Even before the arrival of Europeans, Southeast Asia was part of the global trading system, with spices being the major export commodity of the region. China and India played a very important role in boosting the economy of the region during this time. The arrival of Europeans and the effects of imperialism triggered a shift in the production of commodities in Southeast Asia, but little of the profits reaped from the thriving trade actually reached the native inhabitants of the region. Although agriculture has historically been the mainstay of the Southeast Asian economy, manufacturing and services are now becoming more significant. Southeast Asia has a diverse set of economies ranging from the highly developed, like Singapore, to rapidly developing ones, like Indonesia, as well as stagnant economies like Myanmar. A list of some of the richest and poorest countries in Southeast Asia in presented below.
The Three Richest Southeast Asian Economies
The city-state of Singapore is the richest economy in Southeast Asia when ranked in terms of GDP per capita. The country has a highly developed market economy, which ranks towards the top on global lists of the freest and most competitive economies. Singapore is considered to be one of the least corrupt nations of the world and is ranks first on the list of easiest places to do business. With its negligible corruption rate, advanced infrastructure, easy access to the sea, and highly skilled workforce, there is never a lack of foreign investment in Singapore, and over 7,000 multinational companies operate within the country. Non-Singaporeans constitute about 44% of the workforce here. The low tax rate has also increased its popularity as a tax haven, and Singapore hosts the highest percentage of millionaires in the world.
A small Southeast Asian nation located on the northern coast of the island of Borneo, Brunei is the second wealthiest economy in the region in terms of GDP per capita. About 90% of Brunei's GDP depends on oil and natural gas production. The country receives substantial foreign investments that supplement the income of the nation. Income from agriculture contributes only 0.7% to the GDP, while incomes from the industrial and services sectors account for 73.3% and 26% of Brunei’s GDP, respectively. The country relies heavily on imports for its food requirements. The country's main industries include petroleum and natural gas, as well as construction. Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, and New Zealand are the top export partners of Brunei.
Malaysia is the third richest Southeast Asian country in terms of GDP per capita. The country has a newly industrialized market economy, with significant influence from the state. The Malaysian economy was ranked as the 20th most competitive between 2014 and 2015. The country has one of the fastest growing economies in the region and is rapidly approaching its target of becoming a developed economy. Although the Malaysian economy has historically heavily relied on agriculture, the sector now contributes only 7.1% to the country's the GDP. Industry accounts for 36.8% of the national GDP, while the services sector is the biggest contributor, accounting for 56.2% of national GDP. Tourism is also heavily promoted in the country to increase the GDP of the nation. Some of the top exports from Malaysia include palm oil, liquefied natural gas, rubber, machinery, and chemicals. Malaysia was ranked as the world’s third-best place for retirement between 2013 and 2014.
The Three Poorest Southeast Asia Economies
Myanmar, also known as Burma, has the poorest economy in Southeast Asia. The country had a highly stagnant and isolated economy for decades, but the current government is attempting to create positive economic change in Myanmar. Adequate infrastructure and a large skilled workforce are both lacking in the nation. in 2012, 37% of the nation's population was unemployed and 26% lived below the national poverty line. Agriculture serves as the primary sector, and contributes 70% to the national GDP. Industries and services account for only 8% and 22% of the national GDP, respectively. Burma also receives one of the lowest levels of international aid in the world, at only $4 per capita.
The second poorest Southeast Asian nation in terms of GDP per capita is Cambodia. Cambodia was previously categorized as a Least Developed Country, but its status was promoted to Lower Middle Income in 2016. The agricultural, industrial, and services sectors account for 34.7%, 24.3%, and 41.0% of the national GDP of Cambodia, respectively. As of 2012, 18.6% of the Cambodian population live below the poverty line, and 3.5% of the population is unemployed.
3. East Timor
The Maritime Southeast Asian nation of East Timor is the third poorest economy in Southeast Asia. With a ranking of 133, East Timor is low on the Human Development Index. 20% of the national population of East Timor is unemployed, 49.9% live below the poverty line, and nearly half of the population lack literacy. One of the prime reasons for these outcomes is East Timor's decades-long struggle for independence from Indonesia. Soap manufacturing, handicrafts, and printing are some of the nation's main industries. Marble, coffee, sandalwood are the country's top exports.