What Technology Means in Moving Towards a People-Centred ASEAN Community

By Dr Astrid S. Tuminez, Regional Director, Corporate, External and Legal Affairs (CELA), Microsoft Southeast Asia

For many people, the last 24 hours of a year is a day of hope for a better new year. 31 December 2015 was more: it was an entirely new beginning for the people of ten countries.

That day saw the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states formalise their integration into a single market, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). The agreement will see greater freedom of capital, goods and services, and skilled labour across the region, promising accelerated trade growth for all countries. Experts predict that the combined GDP of AEC will grow from USD2.6 trillion to USD4.7 trillion by 2020, making the bloc the world’s fourth-largest economy by 2030.

Just ahead of the launch, I met with government, business, and community leaders at the 1ASEAN Entrepreneurship Summit in Kuala Lumpur. The excitement in the air was palpable, and it was as much about the opportunities as well as the challenges ahead.

Dr. Astrid Tuminez speaking at the 1ASEAN Entrepreneurship Summit (1AES)

Dr. Astrid Tuminez speaking at the 1ASEAN Entrepreneurship Summit (1AES)

What kinds of challenges? It could be an Indonesian community unable to afford health services, Vietnamese people suffering from the scarcity of potable water, or Myanmar orphans experiencing the shortage of vocational training that could prepare them for a better life. All these were some of the real-life issues presented at a Summit event, the ASEAN Impact Challenge.

As a child, I had lived in the slums of Iloilo, Philippines. As an adult, I worked in New York and other cities. In the back of my mind, I knew the extremes of deprivation as well as the privileges of those who sit at the top of the economic heap. In AEC countries, similar dynamics of “haves” and “have-nots” abound.  How can this problem be addressed better?

At the Impact Challenge panel discussion with hundreds of ASEAN social entrepreneurs, I emphasised the need to balance growth and shared prosperity.  If the fruits of growth are monopolised by a few, AEC will not be able to create sustainable and resilient communities. From 1990 to 2010, Asia and the Pacific have halved extreme poverty but the rich/poor divide has worsened in many economies. A recent IMF report shows, for example, that it is the equal society—not the unequal one—that creates truly beneficial growth. Growth alone, without equity, is hollow and unsustainable.

There is no silver-bullet solution for poverty alleviation, but technology can play a big role. For instance, information hubs in the Mekong region provide livelihoods and disaster management information, which help villagers to manage their farms and mitigate flood risks. Here, technology access means that people can access information needed to improve their socio-economic conditions.

At a more macro level, reducing inequality across communities, countries and regions requires cost-effective access to new technologies.  This will widen access to the tools that facilitate education, employment, and entrepreneurship.

One real game-changer would be having cloud computing services for massive privacy-protected data and storage services over a public network. This would help ASEAN businesses harness the data, intelligence, analytics and insights that come from the power of mobile and cloud computing, and enjoy the benefits that businesses in the developed countries are already reaping.  This is why, at the Summit, I and others emphasised the importance of a public cloud.

The free flow of data via public cloud services will be the key enabler of the realisation of goals set out in the AEC Blueprint 2025. We simply cannot afford another digital divide.

I am heartened that the goals articulated in the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 are closely aligned with global development goals, showing a greater commitment in the region to combating inequality, environmental degradation, and other development issues. These thorny problems will require new modes of collaboration between public agencies, private enterprises, and civil society.  Strong leadership, aided by modern technology, will be key ingredients of ASEAN’s greatest transformation.

Dr Astrid S. Tuminez joined Microsoft in October 2012 as the Regional Director of Legal and Corporate Affairs in Southeast Asia. She is also an Adjunct Professor, the former Vice-Dean (Research) and Assistant Dean (Executive Education) of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Dr Tuminez was also a Senior Advisor at the Salzburg Global Seminar, Director of Research for alternative investments at AIG Global Investment, and a programme officer at Carnegie Corporation of New York.

She has been a U.S. Institute of Peace Scholar, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and a member of the International Advisory Board of the Global Economic Symposium, the Asian Women Leadership University project and the Institute on Disability and Public Policy for ASEAN.

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