Passports of Southeast Asia

written by A. L. Hart Havens on January 15, 2022

Seventy-six years after Winston Churchill’s 1946 appeal for the creation of a United States of Europe, the majority of the old continent’s territory and population has now indeed come under the yoke of a European superstate. And as Europe’s highly centralized government has exhibited an insatiable desire to stamp out the member states’ national sovereignty, the 27 countries of the European Union are now roughly equivalent to the 50 US states in terms of their de facto sovereign lawmaking powers.

However, there are still a number of meaningful differences among the EU’s member countries that could make the prospect of relocation within the bloc an appealing one. For example, similar to the way in which a New Yorker could relocate to Florida, a Swede seeking to escape high taxes, expensive prices, cold weather, and extreme political correctness could simply leave Sweden for Bulgaria.

Hence, it is important to avoid overlooking the valuable mobility-related benefits available within the European Union simply because of the dubious objectives and questionable methods of the EU central government.

Further, the European Union’s success in acting as a unified trade bloc has led other world regions — including South America (MERCOSUR) and the Caribbean (CARICOM) — to follow in its footsteps. And while these organizations have not yet achieved anywhere near the degree of integration of the European Union, they are slowly but surely moving in that direction.

This article will showcase Southeast Asia’s version of the European Union, a 10-country intergovernmental organization encompassing a combined population of 670 million that offers a certain degree of visa-free mobility and residency privileges throughout the bloc.

The 1967 Bangkok Declaration

In the early stages of American involvement in the Vietnam War, five countries in Southeast Asia — Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines — entered into a multilateral pact concerning security, economic, and other high-level matters. This 1967 Bangkok Declaration, which is widely viewed to have had its primary aim in curtailing communist expansion and insurgency in the region, set the foundation for what would later become the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

ASEAN remained a five-country bloc for 17 years before adding Brunei in 1984, and the end of the Cold War several years later paved the way for the admission of four new members in the 1990s — Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, and Cambodia. This brought ASEAN’s total membership to ten countries where it stands today, although Papua New Guinea and East Timor are currently seeking accession and Bangladesh, Fiji, and Sri Lanka have expressed interest in joining.

After functioning as a loosely defined alliance for its first 40 years, the 2008 ratification of the ASEAN Charter served to kickstart a deeper integration of the member countries for the purpose of creating a more economically, politically, and militarily formidable regional bloc capable of asserting itself on the global stage.

The member countries also signed the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty, making ASEAN one of five world regions declared completely free of nuclear weapons. Together, these five regions encompass the entire Southern Hemisphere (as described in the Liberated Services article entitled Doomsday Prepping in the Southern Hemisphere).

Interestingly, the Indonesian archipelago straddles the Equator and is the only one of the ten ASEAN countries with any territory extending into the Southern Hemisphere. Indonesia is also the country most severely affected by earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and monsoon floods (in addition to its fair share of poisonous animals), although these natural disaster threats are prevalent throughout the entire Southeast Asian region.

At 670 million, ASEAN accounts for around 9% of the entire world population, which is to a large extent attributable to Indonesia’s standing as the world’s fourth most populous country (270 million) behind only China, India, and the United States. The ASEAN headquarters is located in Jakarta, Indonesia — the organization’s most populous city.

ASEAN holds summits twice yearly and is currently pursuing initiatives aimed at enhancing regional food security, combatting transnational crime, improving natural-disaster response management, further reducing trade barriers, integrating member countries’ stock exchanges, increasing intra-bloc defense spending, and broadening the pan-ASEAN freedom-of-movement scheme to include more lucrative residency privileges.

A Comparison of ASEAN Member Countries

The stark disparities in the standard of living across ASEAN are reflected in the human development index, which is based on GDP per capita, life expectancy, and years of schooling. From highest to lowest in the human development index, the ASEAN countries rank as follows: Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar.

With regard to the countries’ predominant religions, five are Buddhist (Thailand, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar), three are Muslim (Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei), and one is Christian (Philippines), while traditional folk religions are most prevalent in another (Vietnam).

Furthermore, eight of ASEAN’s ten member countries are self-described capitalist or free-market economies. By contrast, Vietnam and Laos have communist-ruled governments featuring politburos, although Vietnam has introduced sweeping economic reforms in recent decades similar to those enacted in China. Laos, which is Southeast Asia’s sole landlocked country, still very much resembles a Cold War-era communist society with a centrally planned agrarian economy.

Singapore is the only ASEAN country in which English is the predominant language, and the variant spoken there is humorously referred to as Singlish. English holds the status of an officially co-recognized language in Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines.

English proficiency among the local population can be viewed as a major convenience for western expats, as the indigenous languages across the ASEAN region are extremely difficult to master due to their complex grammar, unfamiliar vocabulary, and daunting writing systems. This holds true particularly for Thai, Khmer, Lao, and Burmese, all of which have their own unique script. Vietnamese uses the Latin alphabet but is nonetheless considered to be a very challenging language to learn.

There are a few ASEAN languages viewed to be less difficult, however, and these are the standardized variants of Indonesian, Malaysian, and Filipino Tagalog, all of which use the Latin alphabet and feature relatively simple grammar and pronunciation. Indonesian, Malaysian, and Tagalog have each undergone a deliberate harmonization and simplification process for the purpose of creating lingua francas across each country’s many thousands of islands.

Additionally, these three countries have all retained significant remnants of languages from their colonial past, which include Spanish (Tagalog), Dutch (Indonesian), and English (Malaysian).

On the issue of law and order, the countries of the ASEAN bloc have a famously no-nonsense attitude that make nonviolent drug offenses punishable by death under certain circumstances. Lengthy prison sentences for crimes of any degree of severity are the norm throughout the bloc, although only half of the countries apply the death penalty in practice.

Cambodia and the Philippines are the only two ASEAN countries without capital punishment laws, although recent efforts have been made in the Philippines aimed at reinstating the death penalty. And while Myanmar, Laos, and Brunei have not carried out any executions in some time and are considered to have effectively abolished the death penalty, capital punishment laws are in full force in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand.

Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei also impose corporal punishment in the form of caning and flogging. This practice garnered significant media attention in 1994 when a Singaporean court convicted US citizen Michael Fay of multiple counts of auto vandalism and road-sign theft and sentenced him to a four-stroke caning followed by four months in prison and an approximate $2,500 fine.

Strangely, the ASEAN countries’ hard-knocks approach toward crime has done little to stop the large-scale opium-growing operations carried out in the tri-border region of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand. Colloquially termed the Golden Triangle, this mountainous landscape ranks among the world’s major heroin-producing regions alongside the Golden Crescent, which spans across sections of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran.

Despite these religious, economic, linguistic, and legal differences, the countries of Southeast Asia exhibit fairly similar cultural norms and a significant degree of intra-bloc cohesion. This can be seen in the adherence to the bloc’s highly-touted conflict-resolution approach termed The ASEAN Way, which seeks to foster a unified regional identity and is also the name of the ASEAN anthem.

Passports, Visas, and Residency Permits

The ASEAN countries issue a mixture of red (7), blue (2), and green (1) passports, none of which contain any reference to the organization on their covers. And as pertains to passport quality measured by international visa-free access, the differences among the 10 countries are striking.

This is evident in the 2022 rankings of the world’s 199 passports from most powerful (#1) to least powerful (#199), which — without accounting for any of the covid-related international travel restrictions enacted across the world over the past two years — show Singapore at #2, Malaysia at #35, Brunei at #49, Thailand at #111, Indonesia at #123, the Philippines at #132, Vietnam at #157, Cambodia at #160, Laos at #172, and Myanmar at #178.

In spite of the poor quality of the majority of these passports, the ASEAN countries have mutual visa-free travel agreements in place with one another that allow for durations of stay ranging from 14 to 30 days. The only exception to this rule is the Malaysia-Myanmar agreement, which requires citizens of Myanmar to obtain an e-visa prior to entering Malaysia (and vice-versa).

With regard to residency privileges, while the European Union allows member-country citizens to establish residency in any other EU country with relative ease, this is far from being the case in ASEAN. Rather, the intra-bloc mobility privileges afforded to ASEAN-country citizens can at best be described as a semi-free movement of skilled labor.

Certain workers in the medical, dental, nursing, engineering, architectural, accounting, surveying, and tourism industries with the requisite professional licenses, accreditations, and years of work experience may seek official recognition as a registered foreign professional across the ASEAN bloc and receive the right to reside indefinitely in any of ASEAN’s 10 member countries. The specific requirements vary across the aforementioned eight qualifying industries.

In practice, however, ASEAN countries have shown very little political will to foster the free movement of skilled labor. In fact, the poorer countries have expressed concern about losing their educated workforce while the wealthier countries have sought to prevent a flood of low-wage migrants. One tactic applied by some ASEAN countries aimed at stemming the free flow of people is to require all prospective migrants — including those who already hold equivalent professional licenses in their home countries — to pass difficult licensing exams prior to establishing residency.

Vaccines, Lockdowns, and Geopolitical Spheres of Influence

The ASEAN countries have imposed some of the most severe vaccination and lockdown policies across the entire world that have included unreasonable travel restrictions and threats of dire consequences for non-compliance with government mandates. The most notable example has unfortunately come from Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte, who has ostensibly now shifted the focus of his strongman tactics from combatting crime and terrorism to terrorizing the Filipino population. Tourists and residents of Indonesia’s ultra-popular island destination of Bali have faced similarly unpleasant threats and restrictions.

Further, the low resistance to government-imposed vaccination requirements across ASEAN can be attributed in part to the collective mindset prevalent in Asian cultures which places the utmost trust in a country’s leadership to provide for the good of the people.

And while this mindset can certainly serve to foster national unity, economic productivity, and very low rates of crime under competent and benign patronage, it is easy to see against the backdrop of today’s coronavirus hysteria how this blind obedience to government directives may end very badly for the people living in these countries.

In spite of these drawbacks, it is nonetheless worth exploring the geopolitical alignment of the ASEAN region as a whole, as this may provide some insight into the future direction of its member countries. In this regard, it should be emphasized that the coronavirus vaccines that a particular country honors serve as a decent barometer of that country’s geopolitical alignment.

All of the ASEAN countries honor at least one Chinese and one US vaccine and many of them also honor the Russian vaccine, which is not surprising in view of ASEAN’s stated pursuit of a strategy of non-alignment.

However, Chinese influence in the region, particularly on the bloc’s powerhouse Indonesia, is evidenced by the deep economic and trade ties forged over the past decade. The US government has expressed grave concerns about this development and sent Biden-appointed Secretary of State Tony Blinken to Jakarta in December 2021 for high-level meetings aimed at boosting US influence and reducing Chinese influence in the region. ASEAN has held separate military exercises together with the US and with the Chinese militaries in recent years.

Seemingly at the center of an intensifying US-Chinese tug-of-war, ASEAN opted in December 2021 to conduct joint naval drills with the Russian navy off the Indonesian coast, a move that it views as a clear reaffirmation of the bloc’s geopolitical non-alignment. These drills took place shortly before Blinken’s visit.

Now, it is certainly questionable as to whether a significant bloc of countries like ASEAN will be able to remain genuinely non-aligned in the face of the expansionary pressure emanating from the world’s pre-eminent superpowers. It is also questionable whether ASEAN will succeed in acting as a unified bloc on the geopolitical stage if specific countries are targeted with sweetheart deals by the US or Chinese governments. It would not be difficult to imagine a superpower seeking to create a deliberate rift within ASEAN if it sensed that its influence on the bloc was fading.

It is also possible that the ASEAN countries understand their importance in this empire-forging game and simply wish to be wooed with competing offers for lucrative trade deals and other perks. This, however, poses a serious risk of ASEAN territorial waters becoming the venue for a proxy war between the US and Chinese spheres of influence, with the possibility of Russian involvement adding a further degree of complexity.

With this in mind, the ASEAN countries are certainly worth keeping an eye on moving forward despite the fact that Southeast Asia is a rather unappealing residency destination for most libertarian-minded individuals at present.