy-makers, and thought-leaders in the region.

This year’s survey was conducted from November 18, 2020 to January 10, 2021, covering regional affairs and geo-political developments, including, but not limited to, current issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

A total of 1,032 respondents from 10 ASEAN member states participated in the online survey which drew from five categories of affiliation: (1) academia/ research, (2) business/finance, (3) government, (4) civil society/non-governmental/media, and (5) regional/ international organisations.

Southeast Asia is preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery process. The threat to health from COVID-19 (76 per cent) is currently the region’s most pressing concern, followed by unemployment and economic recession (63 per cent) and the socio-economic gaps and income disparity (40.7 per cent). Terrorism is ranked last (5.2 per cent), after deteriorating human rights conditions (12.6 per cent).

“Unemployment and economic recession” is ranked the second biggest challenge facing the region, chosen by 63 per cent of the respondents. In the 2019 and 2020 surveys, “economic downturn” was also picked as the second challenge, but the concern must have been more palpable with the pandemic’s economic impact at the back of respondents’ minds.

Coming third in the region’s main preoccupations is “widening socio-economic gaps and rising income disparity” (40.7 per cent). This choice may also have been made with pandemic worries top of mind. Meanwhile, traditional issues dominating the list of challenges last year such as domestic political instability, terrorism and increased military tensions have dropped dramatically.

“Domestic political instability (including ethnic and religious tensions)” – the top security concern in 2020 at 70.5 per cent – dropped to fifth place at 35.1 per cent in 2021.