In an earlier post here I noted the potential emergence of a growing digital divide in the region.
That division related to internet use, but there is also the question of internet speed. I’m grateful to the source here for producing the below graphic.
The most interesting element to me is the very limited correlation between internet use and internet speed. Unsurprisingly Singapore rates highly on both speed and penetration, but the less than impressive speeds enjoyed by the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam seem to have done little to dampen their enthusiasm for the internet.
Furthermore, looking at the ASEAN average speed noted above, it is revealing, depending on your interpretation, either just how few Southeast Asian enjoy even average internet speeds, or just how good Singapore’s telecommunication networks are compared with everyone else.
I hope to return to this topic in a later post.
I’ve taken two extracts from the map and reproduced them below, initially highlighting the Southeast Asian nations featuring the highest number of living languages used as a first language.
Southeast Asia doesn’t do quite so well when it comes to the spread of native languages though, with just Malay/(Bahasa) Indonesian being spoken in more than a couple of countries.
On reflection I think the first graph is far more revealing in what it says about Southeast Asia, particularly the geography of the region, with the prevalence of a huge number of islands and valleys leading to the development of historically isolated social groups and thus separate languages.
The creation of those pockets of geographic isolation could, in turn, be attributed in a large part to the plate tectonics of the Pacific Ocean’s Ring of Fire pictured below. What a truly amazing part of the world Southeast Asia is.
Among the data sets I enjoy playing around with in a Southeast Asian context are population statistics.
As I mentioned here there are some huge problems with this endeavour, but that shouldn’t be a reason not to do the best we can with what we have.
And so, acknowledging the data is incomplete and inadequate and that is absolutely no fault of those who also did their professional best to bring it together, I want to share something I quickly put together from the data at the website organised by Thomas Brinkhoff: City Population, http://www.citypopulation.de
I have replicated and magnified the key below.
The vertical axis alludes to city population size, while the horizontal axis markers attempt to rank the urban populations in each country from largest to smallest.
The largest city in each country has been removed for purposes of clarity. In particular, including Jakarta and Manila on the graph effectively rescaled the above demographic contours to invisibility, compelling their omission.
To me the very vivid message is the awesome number and sizes of Indonesia’s mid ranking cities (depicted in yellow). The huge gap to the Philippines (in green below) simply serves to illustrate Indonesia’s breathtaking demographics.
Finally, while I mentioned above that there are big problems with the data making the above graphic little more than indicative, a further problem arises with the data snapshots being taken at very different times, ranging from the year 2000 (Malaysia) to late 2015 (the Philippines).
We can only work with the data we have, but to me, while the data is so often unreliable working with it is also so often enjoyable.
For those readers whose disciplinary expertise lies beyond democracy studies, the data generated by Freedom House consistently rates among the best available.
To quickly address any visibility concerns if the graphic/text is too fuzzy and or small, the higher a country places on the graphic the wealthier it is, and the further to the right the country is the greater the political rights and civil liberties enjoyed by its citizens.
I will let the graphic data speak for itself, other than to highlight;
a/ the nation states of Southeast Asia clustering at in yellow and blue the lower centre/left, suggesting that Southeast Asia hasn’t been a happy place for freedom of speech and economic productivity for quite a while, and
b/ the classic problem that these figures project. There is sufficient evidence in the graphic (evidenced by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan) to suggest a positive correlation between wealth and freedom (in other words, that increased wealth accompanies increased freedom). The great dilemma is whether increased freedom > increased wealth, or whether increased wealth > increased freedom.
Sadly there is unlikely to be a definitive answer in the literature, and although far smarter scholars than myself may have some highly credible arguments finding a neat graphic clarifying that relationship is beyond my abilities at this point. I would be delighted if a reader could point me to any relevant graphics.
In my post yesterday I mentioned the potential correlation between mean population weight and poverty.
While the graphic provided gave some idea of the spread of population weight (no pun intended) there was no data illustrating the prevalence of poverty, an omission this post seeks to address.
Again the figures are somewhat dated, but some data sourced from the Statistical Yearbook for Asia and the Pacific 2011 is provided below.
For those readers uncertain on interpreting the graph, the gap between the dark blue and light blue bars indicate the extent that the percentage of national population in poverty has shrunk over the period (Turkey appears the exception in poverty levels having increased).
In a Southeast Asian context the standout performer in reducing poverty appears to be Vietnam, but the overall picture is more complex and, as I mentioned here, not necessarily encouraging in leading to future political stability.
One figure that helps illustrate how wealth (or increased wealth) is distributed within a country is what is known as the Gini coefficient, an aggregate measure of inequality that takes into account the complete distribution of income. And, how fortunate, the same source as above has that data too.
On this measure Vietnam (like every other Southeast Asian state except Malaysia) hasn’t done so well, but I accept that judging increasing inequality as inherently undesirable is infused with personal values.
I will conclude by flagging that the above measures of inequality, being a few years old, may have hinted at the evolution of contemporary politics in the most unequal Southeast Asian countries.
Looking at the five most income unequal countries in the region (the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia), the respective domestic political landscapes in late 2016 feature a strongman leader, a strongman leader, a strongman leader, structural suppression, and a nation that narrowly rejected a strongman leader just two years earlier.
This affinity for authoritarian political leadership amidst stubborn levels of inequality is possibly more than a correlation, and may in fact reflect an inherent tendancy in regional politics.
The data is a few years old now (2011), but nevertheless the graphic above is telling.
Just in case the text is too small to be easily read, the figures represent the nations of Southeast Asia (in alphabetical order) with their respective sizes reflecting the overweight prevalence (%) for adults of both sexes (overweight being defined as a Body Mass Index >25 kg/m2).
Initially I saw a correlation between wealth and weight, namely that the richer a country was the heavy its citizens were, but that theory falls down when Singapore’s relative wealth is considered.
I suspect a better explanation can be found in the income columns at the right of the graphic below (from the link here).
If my hunch is correct, the countries of Southeast Asia reflect a correlation between growth in citizen wealth and growth in citizens weight, peaking at the upper middle income band (Malaysia and Thailand), before tapering off when high incomes are reached (Singapore).
Perhaps the most interesting statistic from the second graphic are the health benefits for females moving from upper middle income bracket to the high income bracket. When transposed into a Southeast Asian context this could mean that the key difference between upper middle income Malaysia and high income Singapore is not the males, who would be slightly weightier than their Malaysian counterparts, but the Singaporean women who would be much lighter and thus healthier than their Malaysian neighbours. I’m interested in any readers who could shed light on this possibility with reliable data.
In any event simple measures of wealth are clearly not the whole story, with Vietnam and Philippines featuring broadly comparable levels of wealth (or poverty) but significantly different weight profiles. An initial guess suggests diet is a significant factor, but have no expertise or data to back that up.
The really bad news is that, if my hunch is correct, as the nations of Southeast Asia move closer to Singapore’s living standards their citizen’s weight will continue to grow. Unfortunately they are living in a world where all of Southeast Asia matching Singapore’s resource consumption to sustain its living standards is simply unachievable, and these countries could never crest the serious health concerns linked to upper middle income lifestyles.
That would mean, unless the economic model underlying high income countries such as Singapore changes drastically, that Southeast Asia’s future lies in an enormous growth in waistlines, weight related diseases and premature deaths.
I’ve spoken previous of my admiration for the work of Tom Pepinksy, and my only significant concern with his post here is that I didn’t make the Thailand/Trump connection myself.
Rather than simply reposting the link and encouraging you to read it, which I suggest you do anyway, I’d like to add something to his insights.
My somewhat limited addendum is to point out that just as delegitimising election results can get countries into a world of pain, legitimising election results offers a glimmer of hope on a possible way out of the darkness with minimal political chaos. Pepinsky recognises this in commenting that “when electoral procedures lose popular legitimacy, it is nearly impossible to get that legitimacy back”. Nevertheless, I see that restoration of procedural/popular legitimacy, however difficult it may be, as one of the few ways forward for Thailand from this point on.
I must admit to pessimism on whether that will, or even can, now happen in Thailand. The critical problem I see is that countries that are not deeply divided make no political space for key actors to sabotage the legitimacy of their own electoral processes, and inversely that countries that sabotage the legitimacy of their electoral processes are already deeply divided (regardless of the rhetoric of acting to preserve unity).
For the United States the looming election may yet be a referendum on how united the country remains. For Thailand, whatever unity remains in the body politic is vaporising by the day.
As many readers would be aware, last week was Indonesia’s national birthday. I intended to complete a post on the day, but ultimately merely flagged at the time that a more substantive post would follow.
Where to start in responding to the 71st anniversary of Indonesia’s independence? Perhaps by making a few brief points starting with the idea that the day celebrates Indonesia’s birth like a baby. The inherent notion that nations suddenly appear is appealing, not least because the concept offers a neat sense of innocence and a convenient excuse for initial stumbles*, but I believe that sometimes obscures the reality.
Nation states (including Indonesia) never begin as an empty territory simply waiting to have a flag raised and be populated with the right kind of people (a concept that white Australia, among others, is still coming to terms with). Instead the land itself already has history, as does the arriving population who increasingly see it as their own.
Indonesia’s Independence Day is potentially better understood as a celebration of reaching national adulthood, present in the shouts of “Merdeka” (independence) that characterise the celebration. Every polity is selective about what is included and excluded in the national story however, and I suggest a large part of the appeal and meaning of Indonesia’s Independence Day is demonstrably isolating Indonesia from the preceding colonial era. Noticeably there is a much more muted consideration of what followed not long after in Indonesia, including one of the worst genocides of the last century.
The question of whether Indonesia was ready for adulthood as a nation state at that time belongs to history, and I won’t seek to consider that further now. What I will look at however, is how Indonesia celebrated the day this year. I found the story of Indonesia sinking “71 foreign vessels as the country celebrated 71 years of independence” curious, reminding me of a form of power that, in acting against a powerless opponent, merely highlights its limitations.
Stepping back to the broader politics I also see that power limitation in Jokowi’s inflexibility in fighting illegal drugs and willingness to take lives in pursuit of that policy. Like President Duterte in the neighbouring Philippines the domestic political benefits that accrue are, of course, entirely coincidental, but I sense they reflect less of a meaningful policy achievement than an exhaustion of politically or technically palatable ideas.
Finally, turning to Indonesia’s longer term historical context, “Merdeka” is only fully understandable in the context of time and place. On Indonesia’s national day, across Java and other islands that are closer to the political, ethnic and religious ideal, such sentiments are welcomed and celebrated. Meanwhile, in days previously, and in days to come, cries of “Merdeka” in places on the national periphery, like Aceh and Papua, are inflammatory and treacherous.
In this, I suspect “Merdeka” unintentionally has both a meaning and a message. The meaning is that Indonesia has grown up and has concluded its search for identity, but the message may be different. That message says that independence is desirable and achievable, and it is a right of all Indonesians. Yet on the national periphery such claims to independence are denied.
In combination with that residual sense of powerless in Indonesia’s body politic this leaves me wondering how, if the years ahead see new flags raised and polities populated with the right kind of people, which histories might be included and excluded in multiple variations of “Merdeka” across the archipelago.
* Thailand intermittently still tries the argument of adolescent naivety when questioned about their struggles with democracy. At over 80 years that is quite an adolescence.
I began writing a longer piece on this topic this afternoon, but life interrupted.
I’ve titled the post part I to compel me to write the more substantial part II, but in the interim I wish all Indonesians a great day.