COVID-19 Op-ed

COVID-19: New Geopolitical Order in the Making

Written by admin

Truston YuResearch Assistant,
Department of Politics and Public Administration, the University of Hong

Southeast Asia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is
disappointing at best and ridiculous at worst: Indonesian Health Minister
Terawan Agus Putranto credited prayers for Indonesia’s initial “immunity” to
COVID-19 (The
Jakarta Post, 2020
); In Malaysia the Women and Family Ministry told
housewives to speak to their husbands in Doraemon’s voice (CNA,2020).
This pandemic exposes the weaknesses of Southeast Asian governments and
underlying tensions in societies. The course of Southeast Asia’s development
will be altered permanently.

“Coronaracism” and the Clash of

Needless to say, the phenomenon of Coronaracism shows
that the pandemic has exacerbated racism against Chinese-looking people. One
might assume that only the Mandarin-speaking populations of Singapore (BBC,
) and Taiwan would be at risk, yet the assault of a Thai
consultant in Britain (Bangkok
Post, 2020
) shows that the phenomenon of Coronaracism affects not
only ethnic Chinese but also East Asians in general.While Asians are
negatively associated with the origins of the outbreak, the ill-suited
responses (BBC,
) of the West are far from impressive. Brexit and Trump’s
election signifies the rise of conservatism across the globe; and in Asia
“universal” values are being rejected and dismissed as “Western”. This is a
vindication of the Clash of Civilizations thesis, famously proposed by
American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington in his 1993 article. He
stated that the next world war, if there will be one, will be a war fought
based on cultural differences instead of ideology. There is already an
ongoing discourse on a new Cold War (Oxford Union,
), this pandemic further highlights the differences between
peoples.Perhaps an even more worrying trend is that the fault line that
divides people does not only run along Southeast Asia, but cuts within the
region as well. In Indonesia, long-running sentiments against the ethnic
Chinese are being exploited. A Jakarta-based think tank warned that “Islamic
State affiliates are using the coronavirus to stoke existing anti-Chinese
sentiments” within the country (SCMP,

Domestic Tensions

The pandemic is a
litmus test for the public health system and crisis management capabilities
of Southeast Asian governments. It has also revealed weaknesses or structural
problems in certain societies.Decentralized or federal political systems like
Indonesia and Malaysia are put to test. In late March, there appears to be a
disagreement between the President and the Governors of Jakarta and West Java
province on public health measures, which the Jakarta Post called a “turf
war” (The
Jakarta Post, 2020
). In Malaysia, travels between Malaya and the
eastern regions of Sabah and Sarawak were restricted, though measures were
introduced (The
Star, 2020
) to allow people to return to their home states. Most
notably, the Pakatan Harapan coalition government collapsed during the
pandemic, complicating the situation.On the other hand, it is alarming to see
certain heads of government using draconian measures and even exploiting this
pandemic to suppress dissidents. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen initially
downplayed the risk of the outbreak and used this to display his loyalty to
China, even flying into Beijing himself (Khmer
Times, 2020
). Human Rights Watch accused him of using the pandemic
to expand his powers, calling his Emergency Bill a “Recipe for Dictatorship”
Rights Watch, 2020
). Just a week later in April, a reporter was
jailed for quoting Hun Sen on the outbreak. In response to a Quezon city
protest by residents over a food shortage, Philippine President Rodrigue
Duterte ordered the military and police to “shoot them dead” (Foreign
Policy, 2020
).Even Singapore, which was praised alongside Taiwan
for their initial success in containing the virus, had to step up its circuit
breaker measures. The large population of migrant workers, which has been the
forgotten and most vulnerable segment of society, proved to be the weakness
in the country’s combat against the pandemic (The
Straits Times, 2020
). In a month’s time, the number of confirmed
cases in Singapore skyrocketed from less than a thousand to over 15,000 cases
Straits Time, 2020
). A vast majority of the new cases are from
worker dormitories.


This pandemic exacerbates
racism against Southeast Asians. While it is important to acknowledge this
reality of an increasingly hostile world for people of the Far East, we must
not make this world even more divisive than it already is.This pandemic also
exposes flaws within certain Southeast Asian countries, threatening the
weakest population and in some cases, the very notion of democracy and human
rights as well. It is up to the people and the governments to decide how
their society should be reformed in the wake of this crisis. Those which seek
to keep business activities in operation through downplaying the severity of
the pandemic will likely end up suffering even bigger economic losses.“Every
man for himself” best describes the current state of ASEAN “cooperation”. In
such divisive times, it is imperative that Southeast Asians remain united as
a people, and that our countries remain united as a


Marchio Irfan Gorbiano and Rizki
Fachriansyah (17 February 2020), ‘It’s our nation’s right to rely on the
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attack, BBC. Retrieved from
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Americans to wear masks, BBC. Retrieved from
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quarantine in their own states, The Star. Retrieved from
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Dictatorship, Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from
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on COVID-19, Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from
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Dead’, Foreign Policy. Retrieved from
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centre of Singapore’s attention, The Straits Times. Retrieved from
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