ASEAN Perspective

The Case of IQ Discrepancy in Southeast Asia and The Complexity Behind This Phenomenon

Odelia Masniari SImorangkir

It is not surprising that intelligence quotient (IQ) is a crucial metric for measuring the effectiveness of social development policies. IQ is important because it reflects an individual's ability to solve problems using information and logic, which is essential in today's world. Countries need to monitor their citizens' average IQ to assess the quality of education infrastructure, healthcare, and other factors that contribute to IQ. A recent discovery regarding the average IQ in ASEAN has caused shock among policymakers and the public. The data reveals that Indonesia has the lowest average IQ compared to other Southeast Asian countries, with a score of 78.49. Timor Timur follows with the same score of 78.49, followed by Laos (80.99), Philippines (81.64), Malaysia (87.58), Brunei (87.58), Thailand (88.87), Vietnam (89.53), Myanmar (91.18), and Singapore (105.89) being at the top. This glaring difference in IQ among ASEAN countries is a wake-up call to address the issue. I believe that the primary cause of this discrepancy is the failure of national food institutions to ensure food security, mainly due to population density and geographical constraints.

Why Nutrition Matters?

It is important to understand that one of the biggest factors that can impact IQ is stunting, a condition that occurs due to poor nutrition and negatively affects cognitive development. This connection between nutrition and cognitive development is present from pregnancy through childhood and is directly related to stunting. Studies such as the Dutch Hunger Winter during the 1940s have shown that mothers who were exposed to famine during pregnancy had children with reduced cognitive function. This was further supported by DNA analysis of individuals who were exposed to malnutrition during the early stages of brain development. The results suggest that the timing of malnutrition can have a profound effect on brain development. It is also important to note that children in poor countries may experience more cases of stunting than those in rich countries who have access to better nutrition.

Malnutrition in ASEAN Countries

Nutrition plays a crucial role in the development of one's IQ. However, malnutrition remains a significant problem in the ASEAN region, with 27.4% of the population suffering from undernutrition and 7.5% being overweight, according to UNICEF's 2021 report. Malnutrition is a leading cause of stunting among children, and data from The World Bank in 2022 shows that Indonesia has a stunting rate of 30.8% among children under 5, while Vietnam has a rate of 19.5%, and Singapore has a significantly lower rate of 4.5%.

The Philippines' National Nutrition Council has attempted to address this issue by initiating the ASEAN Multisectoral Collaborative Workshop on Nutrition Security in Pasay City, but so far, it has not produced significant results. This highlights the failure of government institutions to address the problem effectively. It is concerning that ASEAN governments have not taken sufficient steps to prevent stunting and the resulting IQ disparities in the first place. How can ASEAN governmental institutions fail to prevent stunting and thus IQ disparity from occurring in the first place?

Geographical and Population Density Constraints

Despite long-standing institutional issues, one reason for this problem could be geographical constraints and population density. Geographical conditions play a significant role in determining how effectively governmental institutions can project their power. The more accessible and locatable a region is, the easier it is to execute power projection. Stunting data can further demonstrate the relationship between geographical conditions and the prevalence of stunting in a country. For instance, countries like Singapore, which have relatively small sizes, face fewer problems in power projection and have more control over their nutrition-related policies. In contrast, a country like Indonesia, which is much larger in size, faces more difficulties in projecting its social policies.

It can be observed that the likelihood of stunting cases increasing is higher in nations with a denser population. This, in turn, can greatly affect the complexity of addressing nutrition needs and the rate of coverage. Moreover, a high population density can lead to a variety of complications, such as unequal development and needs in different regions, hindrance in the equal distribution of resources in various sectors, and many other issues. A large population and a vast area make it challenging for the government to manage the nation and its problems, including the challenge of addressing widespread stunting in some ASEAN countries.

Where Does This Leave Us?

It is crucial to understand that improving nutrition capacity development requires efficient and effective execution by the governmental institutions of ASEAN member states. This execution can be achieved through a clear framework that guides the development of nutrition capacity, including programs, interventions, analysis, monitoring and evaluation systems, infrastructure, and logistics systems. Additionally, it is necessary to establish coordination through information and accountability to improve decision-making and reduce stunting cases, which also affect IQ levels. However, the current entities in charge are not meeting the required standards, as evidenced by the high prevalence of stunting cases and the disparity in IQ levels among ASEAN countries.


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