Vijay Eswaran Calls Out the Disparity in Quality of Life Within ASEAN Countries

Last Updated on: 22nd November 2023, 02:57 am

Since 1967, when just five national leaders signed a charter, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has grown to include 10 member states encompassing a total population of over 678 million. The unity brought about through ASEAN has led to increases in growth and opportunity for those living there, a feat that thought leader and philanthropist Vijay Eswaran credits to a concentrated effort in poverty reduction, especially since 2000. And while extreme poverty has been lessened for over 100 million people in the region, Eswaran continues to advocate for ASEAN members.

“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,” Eswaran wrote in the Manila Standard. “Disparities in life expectancy, job productivity, and education quality persist.”

Vijay Eswaran: ‘Important Question About the Disparity in Quality of Life’

Eswaran suggested that ASEAN has made a positive impact on the region but has far further to go when it comes to providing opportunities for improved health, education, and inclusion outcomes. The extremes are self-evident when exploring the quality-of-life statistics available for ASEAN nations. While Singapore ranks 25th in the world when it comes to quality of life, the Philippines places at a laggard 137th place. “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 ($136,000) in their bank accounts,” Vijay Eswaran pointed out. “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 health care, education, and social safety.”

While ASEAN works to promote unity in the region and make the area more accessible to tourism, countries continue to fall behind when it comes to social safety and cultural inclusion. Vijay Eswaran notes that Western tourists are journeying to ASEAN countries with increased frequency, but while tourist attractions receive attention from governments, local efforts to provide for citizens have fallen behind.

A proponent of advancing access to necessities for all people within the ASEAN region, Eswaran is concerned with the limitations around access to vital health care within the union. Arrangements between ASEAN nations should promote well-being and equitable access for all citizens, yet there remain major gaps in available offerings between different countries and communities. Notably, the costs for quality health care remain prohibitive for many individuals in ASEAN nations.

Eswaran suggested, “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, health care remains a big financial burden for many Filipinos despite the start of Universal Health Care (UHC).”

ASEAN and Education

Education is another area where the disparities between ASEAN nations abound. Eswaran points to the plummeting levels of literacy that hinder growth and advancement for countries like the Philippines. “In fact,” he wrote, “according to a recent assessment by the World Literacy Foundation, the illiteracy issue costs the nation’s economy an estimated P258 billion [pesos] 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.”

In contrast to the Philippines, Vietnam has made strides in providing more thorough and high-quality educational opportunities for its people, in part through dedicated public spending efforts. Yet other forms of education can also help ASEAN citizens improve their quality of life and chances for a better future.

Countries can benefit economically and become greater actors on the international stage by promoting the well-being, health, and education of their people. “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,” warned Eswaran. ASEAN continues to grow, including a gross domestic product that’s increased year over year since 2020, with the region ranking as one of the fastest-growing areas of the world in 2022.

Yet for ASEAN to remain competitive on a global scale in a restless economic climate, Vijay Eswaran believes the region must place greater focus on the quality of life of people who live there. This includes the development of country-specific strategies as well as broader coalition interventions that can improve everything from education to social welfare. By investing in the people of ASEAN, the area can continue to thrive while promoting, as Eswaran noted, “balanced, inclusive, and environmentally sustainable development in Southeast Asia.”

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