Addressing Security and Sustainable Development Challenges in ASEAN Towards Building Back Better

Addressing Security and Sustainable Development Challenges in ASEAN Towards Building Back Better

By The Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre)
S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS)
Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore

As the COVID-19 pandemic approaches its third year and amid the ebb and flow in the spread of the virus globally, it is useful to reflect on the key challenges moving forward. We turn to the World Economic Forum’s 2022 World Risk Index (WRI) report as a “temperature check”, which has highlighted social/economic security and environmental challenges among the key risks globally. We further explore what these global concerns mean for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its member states.

Key Challenges: Social/Economic Security and Environment

In the near-term, social concerns emerging from economic insecurity were among the key challenges cited in the WRI report, which have worsened amid the pandemic. These include “social cohesion erosion”, “livelihood crises” and “mental health deterioration”. Among ASEAN member states (AMS), these concerns ring loudly in light of the pandemic’s impacts as a hybrid health and economic crisis.

Economies continue to be fatigued by the constant threat of renewed lockdowns. Business expectations remain either negative or reflecting worry, with only 12% of those surveyed reflecting optimistic prospects. “Prolonged economic stagnation” remains among the top 5 risks in Brunei, Cambodia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Within Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, “employment and livelihood crises” likewise figured among the top 5 perceived risks in each country.

In both the near-term and long-term (>10 year-horizon), environmental concerns surrounding the failure of global climate action reflect the other key challenge in the 2022 WRI. ASEAN countries’ views mirror this, with similar concerns reflected in all AMS surveyed, whether in the form of “human-made environmental damage” (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand), “climate action failure” (Singapore), “extreme weather events” (Philippines and Vietnam) or “Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse” (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam).

Balancing to Building Back Better?

It seems ironic that even as the COVID-19 situation worsens, including declining efficacy of existing vaccines against the new Omicron Variant, there is more push for societies to “build back better.” The call for states to step-up their approaches to address these interrelated challenges has become even more important.

Amid the prolonged slowdowns in world economies relative to the pre-COVID era, a looming challenge lies in how governments can prudently balance between health security (i.e., lockdowns) and social and economic security. While states allocate budgets for providing for the food and economic security of individuals, they should be equally mindful of a looming “debt crisis in large economies” as viewed by Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

Another important pivot in governments’ attention, is on technology, which can contribute to both climate adaptation (e.g., digital applications in agriculture) and the social/economic security (e.g., digital approaches to work). However, countries continue to be concerned about failures in technology governance and cybersecurity measures, and the potential digital divide surrounding their accessibility (i.e., Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand).

A key priority to building back better, therefore, is for states to balance their attention across these social/economic security and environmental issues, while creating a more conducive atmosphere that allows technology to play a more prominent role moving forward.