WEF on Asean: Key Agenda

Khmer Times, 6 September 2018

The World Economic Forum on Asean is going to take place in Hanoi on 11-13 September, with the participation of, if nothing changes, seven state leaders from Asean member states, namely State Counsellor of Myanmar Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

The main theme of the forum this year focuses on how Asean can embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution – which generally refers to technological revolution in the fields of artificial intelligence, robotics, 3-D printing, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing. This is a new, critical area of regional cooperation as Asean moves towards building a genuine people-centered, people-oriented community.

Opportunities are present, stemming from the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and we need to be aware of and get ready to face emerging challenges such as job losses and disruption, inequality and political instability, and cyberattacks. With the accelerating pace of change and transformation in almost all dimensions of social, economic and political landscapes, Asean member countries need to accelerate their comprehensive reforms, especially regulatory reforms, in order to grasp the benefits and overcome the challenges.

Information and knowledge sharing is critical to building national and regional capacity in navigating through these transformations and uncertainties. The less developed economies like Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar need more international support in building their digital infrastructure and human capital to survive and stay economically competitive. If not, they risk being left far behind. Be aware that widening the development gap within the region will prevent the realisation of a genuine regional community and could potentially trigger regional division and instability. A two-tiered Asean is not a healthy Asean.

The report by the World Economic Forum and the Asian Development Bank in 2017 suggests that regional governments must be fast, agile, experimental, inclusive, and open in developing an ecosystem for digital integration. Being inclusive in policy design and execution has been one of the main shortcomings in regional integration in Southeast Asia since regional projects are chiefly led by political ruling elites with low participation from the private sector and civil society. It is commonly said that Asean is an elite-driven regional project.

How to transform this unprecedented breadth and depth of technological revolution into a source of inclusive and sustainable development remains the top challenge for Asean and its member states. It is proven that inequality is one of the root causes of political and social instability and Asean must develop a strategy to link technology with the narrowing development gap – one of which is to promote “an inclusive Fourth Industrial Revolution”.

The new Cambodian government to be formed today has included digital economy into its development agenda for the next five years, with the expectation that it will help Cambodia to compete with other regional countries within the context of intensifying market competition, the gradual collapsing of labor-intensive manufacturing industry, and the concentration of market power by multinational companies.

The local enterprises, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), will face mounting challenges to remain competitive in the market that will transition to virtual products and services than real ones. Technology remains unaffordable and inaccessible for many SMEs in the region and there is an urgent need to develop a support mechanism, both financial and technical support, to assist SMEs in utilizing the benefits accorded in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Another interesting agenda of the forum is the dialogue session on the future of the Mekong region – a new growth center and strategic frontier of Asia. The leaders from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam will present their views on the current state of regional development and integration in the Mekong and the management of the Mekong River. There are increasing concerns that hydropower dams being constructed and planned along the mainstream of the river will severely affect the livelihoods and ecosystem in the whole Mekong River Basin. The recent dam collapse in Laos has prompted riparian countries to review their hydropower projects.

The two downstream countries, Cambodia and Vietnam, are the most affected countries. They have put certain pressures on upstream countries, particularly Laos, to conduct transboundary environmental and social impact assessments before constructing dams. Data sharing on water flow and quality is another key area of cooperation, especially in the dry season. There are many outstanding issues and emerging challenges that the Mekong countries need to overcome and find suitable solutions for all. A win-win cooperation must be real on the ground, not only in diplomatic statements. The perception of the local people, not the ruling elites, is the best indicator to reflect and prove whether a development project is a win-win project.

Asean and other sub-regional institutions such as the Mekong River Commission share one common weakness which is the lack of implementation and enforcement. Policies abound – either in the form of blueprints, declarations, or joint statements – but implementation is lacking. Next week, Asean leaders will share their perspectives on the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Mekong River. It will be a reminder that people want to know concrete actions and solutions that benefit whole societies and not small groups of political and business elites. That is what inclusiveness is all about.

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