COVID-19 Op-ed

COVID-19 and Southeast Asian Policy Responses: Rethinking the ‘Human Side’ of the Pandemic

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Guanie Lim and Chan-Yuan Wong

Guanie Lim is Research Fellow at the Nanyang
Centre for Public Administration, Nanyang Technological University,
Singapore. His main research interests are comparative political economy,
value chain analysis, and the Belt and Road Initiative in Southeast Asia.
Guanie is also interested in broader development issues within Asia,
especially those of China, Vietnam, and Malaysia. In the coming years, he
will be conducting comparative research on how and why China’s capital
exports are reshaping development in two key developing regions – Southeast
Asia and Middle East and North Africa. He can be reached at
Chan-Yuan Wong is Associate Professor at
National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan. His research interests are economics
of technology catching-up, science and public policy and regional innovation
systems in Asia. He can be reached at
Southeast Asia struggles to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in
2020, various social distancing measures were rolled out aggressively across
the region. The measures, however, were costly as workplaces were shuttered
and employees furloughed. To reflate the rapidly slowing economy, aggressive
pump-priming policies were implemented in quick succession. Thus far,
policymaking focus in the region has been primarily on job preservation –
extending financing support to firms and individuals alike (Khor and Strauch,
2020).With many of the regional economies entering (or about to enter)
recession, recovery to pre-COVID-19 levels will take time. While we laud the
quick actions of the region’s healthcare workers and policymakers, we would
like to also raise awareness on the situation’s ‘human side’. Notwithstanding
the dismal economic performance indicators, we cannot forget that what is
fundamentally at stake here are people, often from the most vulnerable
segments of society.Unpacking the
Firstly, COVID-19 affects the disadvantaged
disproportionately more than the rest. Although it is fairly common to
conceptualize the disadvantaged versus privileged divide along income lines,
what often goes unmentioned is the way such inequalities play out along
spatial dimensions. For example, as universities adopt digital, off-site
learning, it is inevitable that students living in remote areas with poor
infrastructure struggle more with this development than those in urbanized
areas. In the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah, a university student who went
out on a limb –  going as far as climbing a tree –  to ensure she
had good internet connection to sit her exams online has impressed many with
her resourcefulness (BBC, 2020). Neither is this divide absent in an urban
area. In the Philippines, years of internal migration from provincial job
seekers into Metro Manila has created urban slums with poor hygiene
standards. Following the onset of COVID-19, the city has been stretched to
the limit, with fears of a collapse of the healthcare system from soaring
infections (Reuters, 2020).Secondly, the pandemic has exposed the limits of
how our growth model has been fuelled partly by a dependence on semi-skilled
labour. Southeast Asia’s rather high mobility of labour means that many of us
have grown dependent on importing labourers (usually from adjacent lower cost
economies), often to undertake professions that the locals shun (Kanchoochat,
2017). Compounding the issue is the porous border control of some of the
region’s economies, leading to a large ‘shadow’ labour force keeping
labour-intensive, low-wage (but critical) industries afloat. Examples include
the Malaysian palm oil industry and the Thai textile industry (Wong and Lim,
2020). Despite inadequate paperwork and workplace welfare, this particular
labour pool has developed an almost symbiotic relationship with their host
economies over the decades. Hard hit by the crisis, these labourers have
struggled to make ends meet, in addition to an inability to retreat to their
countries of origin, when workplaces and borders shut down.Way ForwardWe
propose two inter-related approaches in tackling as well as moving on from
COVID-19. Firstly, we suggest a more ‘spatial’ perspective in tackling
development issues. To this end, we encourage policymakers and researchers to
‘look beyond the numbers’, adopting a more unorthodox manner in analysing
development-related subjects such as infrastructure provision and income
redistribution. Although the overall aim is to raise living standards, the
reality is that socioeconomic gains tend to be highly uneven, with the less
privileged (e.g. those in the rural areas and ghettoized parts of a highly
urbanized zone) getting disproportionately less. These structural factors
have always been present, but have to be more carefully unpacked as we move
forward. A useful policy avenue is to consider more decentralized governance,
shifting responsibilities down to the local level authorities and moving away
from the ‘top-down’ approach of yesteryears (Malesky and Hutchinson,
2016).Lastly, there is an urgent need to rethink labour needs with reference
to the region’s vastly different stages of economic development. For each of
the Southeast Asian economies, we have to understand the root causes behind
the avoidance of certain professions and address them appropriately. If large
numbers of foreign, semi-skilled workers are still required, then there is a
need to ensure proper documentation and records. Done correctly, the hitherto
‘shadow’ labour force can be gradually formalized into the relevant
demography, which facilities long-term industrial planning. In addition,
long-overdue welfare measures can be introduced for this vulnerable
(2020). Malaysian Student Sits Exams in a Tree to ensure Good Wifi.
BBC. Available at:,
V. (2017). ‘Towards a Southeast Asian Variety of Capitalism?’ In
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, edited by B.T. Khoo, K. Tsunekawa and M. Kawano,
277-295. Cham: Springer.Khor, H.E. and Strauch, R. (2020). Why Asia and
Europe Are Responding to the Same Crisis Differently. Project
. Available at:,
E. and Hutchinson, F. (2016). Varieties of Disappointment: Why Has
Decentralization Not Delivered on Its Promises in Southeast Asia?
Journal of Southeast Asian Economies, 33(2):
125-138.Reuters. (2020). Philippines to Update COVID-19 Strategy as
Healthcare Workers Seek ‘Timeout’. Reuters. Available
C.-Y. and Lim, G. (2020). A Typology of Agricultural Production Systems:
Capability Building Trajectories of Three Asian Economies. Asia
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, 61(1): 37-53. doi:10.1111/apv.12220

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