Conversations at the World Economic Forum 2022: Building a Digital ASEAN for all

Conversations at the World Economic Forum 2022: Building a Digital ASEAN for all

By SMU City Perspectives team

Published 25 July, 2022


Digitalisation is to be shared; the more you share the process, the learning and the talent, the better it is for the whole of ASEAN in its ability to market to the rest of the world.

Annie Koh

Professor Emeritus of Finance (Practice)

In brief

  • ASEAN member states need to work together to accelerate the region’s digital transformation and harness its diversity to strengthen their economic standing in a post-pandemic world.
  • Greater cross-country data sharing and labour mobility can lead to exponential growth for the region, but it must be accompanied by robust governance and streamlining of processes.
  • Governments and businesses each have a role to play and the key is to take a systems approach; helping all parties achieve digitalisation for the benefit of the whole.

Digitalisation was the lifeline that pulled many countries through the turbulence of the pandemic, and nowhere else was this more evident than in the ASEAN region. From the distribution of household support vouchers and vaccines across its cities and rural areas, to the pivoting of businesses (big and small, formal and informal) to online marketplaces, the period saw digital adoption occur at an unprecedented rate and scale. In fact, within the last year alone, the number of internet users in the ASEAN region has increased by over 10% (Google Report, 2021). This means an impressive 400 million people, or 70% of the region, are currently online (Statista, 2022); a phenomenal achievement considering that the global rate is at 60% (DataReportal, 2022).

But even with such progress being made, one challenge remains - how can ASEAN step up its digitalisation efforts as a region and harness its diversity to strengthen their economic standing in a post-pandemic world? This was a question that Professor Emeritus Annie Koh and other attendees sought to answer at the World Economic Forum’s ‘A Digital ASEAN for All’ dinner. For her, great potential lies within reach. With Indonesia, the largest member of the community, chairing the next G20 summit and taking over as ASEAN chair, she believes that there is much promise for a ripple-effect that can lead to tremendous progress for the region. However, action must be taken now to propel ASEAN on the right trajectory.

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Establishing trust in cross-border data sharing 

Cross-border data sharing is one area that offers an explosion of possibilities for economic growth in the region, but Prof Koh stresses that it must be accompanied by a robust data governance system. While consumers today are starting to accept that data sharing can bring improvements to their experience (Statista, 2020) a significant number still remain cautious or resistant. The same applies to governments who are concerned about the sharing of sensitive data outside their borders.

In response to this, many member states have developed their own data governance initiatives thanks in part to the ASEAN Framework on Digital Data Governance that was developed in 2018. However, interoperability between these different systems remains a challenge, especially since the readiness level varies drastically across the ten member countries. Coordination and commitment by all member states are therefore key to achieving a data ecosystem where data can flow across borders seamlessly and securely. Once achieved, governments, individuals and companies can feel confident in pursuing the opportunities offered by a digital economy while ensuring their data protection concerns are addressed.

Creating a dynamic and agile workforce 

Labour mobility is another area that has game changing potential, but the challenge here is in altering mindsets. Prof Koh says “Instead of embracing the fact that digitalisation is borderless, ageless and genderless, we are still very preoccupied about national borders.” She believes that addressing this closed-mindedness and adapting structural barriers to facilitate skill-based “cross-border” mobility could do wonders in helping the region and its citizens reach their true potential.

The example she provides is the Mekong area where 70% of the population is under the age of 30. These technologically savvy individuals are hungry to learn and eager to work in larger markets but face limited employment and upskilling opportunities. On the opposite end of the spectrum, many Singaporean professionals have great experience and domain expertise but lack market exposure in other markets. This hinders them from getting into leadership positions in multinational corporations (MNCs). Greater labour mobility and matching diverse talent across markets can therefore create more opportunities for upskilling, expansion of businesses and all-round growth for ASEAN member states. While current bilateral agreements allow for this to an extent, she hopes to see greater cross-recognition of competencies and skillsets across markets and sectors, resulting in an ASEAN workforce that is more dynamic and agile than ever.

Prof. Annie Koh on Workplace learning and Intergenerational Mentoring in Upskilling the ASEAN workforce:

“So digital is a tool, but the domain knowledge is the responsibility of every company. And the conversations at the Digital ASEAN dinner was while the young may have the tech tools, the older generation has the domain expertise. So, there should be an intergenerational mentoring. So that's why ‘on the job’ learning and skills transfer are so critical, because the people with the experience will understand the sector, the market, the localization, and the young people can do reverse mentoring, and have the experienced talent pick up and embrace the digital capabilities, where together, we all benefit from intergenerational upskilling and retooling.”

Working together on different levels  

Prof Koh believes that policy makers and business owners have a part to play in this digital transformation effort. The key is to take a systems approach. Governments, for example, can look across their supply chains and value to see how they can assist smaller players in other countries to get onboard the digitalisation journey. Similarly, large businesses that partner with Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) can help their smaller counterparts be part of the digital journey through simple channels like digital payment and supply chain financing.

These seemingly small actions can do wonders in achieving not just digital transformation but build sustainability and financial inclusion. Trade transparency aided by blockchain technology, for example, becomes possible if everyone (from the small-town farmer in Thailand to the packaging business in Singapore) is equipped with trusted digital infrastructure. Similarly, financial inclusion can be made possible if micro businesses across sectors receive the resources and support that they need to not just stay afloat, but also have access to working capital.

Prof Annie Koh on the role businesses can play in ASEAN's digital transformation:

“Big and small companies have the responsibility to develop and invest in their human capital. When you invest in people and let them see the purpose of what they're doing within the jobs, I think this is stronger than any perk that you could give them, because you are actually investing for their own sustainability and relevance. I believe that digital is for all, and that conversation at the WEF dinner had started many people on the pathway of reimagining better and broader. Broader means you must also help people who are not within your country, company or sector. And I see this as part of the learning and giving in a post-Covid world.”

An intention-driven digital era  

ASEAN is entering an exciting new digital era with each member nation rolling out its own digital transformation plans while also collectively partaking in the Bandar Seri Begawan Roadmap (BSBR) -- a digitalisation initiative with concrete steps to help the region recover from the pandemic. With the ASEAN Digital Economy Framework Agreement (DEFA) set to be determined in a few years' time, the region seems to be well on its way to digital economy integration on a global level.

Prof Koh encourages all businesses and governments to embrace the opportunities that digitalisation offers, and to do so with a clear sense of purpose. Profit and growth can be achieved alongside larger goals of sustainability and social equality if leaders make responsible and well-guided decisions that are focused on improving lives across the board. She shares that ASEAN’s diversity has always been its strength, but a digital ASEAN would be better able to optimise these diverse resources in a way that benefits all. She states, “We are in this together. Until and unless you help others digitalise as fast as you, you will not benefit just from your own progress. We need a Digital ASEAN for all.”