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Innovation and Inclusivity in the Age of COVID-19: Southeast Asia’s Path to a Resilient Digital Economy

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Today, we face one of the greatest challenges of our generation. In just a short span of time, the coronavirus pandemic has upended lives and livelihoods around the world, exacerbating longstanding socioeconomic inequalities and plunging global financial markets into a deep recession. As the virus gradually made its way throughout Southeast Asia earlier this year, border controls further debilitated economies around the region, many of which were reliant on both regional and international tourism as a main driver of economic growth. Yet, despite the heavy toll of the coronavirus pandemic on the ASEAN-5 economy, several jurisdictions have emerged more resilient than ever.

This is, of course, not a new phenomenon. In many ways, history is repeating itself and we need to look no further than the 2003 SARS epidemic which was arguably responsible for accelerating major tech developments across China’s e-commerce and digital payments ecosystem. Holed up in their homes, Chinese consumers were forced to turn to previously untrusted e-commerce sites and virus-proof contactless payment options in the place of brick and mortar storefronts and cash. Despite being a cash-based economy only two decades ago, as of 2018, 83 percent of all payments in the country were now being done via mobile applications.

We can begin to see similar early stirrings of shifts in consumer habits and preferences across ASEAN nations, often most pronounced in early adopter markets whose lawmakers recognised the need for digital agility. Though disparate across developing and developed markets, this approach has informed a “smarter” model of policy-making and the fruits of this have been no more pronounced than during the COVID-19 crisis. When coupled with government aid initiatives and a collectivist culture across the region, Southeast Asia is primed to further its economic growth and chart its technological development towards a more inclusive and resilient digital economy.

Laying the digital groundwork

Thanks to its increased mobile connectivity and growing online population, Southeast Asia has one of the largest and fastest growing internet markets in the world. However, a resilient digital economy does not stem from digital readiness alone. This is instead a matter of smart regulation, anchored by the pillars of data-driven decision making, progressive policy-making, and an inclusive digital literacy model.

Arguably, the best example of this across the region can be found in Singapore’s Smart Nation plan. Launched in 2014, this ingrained tech-forward mindset informed the government’s strategies as the nation progressively built up critical digital infrastructure and promoted the adoption of smart technologies. Thanks to its extensive digital transformation work over the past 6 years, Singapore’s early response to COVID-19—which included chatbots and a national WhatsApp channel to educate and inform citizens—earned praise from the World Health Organisation.

To that end, Brunei unveiled its first five-year Digital Economy 2025 Masterplan, which aims to turn the country into a digital and future-ready Smart Nation. This included the creation of eKadaiBrunei, a national e-commerce platform aimed at providing a safe and convenient way for local businesses to continue connecting with customers during the pandemic. Brunei’s masterplan exemplifies the key role that such a digital roadmap can play in leading a local economy to a more sustainable future, coupling digital transformation initiatives with institutional backing to boost long-term resilience.

Shaping the path to recovery

Digital transformation, of course, is a long-term endeavour and while progressive policies can help to encourage the adoption of novel infrastructures and tools, it’s crucial that a workforce itself is equipped with the necessary skills to ensure wide scale digital literacy—one that doesn’t discriminate based on age, class, or sector.

Though commonly thought to be far more digitally savvy than older generations, youths themselves have voiced concerns that they aren’t sufficiently equipped with the right skills to tackle technological disruption. Last year, the World Economic Forum’s ASEAN Youth Technology, Skills and the Future of Work report found that three of the four skills that ASEAN youth regard as their weakest are STEM skills, including technology design and data analytics. Higher education institutions need to ensure their course offerings reflect the realities of the digital economy, covering topics such as entrepreneurial innovation, emerging technologies, and start-up practicums. With help from governments and enterprises alike, educational curricula should concentrate on fostering and attracting the next generation of talent, while mitigating the skills gaps in today’s workforce.

Governments also need to future-proof their nation’s workforce, ensuring that they emerge more resilient in a post-COVID environment. In tackling the pandemic’s immediate economic implications, emerging markets such as the Philippines have looked to upskilling to ground forms of financial assistance. For one, the country’s Technical Education and Skills Development Authority initiated a PHP 3 billion programme to upskill and reskill temporarily displaced workers. Amid high rates of retrenchment across various sectors such as F&B, hospitality, retail, and tourism, such programmes will be especially vital for mid-career and senior executives as they participate in new arenas of the digital economy.

Southeast Asia is home to an abundance of small and medium enterprises (SMEs)—accounting for between 88.8 to 99.9 percent of total establishments in the ten ASEAN Member States. To help these SMEs adapt to the “new normal” governments across the region have introduced grants and initiatives to incentivise their transition and promote the adoption of digital technologies such as artificial intelligence, IoT, automation, and robotics.

With such businesses forming the bedrock of the region’s economy, business owners need the right training and digital skills to better build up their digital capabilities and implement digital solutions to rapidly increase production and streamline their operational efficiency when the economy recovers. From government-funded accelerators to locally built e-commerce networks, SMEs across the region have been offered a vast range of opportunities to aid in their online transition. As part of Malaysia’s National Economic Recovery Plan, the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation has pledged to onboard SMEs and micro SMEs onto e-commerce platforms, offering training, seller subsidies, as well as sales support to kickstart their digital journeys.

It’s clear that the future is inherently digital, but no country can afford to leave any fresh graduate, professional, or business behind. With progressive policymaking anchored by an emphasis on education and upskilling, Southeast Asia certainly has the potential to secure its competitive standing on a global stage.

Collectivism at scale

And yet, the will to change ultimately begins at an individual level. Despite the disparate cultures, beliefs, and politics that continue to prevail across the region, Southeast Asia has fast-distinguished itself in its collective approach to addressing the realities of the pandemic. Absent are charged conversations surrounding stimulus payouts or the politicisation of healthcare measures, spanning crowd control at political rallies or mandatory mask-wearing—instead, communities have rallied together, falling in line across the public and private sector, to benefit the greatest number rather than a privileged few.

Though digital transformation continues to materialise at a varied pace from country to country, the pandemic has pushed many governments, enterprises, and individuals to adapt rapidly to unfamiliar challenges and new ways of working. Now more than ever, the impact of progressive measures and initiatives to support the region’s growth towards a more advanced digital economy, are clear. Denoted by an underlying collective approach and smart regulation, fostering continuous innovation, building up critical workforce capabilities, and increasing the business resilience of SMEs will be the catalysts that underpin Southeast Asia’s growth in a  post-pandemic future.

Danny Phan is the managing director of Wachsman Asia Pacific. Equipped with over 20 years of experience across APAC and the US, Danny is an award-winning communications consultant, having advised some of the world’s largest tech companies on policy and regulatory communications, including Southeast Asian ride-hailing giant Grab, American online platform marketplace Airbnb, and the Asia Internet Coalition. Danny has received multiple accolades, recognised as “Young PR Professional of the Year” at the Asia Pacific PR Awards and included in Campaign Asia's "40 under 40".

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Economy

Pandemic Recovery Creates a 50-50 Future

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Suddenly, the world changed; 50% in one-way and 50% the other way. It makes no difference where you stand or sit, because the changes are right across the world. It makes no difference if they are good or bad, because some are laden with heavy losses and some flying high with extraordinary opportunities. What is most critical is to recognize their hidden patterns and acquire special skills to respond quickly to avoid any serious fall or optimize a real potential in real time. As many times before, during centuries past, the world is morphing into something astonishing that we may not be able to recognize from where we stand today. Hyper-accelerated-future forcing change; 50% up and 50% down, therefore, we have to select your own paths. It is sink or swim time, again. One-hour study of cataloging major shifts during the last few centuries drastically transforming human behavior for good will do the trick.

The political offices: there are some 100 new national elections across the world within the next 500 days. In most cases, the economy will be the deciding factors over pandemic recovery. Outside the developed nations, death is a common place amongst struggling nations. Nevertheless, indices on suffering and pain are very high, the voice of the public highly audible, damages to the economy highly noticeable and the level of incompetence of leadership increasingly highly visible. The new visible challenges are the lack of speed on upskilling and transformation to manage mobilization of entrepreneurialism at grassroots level. Bureaucracies will not turn economies around. Most of the leaderships are ‘campaign’ trained and not ‘pandemic’ trained. The new races may topple 50% of incumbent leaderships in serious upsets.

The voting: Despite all the technological advances, there is no room in the world for some Social Media or Tik-Tok to decide a national election. The millennia old voting systems stand in line; make a cross by hand and drop it in a voting box will remain as most desired by the populace.  The challenges are not to fall over technology and human-programmed-AI to decide a winning team, stay credible, and follow safe procedures. Any deviation from these traditional models may result in outright rejections of 50% of the coming elections.

The workforces: There are billion displaced workers, due to pandemic, an additional billion already  replaced due to technological advances and a billion further misplaced where their real talents never recognized, considered as out of the box thinking and now working in miss-matched jobs. Challenges are to create globally accepted “Remote-Working-Protocols’ a Charter of Rights for Remote Workforce and make such ideas respectable and rewarding. The restless citizens are ready to march, 50% of the regions of the world are neither prepared nor have any solid solutions for such calamites.

The offices: The world has moved to remote, the vaccine-waiting years will carve permanence to new remote protocols and routines.  This is a new tsunami but it has far too many positive sides embedded. Books on ‘rise and fall’ of downtown are not published yet; hidden fears of massive downtown real estate collapse preclude any serious dialogue on global podiums. Challenges are to create intense citywide live and open debates on city planning based on new realities and not real estate. Nevertheless, Remote Work will have the most dramatic life altering impact on the global workforce and may force 50% of office towers empty and downtowns go dim.

The travelling: The silence of tourism is a global calamity impacting small medium and big businesses servicing such sectors. The global public will not be ready until vaccination reaches in many billions, a multi-year task. This will create vacuums and major shifts will occur. The challenges are to create a new post vaccine, sanitized, destination travel-world. Overall 50% locations, routes, and services may not survive.

The trade-events: The local-national-global conferences and trade shows were always the bloodstreams of commerce now replaced by live streaming the old-event-industry gasping for oxygen. The high cost of travel and lack of bold contents were always the lingering challenges, unless there are new discussion formats and real value offerings the event industry is sinking. Despite the new powers of virtualization, real content management will decide the winners and create new trends before some 50% may give up entirely.

The education: While the new generations need free education, the post vaccination worldneeds lesser education and more special skills; pragmatic, productive and profitable.  The digital platforms ensure instant access to maxi-mini-micro-upskilling and reskilling and eliminating multi-year of memorizing irrelevancy needs lingering since last century. The brand new models of ‘education-delivery’ with direct and measured return on value are where the future parked. The challenges are to bring real and proven entrepreneurialism into colleges and universities and unless taught by decade plus hard-core raw business experiences, business education is becoming an expensive liability.  The colleges and universities of the past could further stay in denials, but going forward new paths 50% may not survive.

The economies: The future of the world is digital; therefore, digitized economies of the post vaccination world will thrive; paper-based economies will end up in waste-paper-baskets. Tragically, paper-pushing economies had all options, often at little or no cost but bureaucracies strongholds kept them in the darkness. The challenges are to convert denials into positive mobilization of small medium business economies across a nation. Maybe, the only way left for them to start on a new page. The global rate of accelerated performance after full vaccination will crush 50% of the paper-based economies.

The groups and societies: Across the world, for the first time in 100 years the big and small societies of the world are forced into isolation, long enough to think hard, ponder and posture, altering lifestyle mode and testing their psyche about their immediate and far-away surroundings. Extreme boredom took each one many times over to their private caves of silent spaces where like finishing a forty-day and forty-night minimum requirement for deeper thinking of sorts became a valuable gift of global age understanding, provided under forced isolation by Covid-19.

Historians will recognize this as a global mind shift era of this century, affecting the five billion connected alpha dreamers who will change the world because they a little bit more connected to diversity, tolerance, and see global issues clearly. The cruelty of Covid measured in millions of body bags and treacherous loss of life remembered in eternity; the survivors from trenches, drenched in waist-high filth for years during the First World War crawled out as philosophers of time on peace and harmonious living.  There will be dramatic and noticeable changes in all big and small societies and cultural groups around the world and 50% may completely change their thinking but more in a humankind way and for common good.

A new dawn emerges, discovering hidden and untapped entrepreneurialism of some 500 million small medium enterprises of the world and a billion new entrepreneurs on the march.  Where are you standing, on what fronts, with what abundance and voids, what options and what possible moves and most importantly, what you need? Economic revolution demands revolutionary action on productive-performances.

Relentless in pursuit and authoritative with action, Expothon is tabling a very special and bold agenda and starting a high-level global series of virtual events starting early 2021. Going forward, the virtualization of the national economies will boost vertical sectors to new heights, globalization creates new links to global exportability, therefore, grassroots prosperity and upskilled performance must adjust to absorb the new loads.

The big change, the new reset, these are not easy tasks, but a good dialogue will start the wheels in the right direction. Open your hidden talents, help mobilize local midsize business economies, identify the missing links and raise collaborative awareness, the rest is easy. 

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Economy

The Economy Against the Tide

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The world evidently grappled with the effects of the Covid pandemic in 2020 and continues to wedge forward against the odds to survive and stay afloat. The major economies contracted as the global boards pinned records after records in economic depreciation, monetary devaluation and corporate deterioration. However, whilst the pandemic pushed the metaphorical brake over the developed and developing economies alike, and simultaneously nudged the least developed into desperation, China posted surprisingly positive growth figures as it bid adios to the yesteryear. While anything remotely lucrative seems like a farce nowadays and although the relatively booming Chinese economy seems superficial at the first glance, a detailed analysis dissects the tenets of the trade that have set the People’s Republic apart from the struggling world.

China stands as the figurative ‘Ground Zero’ of the Coronavirus pandemic; reporting the earliest emergence of the virus in the ultimate month of 2019.  China later went on to have a gloomy start to the new year; struggling to deal with the strange occurrences, rising death toll and having no answer to the surging uncertainty. The new year celebrations were cancelled, holidays extended and even corporate giants like Toyota and Apple were resorted to immediate closure across the Mainland. The year expected to be of expansion turned polar as the world started to isolate the country to contain the virus; turning exports to the lowest levels over decades of preceding economic flourish.

However, while many global experts predicted the downfall of China; extrapolated by the dismal figures of the first few months of 2020, China quickly recovered and surpassed expectations in both containing the virus within the country and stabilising the tattering economy. The main contender and outright rival of China, however, faced the music in the most ironic way possible. Whilst the United States pillared on the trade war between the two since before the Covid pandemic, Mr. Trump left no stones unturned in maligning China for spreading the virus around the globe; deliberately and in an attempt to exponentiate its accession to power over US. The US economy faced the brunt of the pandemic rather expectantly since the time was wasted on hurling accusations instead of proactively adopting protective measures beforehand. While US is currently the worst affected country around the globe, its economy is no different than the mounding death toll on charts each day.

The US economy contracted on record levels and even itsworld-renowned indexes like DJI and S&P500 posted negative rallies; first since the Great Depression of 1929. Although the economic damage to the US has been cushioned, now twice, by heavily strategized monitory polices of the FED and colossal fiscal stimulus, the world superpower is showing signs of weakness as it deals with over 250,000 fresh cases each day yet can’t function to facilitate the 14 million and counting Americans facing unemployment for months and seeking benefits, taking the national bill to unprecedented heights.

Even compared to the regional counterparts, China stands out in much more than just the economic stability. Europe currently deals with a detrimental surge of the virus-variants while simultaneously accommodating the challenging deals across the borders in the wake of Brexit. The United Kingdom faces contradictions over new trade policies and procedures; not just with EU but with its very own states like Northern Ireland. The monetary rates now touch zero with a possibility of further plunge into the negative territory as London shivers with fatal blows of the highly infectious variant of Covid and the nation facing the second country-wide lockdown as hospitals run at full capacity.

Meanwhile, EU falters with the economic fiasco even under the improving financial conditions and finally grabbing an agreement on the year-in-year-out negotiations of the Silk Road Initiative. The distinction, however, is clear as while Germany, Europe’s most powerful economy, wrestles with a catastrophic recession, China completely avoided recession throughout the year 2020. While Germany looms into negative growth rates, China posted a steep 6.5% growth in the last quarter (Oct-Dec); a cumulative growth of 2.3% in 2020. A stark opposite of the slump caused by Covid restrictions that initially pulled China’s economy down by 6.8% in the first quarter compared to 2019.

While China has been gauged as “The only major economy to quickly recover from the pandemic and find the normal course of business operation”, the recovery has been uneven over multiple sectors of the domestic industry. The boom in the economy has been celebrated and attributed to the growing optimism of Chinese investors in the relentless recovery of the economy. The Shanghai stock market was recently pulled up by 1% even under the rippling conditions of the global economy. However, while the consumer electronics sector has enjoyed the waves pushed by the ‘stay at home’ mottos under the lockdown, service businesses like hotels and restaurants have faced a crunch which has eventually carried forward to the blue-collar workers in China. While the factories in the Mainland have turned into an overdrive to fill in the boom of exports since many countries face a manufacturing break, the exporters to the poor countries are dealing with the devastation alike to their clients. While magnates like Jack Ma have made a fortune, the recent graduates are struggling to find new jobs.

Now, with the resurgence of the virus, the fear in lacing the country again. The recent tally has jumped up to 769 new cases whilst reporting first death in over six months. However, the health officials have deemed the sporadic spread as ‘very, very small’. Ultimately, China came about to be a tough nut to crack, analytically due to its effective centralised strategies in dealing with the pandemic followed by aggressive policy making; focusing on the advanced manufacturing industries to stay proximate to core competencies whilst simultaneously maintaining a free market structure in other areas of the economy, setting a path for a predicted average 5.7% growth until 2025. Thus, paving China’s way to attain the coveted title of ‘World Superpower’ and surpassing US by 2028.

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Indian Farmers Protest Against the Parliament’s Encroaching Bills

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The new agricultural reforms in India aim to permit farmers to offer their produce to private purchasers beyond a state-run discount or wholesale markets, where farmers are guaranteed a minimum cost for their yields.

However, the farmers state that the laws would undermine their livelihoods and will solely be profitable to large companies, leaving producers helpless under the heel of a free market. Such patters can be gauged from the Modi government’s corporation-oriented policies. For instance, the current corporate tax rate – 30 percent – has been considerably reduced: 22 percent for existing companies and 15 percent for those established after 1st October, 2019. 

Farmers regard these bills with suspicion, for they feel threatened by the corporatization of their agricultural domain and the dismissal of the MSP regime. Introduced in 1966-67, the MSP regime promises the sale of specific crops at a fixed price thus assuring the farmers of a regular income in spite of escalating input costs and unstable prices.

Primary leaders of farmers’ associations have called for protests, even willing to observe fasts during the protest in order to challenge the new farmer laws. With almost 250 million protesters, to protest is being called the largest protest in human history

This is the second time in the previous two weeks that the farmers have called for country-wide protests, requesting all the people to organize sit-ins outside the district organizations across the state. The protests are being led by a large number of farmers sitting outside the capital, New Delhi, obstructing main highways heading towards the city.

Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, and his party ‘Aam Aadmi Party’ have supported the sit-ins by fasting with them. Kejriwal encouraged his party workers and members to join the campaign and asked Modi’s Bharatiya Janta Party to set aside arrogance and fulfill the demands of the farmers.

The agriculture sector contributes almost fifteen percent to India’s $2.9 trillion economy and enrolls the greater part of the nation’s 1.4 billion individuals. In recent years, this sector has been facing setbacks and driving a huge number of indebted farmers to take their lives.

Modi said the enactment was required to support the agricultural sector, and that the new laws would profit the farmers and “free” them from the oppression of middlemen. Farmers, generally from Haryana and Punjab and considered the “grain bowl” of India, have denounced the laws as “hostile to farmers”.

The farmers have demanded revocation of the new laws and assurance of the Minimum Support Price for their yields.“It’s been months now since the farmers began protesting. We have sent a few written messages to the Prime Minister, Agricultural Minister is demonstrating our hatred to the hostile laws but the BJP government is careless on this issue,” said the farmers’ leader.

One elderly woman, aged 75, said that “unless and until Narendra Modi withdraws these laws, we will not go back. This government should know about the strength and determination of the Punjabi people.”

The Indian Supreme Court has received many petitions regarding a ban on the protest, but the top court has declined such calls and ordered the government and unions to form a committee in which the experts would mediate between the concerned parties.

On the birth anniversary of Sikh leader, Guru Nanak, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a Zoom meeting that Canada would always defend the right of peaceful protest.

Federal Minister Fawad Chaudhry termed Indian behavior with farmers as “shameful”. He stated that the Indian government’s policies were the biggest threat to regional peace. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called on the Indian government to allow protests, asserting the right to raise a voice and show opposition to the government.

The vociferous calls have certainly proven to be a feather in the farmers’ cap, as India’s Supreme Court has recently ordered for the suspension of these farming bills.

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