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OPINION

Connected, inclusive and sustainable in the digital age

Whether ASEAN can stay resilient, secure and innovative will depend on how it looks to develop its policies to adapt to a constantly evolving landscape.

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Mr Feldman presenting a copy of US-ABC's 'ASEAN Matters for America/America Matters for ASEAN' publication to ASEAN Secretary-General, Lim Jock Hoi during the US-ABC's annual business mission to the ASEAN Secretariat in March earlier this year.

IN an increasingly dynamic and technology-driven world, all governments face challenges and opportunities in deciding what investments and policies should be implemented today to encourage innovation while protecting its people and ultimately, developing the best possible societies for tomorrow. 

As ASEAN nations continue their individual socio-economic journeys with the aspiration of collectively building a regionally integrated and globally connected ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) with the potential of becoming the fourth largest economy in the world by 2050, the over 150 member companies of the US-ASEAN Business Council (US-ABC) look forward to continuing our longstanding partnership with ASEAN.  

ASEAN is Asia's premier regional economic hub and is entering the digital age from a foundation of strength with a young population and almost universal mobile penetration, as it seizes an opportunity to harness the power of transformative technologies to support next generation businesses' engines of growth. 

As more industries look to incorporate technology into their core business, the ASEAN digital economy is also projected to grow by 500 per cent to be worth over US$200 billion by 2025.

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ASEAN's technopreneur startups are also attracting more attention from global investors, with investment funding more than tripling - from US$2.5 billion in 2016 to US$7.9 billion in 2017 - which has contributed to the creation of 12 unicorns across South-east Asia.     

As ASEAN leaders gather this week and begin reflecting upon Singapore's 2018 Chairmanship of ASEAN, the US-ABC's activities throughout the year - including business missions, SME training programmes, the US-ASEAN Internship Programme and participation in sectoral ministerial meetings - have allowed us to witness both the progress being made and the potential setbacks to fulfilling the region's digital economy potential.

Adapting to digital age

We commend the significant efforts that ASEAN has made in adapting to the digital age, pushing forward deliverables such as the ASEAN Agreement on e-Commerce and the ASEAN Digital Integration Framework.

Yet we also recognise the public policy concerns of governments related to data privacy, cyber security, digital payments and the impacts of technological disruption.  

As partners with ASEAN, we believe greater public-private partnerships, including those with the US private sector, can support the development of technical understanding and capabilities among institutions.

This will in turn help governments apply global best practices and standards, to promote innovation while at the same time foster security, and to equip SMEs and larger domestic and regional companies with the necessary tools to prosper in the digital age.

Digital landscapes continue to evolve and ASEAN economies, to varying degrees, are all looking at how to formulate laws, policies and regulations governing various components of the digital economy to successfully implement national and regional Industry 4.0, Smart Cities, and e-commerce frameworks, as well as FinTech initiatives. 

If the digital economy is truly the way forward for all ASEAN nations to reach the AEC 2025 goals, regional and national digital regulatory frameworks which are protectionist in nature will be counter-intuitive.

Equally, trade policies which attempt to nationalise as opposed to modernise the free and secure movement of goods, services, capital, skills, and data across borders will especially constrain economic opportunities for SMEs and consumers in the 21st Century.

The US-ABC looks forward to exploring opportunities to expand its capacity-building efforts with government bodies through ministerial engagements, workshops and study missions so that ASEAN may utilise global best practices in digital economy regulatory frameworks from sources such as APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Forum), the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) and other fora to position itself as a "global ASEAN".

We believe the concept of ASEAN centrality is more important than ever, because ASEAN's digital economy's strength is in its numbers.

With the world's third-largest population becoming increasingly interconnected, cyber threats to ASEAN Member States, institutions and citizens are naturally expanding. 

Interconnectedness

With growing regional interconnectedness, the need to develop a resilient regional cyber security ecosystem is key to addressing systemic risks to critical infrastructure and building the trust of citizens to utilise new technologies and payment systems. 

The US-ABC is proud to be a supporter of both national and regional cyber security working groups in ASEAN and salutes the government of Singapore's leadership as ASEAN chair in launching the ASEAN-Singapore Cybersecurity Center of Excellence to enhance both capacity and policy cooperation in the region.

For nearly 35 years, the US-ABC has promoted American business in ASEAN and ASEAN in the US.

We also collaborate with other foreign and local trade associations as well as chambers of commerce across the region to support the AEC 2025 vision of a deeply integrated and highly cohesive ASEAN economy.

The US-ABC has consistently supported the development of the AEC and believes that in the current global environment, deepening regional integration is in ASEAN's strategic interests.

The "digital economy" will soon become just the "economy", and ASEAN is set to the reap the benefits of this digital age.

Whether the region can stay resilient, secure and innovative will depend on how it looks to develop its policies to adapt to this constantly evolving landscape.

By preserving its vision for an integrated region, and upholding robust platforms for multi-stakeholder engagements, we believe ASEAN will be well-poised to stay connected, inclusive and sustainable in the digital age.

  • The writer is president & CEO of the US-ASEAN Business Council.