October 2, 2023

Focus on... South East Asia

A vibrant economic hub, South East Asia’s highly trade-engaged economies include Singapore and Indonesia, offering the UK ample opportunities for economic expansion as Britain eyes post-Brexit trade deals, writes Sasha Wood.

Driving trade with South East Asia is a clear priority for the UK, especially post-Brexit. The UK government has been busy strengthening relations with the diverse region, which includes modern metropolises such as Singapore, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, as well as emerging economies in Vietnam and to a lesser-extent the Philippines.

These countries rank as the third largest Asian investor in Britain, contribute more to global growth than any other region, and are set to become the world’s fourth largest economy by 2030.

A diverse region of the world with a young population, at the heart of global trade routes and with promising prospects for the future, South East Asia is ripe for UK investment and new trade. In 2017, no less than 15 UK government ministers visited one or more South East Asian nations in a bid to curry economic favour.

Among the visitors was former UK Minister for International Trade, Greg Hands, who attended last year’s South East Asian leaders trade summit in Singapore in an attempt to bolster trade ties with the region, which is now home to four of the world’s fastest-growing economies, including Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.

In fact, the UK already has a firm foothold in South East Asia. Economic Development Board statistics show that more than 4,000 British companies have a presence in Singapore alone, including global giants Rolls Royce, Standard Chartered, HSBC, Barclays, GSK, Dyson, Shell and BP.

A more recent meeting between UK Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific, Mark Field, and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretary General, Dato Lim Jock Hoi, reaffirmed the UK’s strong commitment to forging a stronger partnership with ASEAN as a bloc, building on the foundations of the already strong bilateral relationships across South East Asia. Britain traded £32billion worth of goods with South East Asia in 2016, and according to Mark Field: “UK investment in South East Asia exceeds UK investment in China and India combined, and the region is a growing and important source of investment into the UK.

“UK exports to South East Asia rose 19% in 2017 alone,” he adds. Britain is also considering a bilateral free trade agreement with Singapore given the trading relationship and shared history between the two countries, and has also entered into trade discussions to expand trade with Malaysia.

A free trade agreement between the UK and the Association of South East Asian Nations is also said to be in the offing. This would present UK businesses with strong prospects in the region – from basic to hi-tech industry and services. FinTech, green finance, developing smart cities, cyber security, education and increased defence co-operation are among the likely areas of focus and opportunity for future business cooperation between the UK and ASEAN.

Meanwhile, growing economies such as Vietnam and Indonesia already make use of the UK’s expertise in manufacturing and infrastructure development. The UK has also launched two new UK programmes supporting ASEAN priorities for economic reform and low carbon energy, and engaging the UK private sector in its interests in South East Asia. According to the Asian Develop-ment Outlook 2019, growth in South East Asian economies remains steady, providing stable conditions for future co-operation on trade.

“Strong consumption, spurred by rising incomes, stable inflation, and robust remittances is underpinning growth in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, as is foreign investment in Cambodia and Vietnam,” says the report. UK businesses – and government – should strike while the iron is hot.


British Airways: Has daily flights between London Heathrow and Kuala Lumpur; flies twice-daily from Heathrow to Singapore; and daily from Heathrow to Bangkok.

Malaysia Airlines: Has twice-daily direct flights between London Heathrow and Kuala Lumpur.

Thai Airlines: Flies twice daily between Heathrow and Bangkok.

Singapore Airlines: Flies four times daily between Heathrow and Singapore and five times a week from Manchester.

Garuda Indonesia: Flies direct between London Heathrow and Bali three times a week, stopping in Jakarta on the return leg. It also operates flights between Heathrow and Jakarta via Amsterdam six times per week.

Philippine Airlines: Flies five times a week between London Heathrow and Manila.

Vietnam Airlines: Flies between London Heathrow and Hanoi four times a week, and does a round-trip between London Heathrow and Ho Chi Minh City three times a week.

Qantas: Flies direct from Heathrow to Singapore and then on to Sydney.

Eva Air: Operates a daily route between London Heathrow and Bangkok, and on to Taipei.


Melia Hotels: Has a strong presence in South East Asia with around 20 hotels across Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, including 9 properties in Indonesia.

Accor Hotels: Runs a raft of brands in Asia, such as Fairmont, MGallery and Sofitel, including the Raffles Singapore, the city-state’s most famous heritage hotel and birthplace of the Singapore sling cocktail.

Marriott: Has an abundance of hotels in the region under its Marriott, Renaissance, Autograph Collection and Ritz-Carlton brands, including new openings in Vietnam and Bali.

Intercontinental Hotels Group: Has more than a hundred hotels in South East Asia with a particularly strong presence in Thailand operating under different brands including Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn and Hotel Indigo. Recent new openings across the region include new Holiday Inns in Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City
and Singapore.

Wyndham Hotels: Is rapidly growing its portfolio in South East Asia including new openings in Indonesia and Vietnam.

Off duty

Bangkok: Soak up colourful Thai culture and architecture at peaceful Wat Pho, with its enormous golden reclining Buddha. Then head to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, considered Thailand’s most sacred temple, and the Grand Palace, all located in the same riverside spot in the capital.

Jakarta: The wide streets, malls and skyscrapers of Indonesia’s modern capital offer great food and shopping, but the city is at its most atmospheric around Old Batavia, a remnant of Jakarta’s Dutch colonial days with heritage buildings and cafes.

Bali: Indonesia’s most popular tourist destination is known as the ‘island of 1,000 temples’ for good reason. Take your pick of amazing stone stupas from Tanah Lot and Uluwatu on the edge of the ocean to Pura Bratan in the crater lake of a dormant volcano – and don’t miss lush Ubud at the island’s cultural heart.

Kuala Lumpur: At 88 storeys, the city’s iconic Petronas Towers are a must-see symbol of this modern metropolis’ economic ambitions, and air-conditioned walkways connect the city’s shiny shopping malls. The Putrajaya Tropical Botanical Gardens offer an escape from the hustle and bustle and include a canopy walkway and Explorer’s Trail.

Singapore: The much-photographed Singapore Gardens by the Bay has amazing panoramas of this smart cosmopolitan city, while a dip in the infinity pool will make you feel like you are swimming in the sky. MANILA: Visit the well-preserved Fort Santiago and head to the old Spanish colonial quarter of Intramuros, full of historic buildings, museums and two churches.

Ho Chi Minh City: Take a stroll up Dong Khoi, one of Ho Chi Minh’s oldest streets lined with French colonial remnants and stop in to Ben Thanh market for delicious Vietnamese street food and drinks. For history fans, the Reunification Palace is immensely interesting.

Hanoi: Discover Hanoi’s old quarter on foot and don’t miss pretty Hoan Kiem Lake. Visit Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and, if you have more time, the famous UNESCO-protected Halong Bay is three hours’ drive away – well worth it.

Information correct at time of publication: June 2019