The new wave of technological change, from digitisation of the economy to cross-border technology transfers, has swept over the world rapidly. This structural transformation has created both groups of disoriented traditionalists, as well as adaptable opportunists who see technological shift as the new modus vivendi of ASEAN. As the winds of technology increase in speed, it is paramount that ASEAN stays united and resilient amid this burgeoning change.
With record-high levels of cybercrime and manipulation in recent years, reluctance to uptake technological advancements is understandable. The most recent cyber attack in the SingHealth data breach in Singapore saw hackers getting away with the data of 1.5 million patients, including that of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
As the most technologically advanced country in the region, Singapore’s vulnerability to cyber-attacks underscores the fallibility of heavy reliance on technology. With even massive amounts of data to protect and greater risks, larger countries would inevitably show restraint in their willingness towards the technological shift.
The Philippines is no stranger to this, having experienced one of the greatest government data breaches in 2016 where personal details of a whopping 55 million voters were leaked online to social media sites. Interconnectivity and globalization have also exacerbated this situation within and outside of ASEAN, as fake news and online scams become rampant in a digital age.
As countries turn inwards to safeguard their information, they become more risk-averse and the benefits of using technology become peripheral. Such parochial mindsets hinder the progress of technological change in the region and affect its economic development.
In the case of Singapore, the healthcare data breach resulted in a pause of the Smart Nation drive temporarily, with Minister S. Iswaran reiterating the importance of not allowing any project to come to a standstill.
While Singapore and the Philippines have measures to notify affected users, Thailand and Brunei are still trailing behind in their fight against data breaches. The loopholes which allow cybercrime and misuse of technology only reduce the efficiency of the digital economy and can be prevented with necessary precautions.
The uneven technological development among ASEAN countries leaves much to be desired in enabling the region to progress on the same footing. According to the World Economic Forum, two-thirds of the ASEAN population live without access to basic internet services.
More technologically advanced countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand have the skills and resources to focus on innovation and shifting towards a knowledge-based economy. However, less technologically developed nations like Vietnam and Laos are still trying to deal with infrastructure and nation building at a nascent stage. For Laos, a significant 31.4% of its urban population still live in slums, reflecting the obscurities and challenges that less developed nations face in ensuring inclusivity.
Shifting towards technology before all ASEAN member states are equipped with the right infrastructure may prove to be more detrimental as it causes displacement of workers in less developed sectors. Moving away from “Factory Asia”, this seismic shift towards technology and automation may displace many workers in labor-intensive nations such as Cambodia and Vietnam.
The inconsistency in development prevents ASEAN member states an equal distribution of opportunities from its policies and may widen the gaps within its community. Thus, the greatest challenge that ASEAN must overcome is not an external barrier, but one from within that prevents it from realizing its full potential.
A rising tide that lifts all boats?
Yet, with the global digital economy gaining traction, ASEAN may be able to capitalise on the financial inclusion that follows. Financial technology (FinTech) is one example, where it has lowered production costs and increases efficiency, allowing more stakeholders within the region to enter the circular economy. This augurs well for both technologically advanced and less developed nations within ASEAN by facilitating cross-boundary cash flows.
While the goal of a cashless economy may seem out of reach for most ASEAN member states at present, integrating the ASEAN economies and expanding the connections between technology and economy are steps in the right direction and could open more opportunities for the economic landscape to develop in tandem with technological advances.
Beyond the economic landscape, technology cultivates key ideals of entrepreneurship and innovation. Modern technology is no longer just about achieving outcomes but improving processes at the intersections of human and science.
Ride-hailing service Grab stands out for its commitment to improve safety and user experience, rather than responding to demand and supply signals. Originating from Malaysia, Grab’s hyperlocal strategy has helped it to overcome underlying challenges such as different levels of infrastructure in the ASEAN region and address different countries’ needs in a targeted manner.
For instance, Grab provides safe, on-demand GrabBikes in Indonesia and Vietnam, where road congestion is a serious problem. Tapping into the operations of the gig economy, Grab has revolutionised the market by providing drivers a legitimate platform to offer their ride services.
In Indonesia, i-Grow has utilised Agritech or agricultural technology to merge farming with globalisation. Customers can simply purchase seeds and watch their crops grow from their phone, while fulfilling many of these city-dwellers desire to be closer to nature.
At the regional level, Singapore is taking the lead as ASEAN’s chair this year to assimilate technological change into the region’s culture as the new norm. It has pledged to upgrade three Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) Centres in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to Singapore Cooperation Centres (SCCs).
These are much needed efforts to help less-developed member states in ASEAN to develop their digital expertise and provide the imperative networks to tackle the potential perils of a digital economy. However, there is no doubt that more can be done to put ASEAN on the map as a major digital economy hub.
Preparing for a Digital Future
With the proposal of new initiatives such as the ASEAN Smart Cities Network, the shift seems to be pushing ahead full steam. Nevertheless, when implementing policies, it is crucial to harmonize the different social and contextual factors that could affect the bloc geopolitically and economically. Investing in human capital and education may also prove worthwhile in transforming labor-driven industries into innovation-led ones.
Going with the flow of technological shifts within ASEAN, the only thing certain is that the region should continue anticipating changes. This technological shift should not be viewed as a monolithic paradigm affecting only ASEAN but should be considered against a dynamic and global background, where inequalities and cyber threats persist.
The technological threats of cybercrime and manipulation remain the tip of the iceberg. Unsurprisingly, there are bound to be other obstacles preventing member states from harnessing the potential of these advancements. Ultimately, the ASEAN community is only as strong as its weakest member and it is the unity of the region amidst this shift that will determine whether they can sink or swim together.
Christel is currently an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore. As an avid reader of news articles around the world, she enjoys keeping up with developments in current affairs. She believes that societies are microcosms of the world and aspires to be source of positive change in her community. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.