If you are scanning today’s uncertain global economy for stories of encouragement, then look no further than Malaysia. For just as the famous Petronas Towers shine above its capital, Kuala Lumpur, this diverse, federal Southeast Asian country of over 31 million people stands out for its resilient and robust economic performance. Can the country keep up this promising performance and achieve its ambitious goals?

©Damir Sagolj/Reuters

For Thailand’s capital of Bangkok, and its surrounding five provinces, green cities are a matter of survival. And with extreme rainfall and summer heatwaves becoming the norm, Bangkok must adapt and develop climate resilience, or risk disappearing.

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Real GDP growth slowed in most of the emerging economies in Asia in 2014 and remained subdued in 2015, the Economic Outlook for Southeast Asia, China and India 2016 says. In fact, most countries in the region recorded slower growth in 2015 than in 2014–the exceptions being Brunei Darussalam, Thailand, Viet Nam and India. China and the ASEAN region recorded their slowest growth since the start of the global financial crisis. 

©Thomas Muncke/DPA/DPA Picture Alliance/AFP

U Chit Po is 49 years old and runs a grocery store in Myanmar. He is responsible for his wife and two children. He recently had a major health scare and consequently would like to retire soon. U Chit Po has no medical coverage, as there is no licence for the health insurance market in Myanmar. His income consists of profit from his small business and interest on loans to others, which he lends at 20% interest per day. He has never saved in a formal banking institution, but his knowledge about the value and complexities of saving are highly sophisticated. He feels that banks have so much red tape, especially for provisions which he might need to access at short notice, and the interest offered by banks on savings is so little that it is not worth the hassle.

A truck drives through a special economic zone near Yangon and pas the flags of Myanmar and Japan, which has been a strong supporter of the OECD Southeast Asia Programme ©Soe Than Win/AFP

Southeast Asia, with more than half-a-billion people, is among the fastest growing regions in the world. However, levels of growth and prosperity within the region are very uneven. 

After decades of economic isolation, Myanmar has boldly re-entered the global market with a wide range of policy reforms intended to court foreign trade and investment. Reforms range from improvements in infrastructure, to food security and agricultural growth, to monetary and financial sector transformations. Rich in natural resources and a young labour force, the country of over 60 million people once called the “rice bowl’’ of Asia stands to gain much from opening its economy to the world.

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Will this be Asia’s century? When it comes to growth and social progress, there have been heady leaps forward, with every prospect of continued dynamism over the next five years. But according to the Southeast Asian Economic Outlook 2013, if there is a blot on the map, it is in tackling poverty and the wide development gaps that bedevil the continent.

Will China’s growth slowdown last and what does it mean for the rest of us?

©Reuters/Jason Lee

Asia’s Challenges

The forces driving Asia’s rapid growth–new technology, globalisation, and market-oriented reform–are also fuelling rising inequality. Some income divergence is inevitable in times of fast economic development, but that shouldn’t make for complacency, especially in the face of rising inequality in people’s opportunities to develop their human capital and income-earning capacity.

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The rise of IT and the Internet have been boons to Asia, but not everyone has benefited. There are challenges to overcome, not least in the area of governance.

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