Being a global city is more than simply dominating an important industry or having a recognizable brand. Global cities have multifaceted economies, vibrant cultural environments, world-class universities, and lively atmospheres. They are hubs of an urbanizing world and influential players in geopolitics. Global connections and partnerships have the power to enhance these strengths.
Yet few cities have developed a cohesive global engagement strategy that integrates all local stakeholders—businesses, cultural institutions, universities, and NGOs, among others. Further, many organizations are globally connected through individual efforts, but do not coordinate with peers. There are interactions across sectors, like corporate philanthropy supporting the arts, education linkages with local governments, and connections between conference events and tourism. However, such activities are often inward-facing and purpose-specific, and not used to strengthen global city-to-city relationships.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ recent report, Chicago’s Global Strategy, provides a framework for how cities should coordinate global engagement across local sectors. The strategy’s four pillars of urban life—civic, commercial, educational, and cultural—provide avenues to establish substantive international relationships.
The megacities of Southeast Asia share many of Chicago’s global aspirations, strengths, and opportunities. Likewise, they are complex in challenging but promising ways. As these cities strive for global prominence, a deliberate, coordinated strategy could guide their efforts toward more integrated global engagement.
Going Global in Southeast Asia
Aside from Singapore, a city-state outlier, Bangkok, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, and Manila enjoy economic and political dominance in their respective countries, and are now aspiring to be influential beyond national borders. With a strategic approach, they can harness economic potential, stable governance, and resilient communities to deepen global engagement.
The below table compares these cities across the four pillars of the Council’s framework. Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Ho Chi Minh City excel, particularly on civic and commercial factors, while Manila, Hanoi, and Jakarta falter on other factors.
Civic Pillar: Infrastructure and Leadership
The civic pillar can be evaluated through numerous dimensions including mayoral leadership, public-private partnerships, governance autonomy, and public and community engagement. For the purposes of this analysis, looking at infrastructure—a crucial issue for rapidly developing cities—provides a lens for understanding how these dimensions intersect in cities.
On this measure, Bangkok excels, currently indulging in a spending binge on subway lines and expanding its young but already congested airport. Like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur enjoys investment support from a national government that recognizes the city’s economic contribution. In July 2017, Kuala Lumpur opened additional stops on a new metro line; at the ceremony, the Prime Minister declared the project a “game changer.” Ho Chi Minh City will soon open its first metro line, while Jakarta and Hanoi are at earlier stages. Manila already has rail transit but it suffers from overcrowding and deferred maintenance.
In addition to infrastructure, global engagement is a fundamental dimension of progressive urban leadership. There are numerous venues for mayors to engage globally, including issue-specific networks such as 100 Resilient Cities, C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, Urban SDG, Cities Alliance, and ICLEI, to name a few. All the above cities are members of C40. Bangkok and Jakarta are also members of 100 Resilient Cities.
Bangkok is a regional exemplar for global engagement on sustainability. According to the city’s governor, “in today’s world, cooperation within cities, as well as between cities, government authorities and regional and international organizations is critical.” Through 100 Resilient Cities, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration plans to collaborate with a variety of city-partners, including Danang on disaster response, Melbourne on resilience training, and Jakarta on resilience plan implementation.
Commercial Pillar: A Dynamic Economy
All cities perform relatively well on the commercial pillar. Southeast Asia enjoys a dynamic economy bolstered by a large and increasingly educated population, ambitious leadership, and persistent cost advantages in labor, land, and other production factors. The list of Southeast Asia’s largest companies by market capitalization, compiled by Nikkei Asian Review, is dominated by banking, communications, and consumer products, but most have largely regional markets. Southeast Asia is not known for producing highly visible “global” brands; Singapore Airlines and Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts (Malaysia) are among the most successful.
However, infrastructure development and worker up-skilling have competitively positioned the region within global supply chains. Further, as domestic firms seek urban clustering advantages such as shared infrastructure and knowledge spillovers, the region’s cities are assuming a dominant role in national and regional economic development. Only Hanoi, despite consistent growth, appears less competitive relative to the economic dynamism of its enterprising peer Ho Chi Minh City.
The 2016 Global Power City Index ranks Kuala Lumpur #22 in the economy component, which is measured by presence of global companies and localized GDP, among other metrics. Bangkok is ranked #30 and Jakarta #41. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s “Hot Spots 2025,” which measures urban competitiveness across economic, social, and governmental factors, ranks Kuala Lumpur #31, Bangkok #62, Jakarta #74, Manila #79, Ho Chi Minh City #96, and Hanoi #112. The report credits Jakarta for its global connectivity and rising economic strength, but also cautions about the city’s environmental and social challenges.
Education Pillar: Equalizing Opportunity
Higher education in Southeast Asia has been characterized by movements towards “massification” or universal access, privatization, and internationalization, according to a 2016 report by the HEAD Foundation. Global status and lofty international rankings are enjoyed by universities in Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and coastal China. However, there is a reputation gap between these universities and those in developing Southeast Asia.
Bangkok is the educational capital of Thailand, although its flagship universities (Chulalongkorn and Thammasat) fail to make the global top-500. The same is true of Kuala Lumpur. Ho Chi Minh City is home to a branch of Vietnam National University, in addition to hosting a remote campus of Australia’s RMIT and the recently formed Fulbright University Vietnam, a partnership with the United States. Metro Manila has several nationally respected universities (UP-Diliman, Ateneo de Manila, and De La Salle) but none ranks higher than 800 globally. Hanoi and Jakarta are similarly parochial in university status.
Aside from Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia lead the region in discipline-specific university strengths, dominated predictably by the hard sciences. Despite recent growth in research output in Southeast Asia, university rankings are lagging. This prevents cities from using universities as brand ambassadors to attract young and ambitious people from around the world, a role filled in major global cities by universities like NYU, University of Southern California, and London School of Economics.
Cultural Pillar: Vibrancy and Authenticity
Finally, cultural qualities are enormous strengths in this historic and diverse region. Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Hanoi perform well based on their international image as cultural destinations. The most visited city in the world, Bangkok is known for temples, spicy cuisine, and a vibrant street scene. The ninth most visited city in the world, Kuala Lumpur is a global draw with a particularly strong brand among Middle East and Gulf state tourists seeking open and vibrant holiday experiences. Hanoi boasts a deep cultural history with cache that Ho Chi Minh City lacks. Jakarta cedes cultural status to better known Yogyakarta and Bali. Despite its national art and history museums, and the historic Intramuros tourist site, Manila is not regarded internationally as a cultural capital or tourist destination. Finally, as a group, Southeast Asian cities typically perform poorly on various livability rankings, rarely breaking the top-100 globally. Making life good for residents as well as tourists is an aspiration of truly global cities.
A Call for Collective Action
Southeast Asia’s global cities have a mix of commercial, cultural, educational, and civic virtues that do not individually command global status but can collectively create multifaceted and economically resilient urban environments. These cities are global in practice, if not in image, skylines, or stock exchanges. A deliberate strategy that coordinates global engagement across local sectors could increase investment, tourism, and visibility, while improving the quality of life for residents. If Southeast Asia’s megacities seek influence and prominence during what will be an urban century, they need a focused and integrated approach to their global outreach.
Kris Hartley is a Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Melbourne, a Visiting Assistant Professor at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, and a nonresident fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.