Understanding the Southeast Asian Economies

Overview of ASEAN

ASEAN Member States map

Southeast Asia is already an economic bloc of global importance and the future looks bright.

The 10 countries comprising the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) have a total population of over 625 million and are estimated to have attained a total GDP of about $2.4 trillion in 2013, placing the group within the top 10 global economies ranked by Purchasing Power Parity (PPP).

However, looking at ASEAN as a cohesive economic bloc is misleading. There are widely disparate populations, population densities and incomes, both between the nations and within them.

This post will look at each of the countries in somewhat more depth, to assist companies new to the region to gain a high level understanding of each country’s relative strengths and weaknesses.

Here’s a highly subjective grouping of the ASEAN countries in terms of their populations and annual per-capita GDPs (figures from 2013, GDP at PPP).

High GDP per capita, low population states

  • Singapore (5.4 million population, US$65,064 GDP per capita)
  • Brunei (406 thousand population, US$53,017 GDP per capita)

Middle GDP per capita, medium population states

  • Malaysia (30 million population,US$17,541 GDP per capita)
  • Thailand (68.3 million population, US$9,873 GDP per capita)

High population, low GDP per capita states

  • Indonesia (248.8 million population, US$5,133 GDP per capita)
  • Philippines (99.4 million population, US$4,546 GDP per capita)
  • Viet Nam (89.7 million population, US$4,026 GDP per capita)
  • Myanmar (61.6 million population, US$1,835 GDP per capita)

Low population, low GDP per capita states

  • Cambodia (15 million population, US$2,653 GDP per capita)
  • Lao PDR (6.6 million population, US$3,127 GDP per capita)

Some observations on ASEAN economic dynamism

The outliers here are clearing Singapore, a city-state with GDP per-capita easily outpacing all of the G8 countries and ahead of even smaller countries such as Switzerland and Norway. It’s easy to understand why Singapore is the destination of choice for companies new to the region. The infrastructure and general comfort level make it an easy place for foreigners to assimilate. At the same time, it’s far removed from the economic and social realities of the rest of ASEAN.

On the other hand, Indonesia is the 4th most populous country in the world and represents an enormous consumer economic opportunity.

In terms of potential, Myanmar is the last large country to have liberalized its economy and there is currently a virtual feeding frenzy, especially from the other ASEAN countries.


One of the most profound shifts in economic leadership is the emergence of the “ASEAN Five” economies of Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Viet Nam. Together, they are poised to surpass the total GDP of the four “Asian Tiger” economies of South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong.

As recently as 10 years ago, the ASEAN Five comprised less than half of the GDP of the four Asian Tigers.

This is the biggest shift in Asia’s economic rankings since China’s GDP overtook Japan’s about 4 years ago.

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