Jobs, Technology and Multilateralism Hold the Key to ASEAN’s Future

As the ASEAN region enters an era of accelerating, non-linear change, it must focus on creating jobs and unleashing the potential of technology to propel growth and spread it equitably, according to business leaders and policy-makers at the World Economic Forum on ASEAN.

The information and communications technology (ICT) sector is poised to add $1 trillion to ASEAN GDP by 2027, bringing with it positive spin-offs, such as a revolution in financial technology, e-commerce and improved governance. However, countries need to recalibrate how they regulate the sector, participants were told at a session on South-East Asia and the Big Picture. While some aspects such as data privacy and cyber security need more regulation, others such as fintech require a freer hand.

Jamaludin Ibrahim, Managing Director, President and Group Chief Executive Officer of Asiata Group Berhad, said ASEAN member countries must stop favouring domestic companies in the interest of region-wide development and integration, and called for region-wide removal of roaming charges. “Forty per cent of our population is millennials – their demographic behaviour is adaptable,” he said, adding that policy-makers in each country must reconsider regulation of spectrum, industry structure, incentives, funding, human capital formation and so on. “We can leapfrog if we get national agenda to accelerate change,” he said.

A key lesson for ASEAN from the pushback against globalization and regional integration, such as Brexit, would be to ensure that growth is inclusive and adequately addresses the social dimension. Greta Faremo, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS), said: “ASEAN must build inclusivity and sustainability into its infrastructure and institutions right from the start.” UNOPS is keen to work with governments, she added, as well as the private sector in affordable housing and green energy, where blended finance can be leveraged in areas where banks have traditionally been reluctant to lend.

John Rice, Vice-chairman of GE, said that ASEAN, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has made a success out of a model where borders are points of connection and not barriers to trade, although more work is needed in levelling the playing field for the free flow of capital, including human capital, as well as finance. He pointed out that as the region enters the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it must also prepare its young population for the future: “Every job is going to change. ASEAN must train people to be ready to be flexible, adaptable, and ready for lifelong learning, ready to change as the nature of work and jobs change.”

The need to educate young people for the jobs of the future was echoed by George Yeo, Visiting Scholar at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. “All of ASEAN has a young population who can, with the right education, take to technology like fish to water,” he said. He added that not only is there great scope in high-end sectors such as big data analytics, but at a smaller level, just basic digital literacy can help citizens, societies and economies – through cutting out middle-men to benefit farmers.

Yeo said that technology also can play a key role in improving governance, law and order, as well as health outcomes. He highlighted Cambodia’s Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen’s efforts in improving governance by receiving citizens’ complaints on Facebook. “I checked today and he has crossed 7.7 million followers,” Yeo said, “What it does is, it penetrates through layers of bureaucracy.”

ASEAN’s reluctance to align itself with any one great power is both practical and beneficial. Yeo told participants that the region’s historical memory of its relationship with China has taught it to be multilateral in its approach. He added that between China, the United States and India, ASEAN must remain friendly to everyone and benefit from big economies’ interest in the region’s wellbeing.

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