The Regional Economies of ASEAN

The 10-members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are vastly different in terms of their size, level of economic development, religion, language and cultures. Within the larger member states, such as Indonesia, the Philippines or Vietnam, there are also great differences between regions. This post is a very brief analysis of the regional economies of ASEAN based on the data from Wikipedia’s List of ASEAN country subdivisions by GDP.

While there are some caveats to comparing regions (subdivisions), such as differences in population on geographic size and the fact that some economic areas cross domestic and international boundaries (think about SiJoRi, Singapore-Johor-Riau) and that Wikipedia’s list seems incomplete (where did Kelantan go?), the comparison nevertheless provides an idea about what the major economic centers of ASEAN are. The comparison uses Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) statistics to account for the often large differences in cost of living.

ASEAN’s Largest Metropolitan Economies

The list of ASEAN’s largest metropolitan economies is shown in the table below and lists Jakarta as the largest metropolitan economy (by far), followed by Singapore, Bangkok and Manila (all in the US$500-600 billion range) with Malaysia’s Klang Valley in #5 position. Immediately noticeable are the large differences in population size: Jakarta’s more than 33 million population compared to Singapore’s population of “only” 5.7 million.

At the bottom of the table, Surabaya (#2 in Indonesia) is similar in economic size to Ho Chi Minh City (#1 in Vietnam) and that Hanoi (#2 in Vietnam) is similar in size to Bandung (#3 in Indonesia).

Rank Metropolitan Region Population GDP-PPP (US$ billion)
1 Jakarta metropolitan area 33,926,330 978,490
2 Singapore 5,670,180 585,060
3 Bangkok Metropolitan Region 15,931,300 575,160
4 Greater Manila Area 25,766,930 528,440
5 Klang Valley (Kuala Lumpur) 8,026,970 372,560
6 Surabaya metropolitan area 9,885,400 250,460
7 Ho Chi Minh City metropolitan area 13,848,400 244,820
8 Hanoi Capital Region 9,957,100 144,810
9 Bandung metropolitan area 8,598,530 122,780
ASEAN’s largest metropolitan economies (2017-2019) — Wikipedia

ASEAN’s Most Prosperous Regions

Because of the large differences between metropolitan regions in terms of their population sizes, its also useful to have a look at GDP per capita (PPP). Here we look not only at the metropolitan areas but at all the regions listed on the Wikipedia page because smaller non-metropolitan regions can have high income levels.

As expected Singapore ranks #1, but its perhaps surprising that the city state is followed by Kuala Lumpur instead of Brunei, and then Jakarta and Bangkok. This suggests that there is a large concentration of high income in the capital cities of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

As one continues down the list East Kalimantan (#6) is next and then Eastern Thailand (#7). East Kalimantan is a largely rural province of Indonesia but has a large oil & gas sector and will be home to the new Indonesian capital. Eastern Thailand lies east of Bangkok and is home to, among others, the beach resort of Pattaya and Thailand’s newly launched Eastern Economic Corridor.

Next are four Malaysian states: Penang is home to a large electronics industry, Sarawak also has a small population and large oil & gas sector, Selangor borders the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur and Malacca is a small state, also home to an electronics industry. Samut Sakhon borders the Thai capital Bangkok. Negri Sembilan is still within a 1-hour driving range of the Malaysian captial and the aformentioned state of Malacca. The Riau Islands border Singapore. Samut Prakan also borders Bangkok.

Thus the high-income regions of ASEAN tend to either be major economic centers (e.g. Jakarta, Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur), are located near those large economic centers (e.g. Selangor, Samut Sakhon or Riau Islands) or have a large oil & gas sector (Brunei, East Kalimantan and Sarawak).

The exceptions to this rule are Malaysian states like Penang and Malacca, which are all located on the country’s West Coast and share historical and cultural similarities with Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

Notably absent from the list is Manila and also Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi: major metropolitan economies which are not among the more prosperous economic regions of ASEAN.

Rank Region GDP-PPP
per capita (US$)
1 Singapore 103,181
2 Kuala Lumpur 83,857
3 Brunei 80,383
4 Jakarta 62,549
5 Bangkok 46,056
6 East Kalimantan 40,833
7 Eastern Thailand 40,179
8 Penang 36,224
9 Sarawak 36,157
10 Selangor 35,624
11 Malacca 33,156
12 Samut Sakhon 33,009
13 Negeri Sembilan 29,761
14 Riau Islands 28,460
15 Samut Prakan 27,543
ASEAN’s Most Prosperous Regions (2017-2019) — Wikipedia

Final Thoughts

The vast regional differences within ASEAN countries are actually quite surprising. While Malaysia is home to Kuala Lumpur (GDP PPP per capita of US$84k) its also home to Kedah (GDP PPP per capita of US$15k), an income gap of more than 5 times! And even if Kuala Lumpur is seen as an extreme, income levels in Penang, which borders Kedah, are already twice as high as those in Kedah. Within Indonesia and Thailand you can find similarly large differences.

So while its often emphasized that income levels between Singapore and its neighbors are vast, they are also vast within countries, including in a relatively small country like Malaysia. Perhaps that’s the real story behind ASEAN’s economic diversity.