The Future Looks Bright for ASEAN While Australia Struggles to Keep Pace

700 attendees from regional governments, civil society, startups and businesses gathered with youth, technology and growth as key themes for this year’s meeting—all amidst the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its implications for this rapidly developing region.

Risk-takers, innovators and rule-breakers, this is a shout-out to you. Where are you? We need to talk.

"Some people don't like change, but you need to embrace change if the alternative is disaster." - Elon Musk

Last week I had the privilege of heading to Cambodia for the annual World Economic Forum on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Wow, what an experience that was.

For a little bit of general context about the potential of the region, here are 2 fun facts:

  1. 120,000 new ASEAN citizens are being connected to, and using, the Internet every single day. With Australia’s current population at about 23 million, that’s more than the population of Australia connecting to the Internet every 225 days (~7 months!).
  2. The population of the ASEAN region is around 700 million. 50% of the population is under 30!

700 attendees from regional governments, civil society, startups and businesses gathered with youth, technology and growth as key themes for this year’s meeting—all amidst the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its implications for this rapidly developing region.

Warm and ever welcoming, Cambodia played the perfect host. With a focus on digital infrastructure and education, Cambodia’s intense preparation for a deeper engagement in Southeast Asia was clear. Kao Kim Hourn, Minister Delegate to the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia, shared Cambodia’s plan of action according to the 5 P’s: Peace Prosperity together; Poverty reduction; Progress across all classes; and a People-centred focus. Clear to all participants was that (as with basically all of Southeast Asia), Cambodia has a huge drive to innovate. Adding in the influence of an extremely vibrant culture, as well as acknowledging the country’s difficult history, this drive to accelerate change for ASEAN set a unique and inspiring backdrop for the event.

Above Left to Right: Sarah Tesar and Ben Gill (WEF Global Shapers), Daniel Moss (Executive Editor Global Economics at Bloomberg News), Jane Duke (Australian Ambassador to ASEAN), Jordan Duffy (ME!)

Entrepreneurship is the name of the game in ASEAN

(And, if I could pick a catchword for the week, it would definitely be ‘leapfrogging’.)

In one of the panels Tan Hooi Ling, co-chair of the event & co-founder of Grab—Southeast Asia’s biggest ride-hailing app—said she believes that the ASEAN region has been able to ‘leapfrog’ straight to mobile technology. “How many of us have landlines for our phones?” she challenged the event participants.

A rising number of high profile, high impact ASEAN-based entrepreneurs—like Tan Hooi Ling—are driving new infrastructure, markets and connected citizens like never before. It seems like the vision for the future of ASEAN sits squarely in their hands with many government ministers at the event acknowledging that entrepreneurs were needed to drive this vision of a highly connected, digital, prosperous region. An attendee quipped that where roads and trains were once the best way to connect and develop a region, the Internet is now accelerating this faster. With Internet access, distributed teams and home-based entrepreneurs are enabled to leverage this access and increase the livelihoods for themselves, their community and their nation.

In practice, Kao Kim Hourn added that Cambodia has been able to ‘leapfrog’ fixed infrastructure, and arrive straight to mobile: resulting in rapid adoption of new technology without the cost and maintenance of fixed infrastructure.

“Things will always change. The industry will always have headwinds or tailwinds… how do you change a challenge into an opportunity?” - Tan Hooi Ling, co-founder, Grab

One for all and all for one

A new level of growing transparency and accountability of governments and politicians in the region was at the heart of a lot of discussions, with the underlying hope that individual economic development will drive peace, security, and prosperity for the region.  Governments also looked west to countries like Estonia and their e-government operating model that has fully embraced digital reform. Apparently, the idea is to try and run their government like a startup.

Adding to this, initiatives like “One Belt, One Road” present huge opportunities for the ASEAN region, which is focussed on rapidly creating the ecosystem needed to compete globally.  (It’s also a kind of digital throwback to the Silk Road era).

It’s not all rainbows and unicorns though. Heavyweights like Tony Fernandes, Founder & CEO of AirAsia issuing clear warnings for governments and businesses to be ready for the changes, or lose relevance.

“Regulations slow us down in a world that requires agility” - Tony Fernandes, Founder & CEO of AirAsia

Above: Open Forum, Fernandes one from the right

Although with big business working collaboratively to remove data divides, jointly approach policies and markets, and integrate supply chains—combined with the determination of ASEAN governments—it looks like the region is on track to ‘leapfrog’ much of the West.

Lots of talk about ‘direct democracy’ was mentioned throughout as a means of achieving new government standards and engaging dispersed populations. This is an area that I’m going to be keeping an eye on and is possibly another avenue for the ASEAN region to ‘leapfrog’ countries like Australia. 

Okay, so what does this mean for us?

Thinking back to what this means for Australia, I’m still convinced that it’s going to be a challenge given our legacy issues; but it’s also a significant opportunity (if we can keep up).

Right now, we’re transforming too slowly. Let’s break this down:

  • Australia’s slow digital transformation is an economic threat. It was clear that as a region, ASEAN nations are completely focussed. They’re focussed not on just an individual company or even national level, but as a region and creating the ecosystem they need to compete in the digital world is a common priority. Australia needs to move quicker.
  • There are opportunities now to work with ASEAN stakeholders while much is in the early stages of development. Outsourcing entry level roles immediately comes to mind: creating employment opportunities for ASEAN, whilst positioning Australia to drive knowledge, innovation and thought leadership.
  • No one is safe from digital disruption. The time when long and stable careers were the norm is now over. Every job will change, and a nation’s workforce must become adaptable by focussing on lifelong learning and agility.
  • Remember those brokers and middlemen? Their time is up too. Unique value in the supply chain and market is of growing importance, forcing everyone to rethink what new value they add to a market or a customer’s journey. Australia is in this boat too. We must work on reforming processes, logistics, and operations in our organisations and governments to maximise our efficiencies, as well as look for new value that we can provide to stay relevant

Time’s up.

We need to digitise systems, processes and even in the physical world – think IoT. If we want to keep pace in the modern world, Australia needs to find effective ways to increase testing and experimentation with new technologies in the ecosystem (startups/ research/ enterprise/ government).

The time for thinking is up. We need to start doing.

"Some people don't like change, but you need to embrace change if the alternative is disaster." - Elon Musk

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