Fulcrum: Putting the Spotlight on Southeast Asia


fulcrum /ˈfʊlkrə/, /ˈfʌlkrə/ ) ​(physics) the point on which a lever turns or is supported. ​[usually singular] the most important part of an activity or a situation.

As Fulcrum, the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s new analysis site, goes “live” for the first time today, we are truly seeing a Southeast Asian region filled with both opportunity and challenge. As the Dickensian turn of phrase goes, it seems to be going through “the best of times, the worst of times”, “the season of darkness … and the spring of hope”.

Indeed, the medium-term outlook for Southeast Asia looks uncertain. Festering Sino-US rivalry, lingering territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and growing economic issues arising from the global Covid-19 pandemic are but some of the contributing factors. With a Biden administration now slated for the White House, Southeast Asia looks to see if the US will be preoccupied with domestic divisions and politics, or if it will begin to renew ties with ASEAN member states and reaffirm its commitment to the region. Regardless, Southeast Asia will still be faced with the question of how it will manage the delicate balance of relations between the US and China, both of whom seek to win friends and influence people across the region.

If the world’s geopolitical weight has moved from West to East, the new geopolitical fulcrum could well be Southeast Asia.

On the bright side, the Southeast Asia region still has a lot going for it. With a population of 650 million and a combined GDP of US$2.8 trillion, the region is poised to become the world’s fourth largest market, after the US, China, and the European Union. It has a young and relatively well-educated workforce, abundant in natural resources, and is enjoying rapid urbanisation and steady infrastructure development. If the world’s geopolitical weight has moved from West to East, the new geopolitical fulcrum could well be Southeast Asia.

The internal dynamics of the region are similarly complex. The experiences of mainland Southeast Asia differ from maritime Southeast Asia, and so too their views of the world. Beyond the South China Sea, other flashpoints like water resources management, border disputes, proxy contests, religious fundamentalism and ethnic tension may occasionally send ripples racing across the region. High economic growth over decades have transformed urban centres from Jakarta to Manila, Singapore to Hanoi, Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur into cauldrons of contrasts, mixing up tech innovation, rising inequality, e-commerce and increasing religiosity.

Against this mosaic backdrop, Fulcrum will be a site for clear and sharp analysis of the region and its wider environment. It will be an intellectual platform for scholars, researchers, and policy experts to put across their perspectives to a global readership in order to deepen everyone’s understanding of this dynamic region.

I encourage all of you to watch this space!


Choi Shing Kwok is Director and Chief Executive Officer of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, and Head of ASEAN Studies Centre at the institute.