For all the grand visions we may have had for 2020, fighting over toilet paper was surely not one of them. To say 2020 has been an unprecedented year would be an understatement. For most of us, this will probably be THE most disruptive year in our lifetime.

What makes this year especially remarkable is the fact that it’s been a collective global experience; Unifying us in the way we experienced fear, loss, uncertainty, hope and many a different life changing events.

In this piece, we explore the myriad ways in which 2020 has impacted the lives of people in Southeast Asia - the way they lived, bonded, worked, socialised, and consumed things.

To this end, Milieu conducted surveys across Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines in the first week of December 2020 to find out how they lived and experienced this year through the pandemic. Here, we highlight the top seven noteworthy observations from the survey.

1. Uncertainty and Concern were top emotions, but countries that handled COVID-19 better were not always more positive

First, let’s talk about something very primal - emotions! In a year that has taken us through a rollercoaster of emotions, we asked respondents across Southeast Asia to choose ONE emotion that they felt the strongest. On average, “Uncertainty” and “Concern” were the top two most strongly felt emotions across Southeast Asia. However, notable differences emerge when we look at individual countries.

The Philippines was the only country with a positive emotion in the top rank (namely, “Hope”) suggesting that despite a sea of negative sentiments, there was a sense of desire and anticipation among Filipinos that things will get better.

Interestingly, while “Concern” was the number one emotion for Vietnam (22%) and Thailand (25%), three out of five of the top emotions were in fact positive. This is reflective of the fact that these countries successfully kept COVID-19 in check for most of the year with timely and effective public health response.

However, this theory falls apart when we look at Singapore. Despite being ahead of the curve in combating the pandemic and easing restrictions, Singapore registered all negative emotions in its top five list. This is pretty telling and goes to show that even with positive national physical health indicators, negative emotional and mental health effects of a pandemic cannot be overlooked.

2. Lives were disrupted differently depending on where people lived

How COVID-19 upended lives differed as a function of geography. The top disruptor for Singaporeans was cancellation of overseas travel (55%). This is not surprising as Singaporeans are avid jet setters - be it for business or leisure. According to 2018 Household Expenditure Survey, the average Singaporean household spends about 3.5% of their annual income on overseas holidays which amounts to 1-3 vacations per year.

For Malaysians, being away from family was the top disruptor with 40% of respondents indicating that they could not meet their family. Several people who travel between Malaysia and Singapore regularly for work or study were forced to stay apart from their families for months due to border control regulations.

In The Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam, the top disruptors were related to work. While for Filipinos, the majority were impacted by loss of job or business (40%), for Vietnamese and Indonesians, it was a change in job or business (40% for Indonesia; 41% for Vietnam).

3. We Time Travelled To Find Comfort In Nostalgia

While the future looks uncertain, people took to reliving past moments and memories. Across Southeast Asia, 81% of respondents indicated that they engaged in nostalgic activities (e.g., rewatched old shows/movies, listened to old songs, looked at old photos, etc.) more than they did in the previous years.

The top nostalgic activity across the region was listening to older music/songs (51%). This observation is backed by data from Spotify. Spotify reported that during the early days of pandemic in April 2020, there was a 54% uptick in listeners curating nostalgic-themed playlists, as well as an increase in streaming of music from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.

If you’re a Spotify junkie like me, you would’ve noticed the album “Time Capsule” among your playlists - a unique playlist of 50 songs curated by Spotify based on your age and the songs you loved from the past.

David DiSalvo, a behavioral science writer and author opined, “Music, like smell, is one of those things with immediate access to that direct, nostalgic memory. It has a way of putting a rosier view on our memory. We can inhabit it in our minds and feel a level of support that most of us aren’t feeling right now because there is so much instability.”

When we asked our respondents what is it about the past that piqued people’s interest in nostalgic activities during the pandemic, the top reasons across the countries include - bond with loved ones over it (41%), cope with negative feelings (45%), much more free time (44%), longingness for how things were before COVID-19 (41%) and that it was comforting (41%)

4. Changes within Jobs More Than Job Losses

The pandemic has created seismic shifts when it comes to jobs. On average, 83% of working respondents across Southeast Asia indicated that they experienced a change in their work situation due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

How has it specifically changed though?

Majority workers across the region experienced a change in the nature of their jobs or pay rather than loss of jobs. This could be attributed to the fiscal bazookas or injection of massive stimulus packages by governments to keep businesses afloat.

The leading change in most markets was the fact that people had to work from home or remotely with Singapore (65%) and Malaysia (50%) experiencing this more than the rest. Other common changes included taking pay-cuts (39%) or added responsibilities in the same role (30%).

Here are some significant ways the countries differed -

- Vietnamese workers experienced pay-cuts to a greater extent compared to the rest (48% vs SEA average of 39%). However, they were also much more likely to have found an additional job to supplement their income (46% vs SEA average of 28%). The Vietnamese government has attempted to create new jobs by investing in infrastructure projects.
- Singaporean workers were juggling more responsibilities in the same role (39% vs SEA average of 30%).
- Filipino workers were more likely to have engaged in no pay work i.e. voluntary work till business improves (28% vs SEA average of 17%)
- Indonesia had a greater proportion of workers take no-pay leave (25% vs SEA average of 20%)
- Thai workers are slightly more likely to have been laid off compared to the rest (22% vs SEA average of 16%)

It appears that different economies adopted different ways to deal with the economic downturn. How an economy was impacted depends, to a large extent, on which sectors were affected (some depend on tourism and exports more than others) and how severe was the Covid-19 health crisis, thus resulting in differing measures.

5. Work From Home Is More Productive, But It Came At a Cost

We asked respondents who worked from home (WFH) due to the COVID-19 situation whether they observed any changes to their productivity and the results were generally positive.

Across markets, with the exception of Thailand, majority respondents indicated that working from home increased their overall productivity. This was highest for Vietnam (61%) followed by The Philippines (60%). In contrast, workers in Thailand are evenly split across the spectrum with equal proportion of workers of the opinion that it increased, maintained or decreased productivity. This could possibly be because Thailand was one of the earliest markets to transition employees from WFH back to workplaces thus not really giving them a chance to ease into WFH as much as other countries.

However, the increase in productivity came at a cost. With blurred lines between work and home, majority respondents across all markets who were forced to work from home indicated that it has led to an increase in work hours (55%). A study done in 2020 by UOB revealed that close to 90% of employees in Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia indicated that they felt the need to work extended hours to avoid being retrenched. It is important for workplaces to take a step back and re-examine the well-being of employees in this new era of work.

6. Physical Activities People Tried For The First Time Due To Covid-19 : More Than Just Dalgona Coffee

With lockdown restrictions and social distancing, people were driven to try out activities and hobbies they might not have had the chance to dabble in before the pandemic. On average around 70% of respondents indicated that they picked up or revived a hobby during the pandemic.

Cooking/baking (38%), fitness-related activities (35%), gardening/indoor plant grooming (30%), video games (30%) and playing a sport (20%) were top five physical activities people across Southeast Asia tried for the first time due to COVID-19.

Some noteworthy observations from different markets :

- 45% of Vietnamese took to fitness activities for the first time due to COVID-19 (VS SEA average of 35%).
- 42% of Malaysians and Vietnamese tried their hand at video games for the first time ever (VS SEA average of 30%).
- 40% of Indonesians played a sport for the first time because of the pandemic (VS SEA average of 20%).
- Filipinos were much more likely to have tried meditation for the first time (22% vs SEA average of 17% )
- Singaporeans were most likely to have done a staycation for the first time (15% vs SEA average of 11%)

These activities not only helped people make use of their free time they craved so dearly in the pre-COVID era, but also helped deal with mental health issues and bond with their loved ones.

7. Our Digital World Is Expanding - Implications For Brands in online payment, OTT video content, online education and more

Lives may have been restricted within the four walls during the pandemic, but people’s online worlds expanded with respondents trying out a host of different online activities for the first time.

Across Southeast Asia, use of video call softwares (46%) saw the biggest first time adoption, followed by online payment (44%), online consumption of TV shows/movies on OTT platforms (41%) as well as online shopping for groceries (39%) and online shopping other than groceries (39%).

Some noteworthy observations from different markets :

- Video call softwares. Singaporeans were the most likely to have tried out Video call softwares for the first time (58% vs SEA average of 46% )
- Online Payment. Indonesia (53%), The Philippines (52%), and Malaysia (52%) saw the largest proportion of respondents who tried out online payment for the first time (vs SEA average of 44%)
- Online Video Content. Filipinos were the most likely to have watched TV shows/movies on OTT platforms for the first time (53% vs SEA average of 41%)
- Online Shopping. Malaysians were most likely to have shopped online for the first time for things apart from groceries (49% vs SEA average of 39%). Indonesians were the most likely to have shopped online for groceries for the first time (47% vs SEA average of 39%).
- Online Music Streaming. Filipinos (44%) and Indonesians (43%) were the most likely to have streaming music online for the first time (vs SEA average of 33%)
- Education. The Philippines (42%) and Malaysia (40%) experienced the greatest first time shift to online education compared to other markets (vs SEA average of 33%)

COVID-19 has been the unforeseen catalyst that has pushed consumers and brands’ alike to go online at a dramatic pace. Consumers who may have had inertia, fear or concerns of trying out certain online activities are now experiencing a shift in their behaviour and purchase habits - many of which will stick even in the post-pandemic world.

Some of these new, first time experiences have the potential to touch people’s lives on a daily basis (e.g., online payment, OTT video consumption) and some may even disrupt fundamental life experiences such as education (e.g., e-learning). If students receive an enriching experience via online courses that bear fruits in their career prospects, expensive university degrees will be forced to re-examine their value proposition. To quote the prominent NYU marketing professor, tech entrepreneur, writer, and podcaster Scott Galloway, “No industry, other than health care, has raised its prices faster than education...what we're about to see in education is the disruption that we've been predicting for decades, as parents see via Zoom classes that paying $68,000 for their tuition, and what is actually going on in universities is no longer worth it.”

Transitioning to 2021

As the curtain descends on 2020, it’s time to think of what lies ahead. Even in the most uncertain of times, if there’s one thing we can be certain of it’s that nothing is permanent.

This sentiment is echoed by respondents across Southeast Asia because in contrast to 2020, for which the top emotion was “Uncertainty”, the top emotion for 2021 is “Hope”. With the speedy approvals of vaccines and countries preparing to get access to them, it’s hard not to feel a sense of optimism.

While 2020 has been an extraordinarily trying year, it’s also shown us the power of collective resilience and ability to adapt. Here’s hoping the positives from 2020 make this world a stronger and innovative space for a better future.