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.
Future Economy: Upskilling Exporters & Reskilling Manufacturers
Pandemic recovery is now openly calling global thought leaderships to speak up and enter their bold debates on national/global economic development issues to foster grassroots prosperity to avoid a billion displaced magnetized to populism. Seriously missed during the last decade, collaborative synthesizing with diversity and tolerance and wrongly replaced by seek and destroy economics creating trade wars… now is the time to cooperate, upskilling, and reskill working citizens of all nations.
The United Nations should lead with a global mandate…
Upskilling Exporters: When exporters in any country suffer lack of market share and their lower prices bringing in lower profits because of lack of quality upskilling and reskilling becomes mandatory. When innovative excellence is parked under the umbrella of entrepreneurialism national mobilization becomes number one priority. The pandemic recoveries across the world coping with a billion displaced all have now critical needs of both upskilling and reskilling. Upskilling is the process of learning new skills to achieve new thinking. Reskilling is the process of learning new skills to achieve new performances. Today, in super advanced and globally competitive markets raw hard work will not achieve global competitiveness only upskilling and reskilling will create a sharp edge.
Reskilling Manufacturers: When factories start having larger warehouses to hold unsold inventories and when production commoditized and price becomes the only deciding factor, reskilling on “real value creation” becomes mandatory. Advanced Manufacturing Clusters in various nations will greatly help, but understanding of global-age expansion of value offerings with fine production is a new art and commercialization to 200 nations a new science.
Now under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, The Annual Investment Meeting, organized by the UAE Ministry of Economy, scheduled to be held from 20th to 22nd October 2020.. The AIM under the theme “Reimagining Economies: The Move towards a Digital, Sustainable and Resilient Future.” This is a gathering of the global investment community with participants attending from more than 170 countries. The conference addresses multiple issues on FDI, national digitization and uplifting SME and midsize business economies with great speakers from around the world.
The future of economies, exports, Chambers of Commerce, Trade Associations and SME and midsize economic developments all called for bold and open regular debates. The zoomerang impact of global thought leadership now forcing institutions to become armchair Keynote speakers and Panelists to deliberate wisdom from the comfort of their homes round the clock events… study how Pentiana and Expothon Project tabled advanced thinking on such trends during the last decade. For fast track results, follow the trail of silence and help thought leadership to engage in bold and open debates and help show them guidance to overcome their fears of transformation. The arrival of Virtual leadership and Zoomerang culture is a gift from pandemic recovery, acquiring mastery.
The Difficult Questions: Nation-by-nation,when 50% of frontline teams need ‘upskilling’ while 50% of the back-up teams need ‘reskilling’ how do you open discussions leading to workable and productive programs? Each stage challenges competency levels and each stage offers options to up skill for better performances. Talent gaps need fast track closing and global-age skills need widening. New flat hierarchical models provide wide-open career paths and higher performance rewards in post pandemic recovery phases. When executed properly such exercises match new skills and talents with the right targeted challenges of the business models and market conditions. The ultimate objective of “extreme value creation” in any enterprise must eliminate the practices of ‘extreme value manipulations”. Study of the last top 10 highly exposed global scale corporate scandals on ‘value manipulation’ spanning years and decades and recognize their fake reign of legitimacy during such traps as lessons. Economies around the world solely based on ‘value manipulations’ are not economies, they are schemes. The billion displaced need optimization and upskilling to contribute to real value creation.
The upskilled and reskilled in platform economies are agile builders of the future workforce. Study the major cycles of the last century, how in the 70s and 80s billions trained on desktop computers for the world to enter the “Digital Age”. Best career paths now based on digital trajectory matched with critical thinking and complex problem solving when all combined will boost the enterprise to newer heights. The economies of the future must declare upskilling of national citizens as prime mandate.
All transformations must start from the very top; nation-by-nation…true upskilling and reskilling cascading with new vision and with pragmatic solutions to precisely enhance skills to match the digital age and our smart world. The culture must embrace upskilling and reskilling as a daily open routine of lifelong learning and future planning to carve a distinct position in the marketplace. Study ‘national mobilization of entrepreneurialism’ on Google. A very bright future awaits. The rest is easy.
Bangladesh: The Rising Economic Power
The International Monetary Fund (IMF), in its October 2020 report, titled, World Economic Outlook: A Long and Difficult Ascent, notes that Bangladesh has overtaken India in terms of per capita GDP scoring US$ 1888. Notably, in 2015, just five years ago, India’s per capita GDP was around 40 percent higher than Bangladesh. Kaushik Basu, a former World Bank cheif economist tweets that ‘Any emerging economy doing well is good news’. The focused and visionary plans, actions, and the hard work of the Sheikh Hasina government and the people of the country made possible such success for Bangladesh. Though this write-up began comparing Bangladesh’s economic success with India, certainly Bangladesh identifies India as a great friend rather than competitor, believes in constructive engagement with India and other major powers rather than embracing conflict or competition, and acknowledges the role of the major development partners in the overall socio-economic development of the country.
The impressive economic success of Bangladesh has become a matter of discussion in the Indian media and beyond. It is also seen that while many countries in the world including the developed ones are experiencing negative growth due to COVID-19 global pandemic, Bangladesh is experiencing positive growth that also becomes a matter of celebration for Bangladesh. In this context, it becomes crucial to investigate the rise/ emergence of Bangladesh as an economic power. In addition, only the negative news on Bangladesh becomes emphasized in the global media while overlooking the positive developments.
To understand the emergence of Bangladesh as an economic power, one needs to look at the past. The decades long oppression, suppression, injustice and severe discrimination against East Pakistan by West Pakistan made the people of the East Pakistan poor and illiterate. For instance, in a typical year of between 1960 and 1970, per capita annual income was Bangladeshi Taka 450 (US$ 5.30, based on 2020 value), nearly half of the population had a deficiency in calories intake, and the literacy rate was 17 percent only. Between 1949-50 and 1969-70, the per capita income of Bangladesh could increase at an annual rate of hardly 0.7 per cent. In fact, during the fifties, the per capita income of Bangladesh declined at an annual rate of 0.3 per cent. Per capita consumption of milk, fats, oil, fish and other protein items were extremely low in Bangladesh. In March 1972, P. C. Verma wrote in the Economic and Political Weekly that ‘During the last 24 years, while Bangladesh was a part of Pakistan, its economy stagnated. The economic policy pursued by the central government of Pakistan kept it economically backward’ (p.580). Development expenditure in Bangladesh was extremely low. It is also argued that the policies taken by the central government of Pakistan in the context of foreign aid, trade, interregional trade had severe adverse effects on Bangladesh.
Thus, the decades long severe discrimination against East Pakistan by West Pakistan economically, politically and structurally led to the independence movement in East Pakistan under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Finally, after nine-months of War of Independence, Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation-state in 1971. The 1971 War exacerbated the situation. The United Nations estimated the reconstruction cost in/of Bangladesh at US$938 million. In such a scenario, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation took the leadership to rebuild the country, and to make it a ‘Shonar Bangla’ (Golden Bengal). In fact, it was a daunting task. Even at this stage, many raised questions about the viability and stability of Bangladesh as nation-building in a new state was not an easy task. For instance, during his visit to Dhaka in 1974, Henry Kissinger termed Bangladesh as a ‘bottomless basket’. Ambassador U. Alexis Johnson defined the newly born state, Bangladesh as ‘international basket case’. However, Bangabandhu was able to overcome those predictions and speculations through his visionary leadership.
On October 4, 2019, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina wrote in the Print that “Beyond self-sufficiency, we are now the fourth-largest in rice production, second-largest in jute production, fourth-largest in mango production, fifth-largest in vegetable production and fourth-largest in inland fisheries in the world’. Since 2009, Bangladesh has been achieving more than 6 percent growth. The country graduated to a lower-middle-income nation in 2015 while in 2018; the country met the UN criteria for graduating from the ‘least developed country’ status by 2024. Bangladesh is one of the key players in the global textile industry. This is, in fact, tremendous achievements for Bangladesh. Behind such achievement, the visionary leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina played a crucial role along with the hard work of the tens of thousands of farmers, factory workers, garments workers, and other classes of people in the country. Bangladesh has been awarded ‘South-South Award’ in 2013 to make remarkable progress in the poverty alleviation. If one looks at few forecasts, according to a study of UK-based firm PwC, Bangladesh will be 23rd largest world economy by 2050. In addition, the Goldman Sach forecasts Bangladesh as one of the countries in ‘N11’ after BRICS who will dominate the future world economy.
Bangladesh has the potential to become the economic hub in South Asia which requires regional and global economic cooperation. Under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh is preparing 100 special economic zones for major investors which will create employment opportunities for millions along with increased economic growth that can contribute immensely to the overall socio-economic development of Bangladesh. To attract foreign direct investments, Bangladesh enacted One-Stop Service Act in 2018 to provide all the required services to investors from the same point. In addition, Bangladesh offers the most liberal and congenial investment regime in South Asia. Notably, the GDP of Bangladesh has grown from US$102 billion in 2009 to US$302 billion in 2019. One can also note that foreign direct investment has also increased from US$ 700 million in 2009 to US$ 3613 million in 2018. In 2018, Bangladesh was the second recipient of FDI in South Asia.
After coming in power in 2009, the Sheikh Hasina government set several targets for Bangladesh, i.e. to achieve the status of a middle-income country by 2021, accomplishing the SDG goals by 2030, becoming a developed country by 2041, becoming a miracle by 2071, and executing a delta plan by 2100. Thus, one can argue that under the visionary leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh is moving forward with specific targets in mind. Many argue that Bangladesh can be a developed nation by 2041 if the current political stability in the country under Sheikh Hasina regime continues along with the supports from the major development partners. One of the major strengths for Bangladesh is that among 170 million people more than 60 per cent are energetic and dynamic youths who can contribute immensely to the overall development of the country. The world needs to know that Bangladesh is no more an ‘international basket case’. And for this success, Bangladesh and its people sincerely appreciate the cooperation from the international community.
Chamber of Commerce and Russia’s Economic Operations with African Countries
Largely dictated by the results of the first Russia-Africa summit and the persistent economic sanctions by the United States and European Union, Russia is seriously reorganizing towards increasing its economic prints in Africa. Russia is, indeed, putting its house in order, identifying strategies and drawing roadmaps, and most importantly restructuring.
Quite recently, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs created the Secretariat for Russia-Africa Forum. The Secretariat further established an Association for Economic Cooperation with African States. Now Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has restructured the Coordinating Committee for Economic Cooperation with African States that was established as far back in 2009.
According to historical documents, the Coordinating Committee for Economic Cooperation with African States was created on the initiative of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation and Vnesheconombank with the support of the Federation Council and the State Duma of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation. It has had support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Economy and Trade, the Ministry of Natural Resources, as well as the Ministry of Higher Education and Science.
With the participation of representatives of business and expert circles, this committee’s primary task is to consolidate the efforts of business, government and public structures of Russia, facilitate the intensification of economic activities in Africa. It has the responsibility for adopting a more pragmatic approach to business, for deepening and broadening existing economic collaborations and for the establishment of direct mutually beneficial contacts between entrepreneurs and companies from Russia and African countries.
During its last meeting, the participants discussed various issues and acknowledged that the committee has achieved little since its establishment. The meeting has also identified factors that have hindered its expected achievements and overall performance since 2009. Admittedly, a quick assessment for over one decade has shown very little impact and tangible results. The committee’s documents listed more than 150 Russian companies as members, most of them hardly seen participating in business events in order to get acquainted with investment opportunities in Africa.
Notwithstanding the setbacks down these years, Russians are full of optimism. Completely a new team was put in place during the meeting hosted by the Russian Business Chamber. Russian Senator Igor Morozov was elected as the new Chairman of the Coordinating Committee for Economic Cooperation with African States. He is currently the Deputy Chairman of the Federation Council Committee of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation for Science, Education and Culture.
As the President of the Russian Chamber of Chamber and Industry, Sergei Katyrin, put it in remarks at the meeting, “the new leader has the primary task now to accelerate Russia’s economic return to this continent, from which we practically left in the 90s and now it is very difficult to increase presence there in Africa.”
According to Katyrin, Russia’s economic presence in Africa today is significantly inferior in comparison to the positions of leading Western countries and BRICS partners. “It’s time to overcome this yawning gap. Today, we face a difficult task to ensure the activities of Russian entrepreneurship on the African continent in the new conditions, taking into account all the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.”
“The African continent is of strategic interest for the Russian economy,” explained Katyrin. It is enough to cite just a few figures to understand why this region attracts entrepreneurs. Africa has 30 percent of the world’s mineral reserves, including 70 percent – platinum group metals, more than 50 types of precious stones, oil and gas reserves, and so forth.
In 2019, six Sub-Saharan African countries ranked among the top 10 fastest growing economies in the world. The potential of African countries is incomparably greater than the current level of their development. Cooperating with Africa, among other things, will contribute to the implementation of the national project to increase non-resource Russian exports to $250 billion.
Katyrin however stressed the necessity to resolve financial mechanism for business. “We need a state financial mechanism to support the work of Russian business in Africa otherwise it will be very difficult to break through the fierce competition of Western companies with such support. We need to focus on those areas where you can definitely count on success,” he told the meeting.
While pointing to lack of business information and the need to get rid of stereotypes about Africa, Sergei Katyrin emphasized that the maximum intensification of work is needed right now for the reason that, due to the general economic recession in the world, new companies from all developed countries are rushing with concrete business to new markets emerging in Africa.
In order to move forward and achieve significant success, the reorganized committee has to make double efforts in providing with Russian and African exporters, in both cases or both ways, basis for acquiring adequate knowledge of trade and investment procedures, rules and regulations as well as the existing market conditions.
There are also complicated certification procedures, expensive logistics, security and guarantee issues, and lack of direct aviation connections affecting the entire process of cooperation. The committee has to deal with these challenging questions as it makes the way for boosting Russia’s economic presence in Africa.
On the other hand, it has to work closely with African counterparts on the challenges and opportunities on the continent. Russia is, so far, a closed market to many African countries. It is difficult to access the Russian market. Africans are doing brisk business in the United States, in Europe and in Asia. All that is necessary here is for Russia and Africa to make consistent efforts to look for new ways, practical efforts at removing existing obstacles that have impeded trade and investment over the years.
In practical reality, resetting a comprehensive African agenda requires an extensive work and decisive leadership. With 54 African Union member countries already signed up for the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), gives an additional signal for foreign players seeking to take advantage of this new opportunity in Africa. An undeniable driving factor for consideration is that the AfCFTA has a lot more on offer besides the fact that it creates a single market of 1.3 billion people.
According to Sergei Katyrin, Russia is gradually overcoming the negative consequences of its retreat from Africa in the 90s. The first Russia-Africa summit and economic forum took place in Sochi in October 2019. During summit discussions, African representatives there constantly raised the question of the need for a more active return of Russia to the continent. Africans still have nostalgic interest towards Russia and Russians are eager to use that as unifying factor. Soviet Union has had very close and, in many respects, allied relations with most of the countries during the decolonization of Africa.
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