COVID 19 has exposed the digital gap within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries and made workers vulnerable. Hence, what can ASEAN countries do to enhance digitisation and ensure the future of their burgeoning young workforce?
ASEAN workforce and the digital gap
ASEAN, with approximately 650 million people, is one of the most vibrant and diverse economic caucus in the world.
In 2019, ASEAN recorded a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth of 4.5% with a moderate unemployment rate of 3.8%; a steady inward Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) totalling $USD 154.7 billion, distributed between services forming ~65% and manufacturing 35%; Most ASEAN countries have transitioned from the agricultural sector to manufacturing, leading to greater automation.
The ASEAN workforce has one of the highest youth population ratios of around 60%. The diversity of the highly skilled workforce varies hugely across these countries. Singapore is at the top of the league followed by countries like Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei and Philippines.
Since the 1990s, Indonesia and Vietnam have been rapidly industrialising, especially in technology-based skills in-line with their rapid focus on automation and now digitisation.
Besides a few initiatives, most ASEAN platforms actively seek to address the need to move up the industrial and technological value chain, while at the same time develop a skilled workforce that is able to embrace new technologies in services and manufacturing. Figure 1 describes the increasing number of people with internet usage within ASEAN countries.
Figure 1: Percentage of population using INTERNET within ASEAN for 2019
Capacity development and innovation
The ASEAN community embraces a strong culture of learning and investment in capacity development. The ASEAN governments promote a strong state-led policy that provides scholarships to capable students to undertake Masters and PhDs nationally and internationally especially in STEM education. Unfortunately, industry-led training and investment into R&D is less rigorous; but there are attractive government incentives for commercial sectors to increase investment in skills development and innovation. Figure 2 illustrates the numbers of patents produced by ASEAN countries for 2019 with Singapore leading.
In a recent UK ASEAN Business Council (UKABC) webinar session, it was mentioned that there is a need for the workforce to have an innovative and entrepreneurial mind-set. It was highlighted that organisations are looking for digital-based values and skills in areas including data analytics, and cyber security.
The ASEAN Digital integrated framework Action Plan (2019-2025), and the guidelines to skilled labour in response to digitisation were set up for this purpose. Governments across ASEAN countries are boosting the uptake of technologies across all firms and individuals, ensuring people have the skills to make the best use of them, and putting in place the right infrastructure, macroeconomic and regulatory conditions to enable their economies to adapt to and benefit from the new digital reality. However, is the ASEAN workforce geared up for these challenges and is the upskilling within a short duration of time sufficient to meet the demand?
Figure 2: Number of patent application per resident for ASEAN (1990-2018)
Challenges to digitisation
COVID-19 was instrumental in exposing the digital gap and how much needs to be done to upskill the ASEAN workforce. First, only a fraction of the population, mainly the knowledge workers with access to high speed internet, were able to fully work. Second, learning a new skill is hard if it is technical and requires critical and analytical thinking. As digital usage increases, there will be other issues: such as regulations, ethical code of conduct in the digital environment, access and handling of data.
What can ASEAN countries do to ensure the future of their workforce? First, ASEAN countries should continue to have diverse economies. This is essential as embracing economic complexity provides a wider portfolio of products and services for countries during difficult times. Second, ASEAN countries have to continue to invest in digital infrastructure, advanced manufacturing technologies, and in alternative energy sources. It is also important to invest in cyber security capabilities for digital security and privacy, to protect the digital business environment.
Education and training offerings must become flexible. On-the-job training, apprenticeships and opportunities with multinationals should be increased for ASEAN youth to obtain broader exposure to international best practises.
ASEAN countries should put more effort into co-creation of dynamic industrial and technological clusters; such as MIT and Cambridge. Where industry, government, research organisations and academia support each other, creating a hub for a continuous learning environment, but also the means of solving hard industrial problems and delivering innovation.
These are aspirations that require commitment and investment from different stakeholders. Nevertheless, if the ASEAN region wants to have a highly skilled workforce, and to be at the forefront of technology, it is vital for the ASEAN nations to continue to invest in education, training and capacity development.
Dr Kogila Balakrishnan, Director for Client and Business Development (East Asia) at WMG, University of Warwick.