How much do Southeast Asians care about environmental and social issues?

A new study finds deep concern for environmental and social issues in Southeast Asia, with youth, gender and affluence key factors influencing how strongly people feel. Filipinos seem to care the most, Singaporeans the least.

A gay pride march in the Philippines.
A gay pride march in the Philippines. Filipinos feel very strongly about social issues, according to GlobalData's September survey of more than 20,000 people. Image: Adrian Dutch/Flickr

Concern for social and environmental issues such as gender equality and environmental protection varies significantly across Southeast Asia, with age, gender and affluence key factors, according to a study by analytics firm GlobalData.

The percentage of people who say that environmental issues are extremely important to them ranges from 77 per cent in the Philippines, to just 32 per cent in Singapore.

Environmental issues are also a lot more important to Indonesians (64 per cent say they’re extremely important) and Thais (59 per cent) than to Malaysians (49 per cent), the global study of 23,000 people, published in September, found.

Support for sexual orientation equality, or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA+ ) rights also varies greatly among Southeast Asia’s six biggest nations. Respondents generally showed the least sympathy for gender orientation equality. While per cent of 40 per cent of Thais and 59 per cent Filipinos say gender orientation rights are extremely important to them, the issue is far less important to Indonesians (18 per cent), Malaysians (15 per cent), and Singaporeans (12 per cent). 

Racial equality also prompts diverse views, with Filipinos, Thais, Indonesians and Vietnamese more likely to rally behind movements such as Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate than Malaysians and Singaporeans.

Filipinos are the most concerned people in Southeast Asia about every social and environmental issue in GlobalData’s study.

% of people who say these issues are 'extremely important' to them.

Percentage of people who say these issues are ‘extremely important’ to them [click to enlarge]. Source: GlobalData

Marian Ledesma, a Manila-based campaigner for Greenpeace, an environmental protection group, said that the findings were unsurprising. The impacts of climate change can be seen daily in the Philippines, and less social protection and public resources mean Filipinos feel climate impacts acutely.

“Nature has connections to, or implications for, our food, livelihoods, health, transport and people’s general wellbeing. Because of that, Filipinos’ lived experience and intensified hardships due to environmental issues play a huge role in influencing the Filipino consciousness about environmental protection,” she said.

The Covid-19 pandemic has magnified societal problems, and young people have been pushing the government for a society that upholds democratic principles, and supports environmental protection and social concerns, she said.

The findings echo those of a study 10,000 people aged 16 to 25 by scientific journal Lancet, published in September, which found that 45 per cent of this demographic globally said that climate change is negatively affecting how they eat, concentrate, work, sleep, play, and deal with relationships. This proportion went up to 75 per cent in the Philippines.

GlobalData’s research found that Singaporeans are the least concerned about these issues, with about one in five people from the city-state very concerned about the environment. 

This could be because Singapore is relatively sheltered from the impacts of extreme weather conditions, and because it is easy to live disconnected from nature in the highly urbanised city-state, said Xinying Tok, co-founder and director of Climate Conversations, a climate change awareness group in Singapore. 

The study also found that the wealthier consumers are, the more likely they are to buy brands that support social causes, use ethical supply chains and use green packaging. Although, Singapore, which has the highest gross domestic product per capita in the Southeast Asia region, bucks this trend. 

Singaporeans are the least likely in Southeast Asia to show loyalty to brands that support human rights or environmental issues, and are the least concerned if a brand aligns with their personal values, the study found. Indonesians are the most likely to stick with a brand that backs good causes.

Tok said that the gap in concern between social issues and environmental issues in Singapore shows that civic society groups still have work to do in communicating how environmental destruction is a social issue that disproportionately harms the poor.

“In Singapore we’re able to see well publicised examples of government taking action on the climate crisis. What we can’t see so easily is how, for example, the less well-off who cannot escape the health impacts of increased heat and humidity, or of haze events exacerbated by banks that finance deforestation,” she said.

Southeast Asians feel more strongly about the environment than any other issues in the study and more so than the global average, with 56 per cent of the regional bloc’s population saying environmental issues are extremely important, compared to 48 per cent globally.

This could be because of the region’s vulnerability to climate change. Average temperatures in Southeast Asia have risen every decade since 1960, and Vietnam, the Philippines, and Thailand are among 10 countries in the world most affected by climate change in the past 20 years, according to the Global Climate Risk Index.

The study found that younger people are more likely to support social and environmental issues than older generations.

Regionally, women are more likely to feel strongly about these issues than men, with female support much higher than male support for gender equality and animal rights.

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