Should Australia join ASEAN?

Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating believes that Australia should join ASEAN. This is a call that he has repeated since the surprise victory of Donald Trump. There are concerns about whether or not Australia could join ASEAN – certainly this is something that requires more seriousness than, say, Eurovision participation – but as they say, where there’s a will there’s a way.

So, is there a will to include Australia in the ASEAN community? Political leaders will always have their own individualistic take on things, but I’m curious about how the common man feels about this fuzzy question. Personally I lack the means to carry out “rigorous polling” (whatever that even means anymore), but I do have a Twitter account and a few hundred bucks to spare. So with that, I ran a small experiment to gauge public sentiment for Australian membership into ASEAN.

Here’s what I found.

Twitter polling and targeting

The question posed was simple: “Should Australia join ASEAN?”: “Yes”/”No”. I wanted to compare sentiment in different countries. To achieve that I had to post 1 poll for each target country, then set up a separate Twitter promotion campaign targeting the desired countries: Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and The Philippines.

There were some frustrations to deal with, the biggest one being Twitter’s built-in spam-prevention mechanism that disallowed me from making the same post too often. Consequently, I had to stagger the launch of each poll. Each poll was open for 1 week, and the paid promotions ran for the entire week as well.

Then there was my own derpery – twice I set up a poll incorrectly, forgetting to change the default poll period from 1 day to 7 days. Those polls were quietly withdrawn and then re-run.

Since I was targeting different countries, I wondered if I should run the polls with different languages. However I decided that in this case the language was simple enough that any Twitter user should be able to understand the question.

I considered running multiple polls targeting finer demographics than just country: for instance I wondered about testing Malaysian English tweeters vs Malaysian Malay tweeters, but Twitter’s language detection doesn’t specifically support Malay – it does do Bahasa Indonesia, but I’m not sure how closely a match that would be for what I intended, so I decided to pass on this.

The country targeting was effective because I paid enough such that only a trivial proportion of the views on each tweet were organic. Usually this is undesirable because organic views are “free”, but in this case having almost total inorganic views was desirable because it ensured that almost all poll respondents were in the target country. I did also check the campaign stats to make sure impressions were from each expected country. My pitiful 330 followers did not skew the results.

Something else I learned from this exercise: Twitter is not available in Vietnam. That was a surprise to me.

The results

In the back of my mind I did wonder if from a South East Asian perspective, Australia was perceived as so out of character with South East Asia that the idea of Australia being part of ASEAN was simply crazy, such that the poll would be pointless. I was prepared to pull the promotion campaigns after a few days to save my money if the results streaming in were a resounding “No”, but the results turned out to be rather close.

Australia:

Singapore:

Indonesia:

The Philippines:

Malaysia:

Thailand:

The number of respondents varied between 907 in Australia (Aussie impressions are expensive!) and 3714 in Malaysia. But it should be noted that the response rates in all cases were low (ranging from 3.4% in Australia and Thailand to 10.7% in Malaysia). I’m not sure how to interpret this: it could be that most people don’t care or just don’t have an opinion about Australia joining ASEAN. The dynamics of Twitter’s UI could be a factor as well, it’s rather easy to just slide through the timeline. Viewers are not really prompted very strongly for an answer.

In summary, majority Yes on “Should Australia join ASEAN”:

  • Singapore
  • Malaysia
  • Thailand
  • The Philippines

Majority “No” on “Should Australia join ASEAN”:

  • Indonesia
  • Australia

It warms my heart to find that Australia and Indonesia have once again found common ground on something. Unfortunately, that common ground seems to be that they prefer to have as little as possible to do with each other.

Looking at the response rates, one can also make out 2 clusters. Target countries with lower response rates:

  • Australia: 3.4%
  • Thailand: 3.4%
  • The Philippines: 3.7%

Target countries with not-as-low response rates:

  • Indonesia: 7.0%
  • Singapore: 8.6%
  • Malaysia: 10.7%

I don’t know what to make of this. It could be that Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singaporean respondents are more opinionated on the topic, or simply more inclined to engage with Twitter polls.

Qualitative tid-bits

Some Twitter users, in addition to (or perhaps instead of) voting on the poll, responded with comments. Here are some of the ideas expressed:

  • Fear that ASEAN is a “proto-EU” type of organization, and therefore something that Australia should avoid.
  • Australian membership in ASEAN may be an economic win, but would dilute the identity of the ASEAN community.
  • Visa-free travel to Australia was of interest to a few people.
  • If Australia were to join ASEAN, why not New Zealand as well?
  • Australia is in Oceania, not South East Asia, so there’s no basis to the idea of ASEAN membership.

Caveats, and where to next?

It almost feels trite documenting caveats for the results discussed here. At best this ought to be considered a straw poll. There was no proper sample selection, the respondent pool was Twitter users with all the bias that implies, and I didn’t even run the polls over the same time frame. No, this was not rigorous, and so the findings are not definitive.

But the fact that the results leave so much room for interpretation and comparison, I feel, reflects that the topic if fertile ground for followup rigor and effort. The question of Australian membership in ASEAN, with all the challenges, opportunities, and change that it would bring, is a subject worthy of serious exploration.

The sort of followup exploration I have in mind is not to run more comprehensive and rigorous polling. Instead I think a more useful approach would be deeper contemplation of “what if” scenarios. What if Australia was to join ASEAN within a decade: how would that relate to the apparently inevitable collapse of the TPP? What would it mean for the security of the South China Sea? What would it mean for the overall security of the region if ASEAN included a FVEY member? What would ASEAN membership mean for Australia’s own border? What would it mean for the “brain drain” phenomenon suffered by many ASEAN countries, often to Australia’s benefit? What would it mean for cross-border business, e.g. Malaysians buying property in Melbourne, and Aussies buying tech startups in Jakarta?

From Australia’s perspective, apparently the prevailing belief is that the huge effort required to make Australian membership in ASEAN a reality, is simply not worth it. Of course, that assessment was made before the prospect of a more isolationist USA, and furthermore it may have assumed a baseline narrative of Australia not being “invited” in the first place. It could be an altogether different proposition if a significant portion of ASEAN’s population would see Australia’s inclusion  as something positive. I think it’s certainly worth imagining. Perhaps it could be worth the effort.

au_asean_infographic

Infographic summarizing key results

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