By Vijay Eswaran, Founder and Executive Chairman, QI Group
ASEAN’s remarkable success story is evident in its rapid development and strong economic growth, which have significantly reduced poverty over the past two decades. With deep political commitment to effective policies, over 100 million people have been lifted out of poverty since the turn of the century. According to a report by the Asian Development Bank, the share of workers living in extreme poverty in Southeast Asia decreased considerably from 29% in 2000 to just above 2% in 2021—a major milestone for the region outpacing the world in the same timespan.
While the region’s income and consumption growth have contributed to improved health, education outcomes, and greater inclusion, there remains a wide disparity in living standards across ASEAN countries. Disparities in life expectancy, job productivity, and education quality persist.
Measuring Quality of Life
Mercer’s quality of life report ranks cities worldwide based on various criteria such as safety, education, healthcare, and culture. Singapore stands out as the highest-ranked ASEAN city in 25th position, while the Philippines lags far behind at 137th. However, one must question the accuracy of such reports in representing an individual’s quality of life.
Foreigners from Australia, America, and Europe have increasingly flocked to destinations like Boracay and Palawan in recent years, captivated by the sun, sand, and unique cultures. Many settle down, marry locals, or open businesses there. These individuals trade the fast-paced lifestyles of their home countries for a more relaxed pace amidst natural surroundings.
Furthermore, places like Bali currently offers “second home visas” for expats to stay for extended periods, attracting foreigners with the promise of a fulfilling life. All they require is Rp 2,000,000,000 (USD$136,000) in their bank accounts. This would attract more foreigners to head to the tourist location as the government is making health and wellness a top tourism priority for the coming years.
While such rankings fail to account for these happy individuals embracing life in their flip flops and shorts, they do raise important questions about the disparity in quality of life across ASEAN countries, particularly in healthcare, education, and social safety.
Advancing Quality of Living
Access to quality healthcare remains limited in many ASEAN countries, with prohibitive costs for citizens. Governments in ASEAN should learn from Singapore, which serves as a medical hub for the region and offers excellent medical support. Singapore’s emphasis on quality care has led to high life expectancies and the world’s lowest infant mortality rate. In the Philippines, healthcare remains a big financial burden for many Filipinos despite the start of Universal Healthcare (UHC).
Education investment is yet another crucial sector. Many ASEAN nations still have significant levels of illiteracy, and only some populations have easy access to education. In fact, according to a recent assessment by the World Literacy Foundation, the illiteracy issue costs the nation’s economy an estimated P258 billion annually, or $4.72 billion. By prioritizing education, ASEAN can ensure that all citizens have the knowledge and skills necessary to thrive in the 21st century economy.
Vietnam stands out as a regional leader with its high-quality education system, achieved through a strong commitment to educational development and significant public spending. It has attracted and supported qualified teachers, invested in preschools, and implemented assessments to hold teachers and schools accountable for delivering quality education.
Moreover, informal education and training of the low-skilled workforce are crucial. To compete in the future labour market, workers will require foundational skills in math, literacy, socio-behavioural and higher-order cognitive abilities, as well as digital literacy. Without fully harnessing their human capital, countries cannot sustain economic growth, adequately prepare their workforce for highly skilled jobs, or effectively compete in the global economy.
As ASEAN continues to expand rapidly, it must prioritize the improvement of its citizens’ quality of life. Achieving a more balanced, inclusive, and environmentally sustainable development in Southeast Asia requires comprehensive, country-specific policy strategies. Close alignment and coordination across ministries—education, health, social welfare, planning, agriculture, statistics agencies, among others—will be essential to creating a better future for all ASEAN citizens.