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Jakarta Post

Four ways to build a cohesive and sustainable future in Southeast Asia

  • Justin Wood


Singapore   /   Fri, January 17, 2020   /   04:25 pm
Four ways to build a cohesive and sustainable future in Southeast Asia Flags of many colors: A security officer stands guard during the preparations for the 34th ASEAN Summit in Bangkok. (Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun)

The World Economic Forum will convene its 50th Annual Meeting in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, this month under the theme “Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World.” Nearly 3,000 leaders from business, government, academia and civil society will discuss pressing issues and drive collective action to address them.

Among the 118 countries taking part, Indonesia is sending a strong delegation of government ministers led by Luhut Pandjaitan, Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment. Many of the country’s business champions, thinkers and policymakers will join them.

Two of the issues on the agenda at this 50th meeting are critical: the unfolding climate crisis, and the deepening social divisions arising from models of economic growth that are not inclusive. Addressing these challenges would be hard at the best of times. Today, given rising geostrategic tensions, a slowing global economy, and the disruptions of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the task is even tougher. But leaders cannot afford to wait.

In Asia, the picture can sometimes seem deceptively bright. Economies are growing, and poverty is falling. Back in 1980, 80 percent of the people in East and South-east Asia lived in extreme poverty – a daily income of less than US$1.9 (measured using purchasing power parity equivalent in 2011). Today, the figure is around 1 percent.

But even in Asia, it would be wrong to be complacent. The need to build cohesive and sustainable social and economic systems is greater than ever. Here are four areas in need of attention.

Strengthen ASEAN centrality in the architecture for regional relationships

The countries of the Indo-Pacific make up the world’s most energetic region. Resilient economic growth and entrepreneurial passion are powering unprecedented prosperity. But the Indo-Pacific also faces rising geostrategic rivalry. Competing narratives are emerging for how to how to organise trade, how to manage investment, and how to structure regional security and cooperation. Trade is especially important. Asia’s prosperity has been driven by globalisation and the opening of economic systems. There is a clear need for nations to craft unifying approaches to these challenges.

Sitting astride the border of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the 10 countries of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) are well placed to meet this need. Indonesia and its fellow ASEAN members have crafted a unique approach to cooperation.

And with the deepening of the ASEAN Economic Community, they have demonstrated what is possible for economic integration. The ASEAN bloc should thus strengthen its position as a neutral platform for facilitating peace and cooperation. Its newly adopted “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” positions the region as a stabilising force for managing wider tensions and harmonising divergent priorities.

Embrace new approaches to the environmental crisis

At a global level, the speed of economic growth has far outpaced the ability of humankind to manage the environmental consequences of that growth, and Asia is no exception. Take plastic. Five of the 10 biggest contributors to marine plastic waste are ASEAN countries. Or consider the horrific bushfires raging in Australia and the recent floods in Indonesia that have been fuelled in part by rising global temperatures and changing weather patterns. Without action, the consequences of environmental pressures will become ever more serious.

The World Economic Forum is contributing in many ways. At our Annual Meeting in Davos, we will launch an initiative to plant or restore an additional one trillion trees world by 2030. In ASEAN, the Forum runs the secretariat for the Tropical Forest Alliance, working with agricultural communities on new approaches to managing forest resources. And in the field of plastics, our Global Plastic Action Partnership set up a national task force in Indonesia in 2019 to catalyse new approaches to recycling
and the circular economy.

Prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution

New technologies, from artificial intelligence to blockchain to the internet of things, are changing economies and societies at accelerating speed. Governments that understand these changes and can help their economies adjust could see huge benefits, including improving the productivity of workers, moving industries up the value chain, and unleashing new services in healthcare, banking, education and many other areas. In Indonesia, local companies like GoJek and Traveloka are inspiring pioneers. Foreign firms are just as important: Indonesia’s rich nickel and cobalt deposits are attracting investments to make batteries and could drive the production of new electric vehicles.

But the Fourth Industrial Revolution also holds the potential for destabilisation and disruption. Regulatory systems for ensuring that technology works for the benefit of society must be upgraded. Here, the World Economic Forum is working with governments to pioneer new approaches to technology governance. Over the past three years, the Forum has set up a global network of Centres for the Fourth Industrial Revolution to bring government, business and other stakeholders together to craft new policies and protocols for emerging technologies. In Asia, centres are now open in Japan, China and India. Partnerships have also been set up with Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and New Zealand.

Invest in training workers for the jobs of the future

Given the accelerating pace of change under the Fourth Industrial Revolution, workers face mounting challenges to stay relevant. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2018 estimated that, by 2022, the world would see the loss of 75 million jobs thanks to technological disruption, but would also see a gain of 133 million new roles. If workers are to transition from old jobs to new ones, they will need constant training and reskilling.

Every year, the World Economic Forum conducts a survey of ASEAN youths aged between 15 and 35. In 2019, the survey polled 56,000 youths on the future of work. Some 62 percent believed that their skills were already outdated and needed to be constantly upgraded. And yet, only 14 percent said that they received any formal on-the-job training.

At its meeting in Davos the Forum will unveil a bold new initiative called the Reskilling Revolution. Its goal is to set up a process for the reskilling of one billion workers by 2030. In ASEAN, the Forum is equally active. In November 2018, the Forum partnered with a coalition of local companies such as Indonesia’s Tokopedia, Singapore’s Sea, and Viet Nam’s FPT, as well as global tech giants such as Google, Microsoft and Cisco to launch a skills programme. The target was to train 20 million ASEAN workers employed by SMEs in digital skills by the end of 2020. So far, the initiative has achieved 10.5 million. Governments clearly must upgrade education systems and ensure that learning becomes a lifelong endeavour. But companies too have a duty to invest in their staff.

All of these issues will be on the table during the Annual Meeting in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, this month. And they’ll also be on the table when the Forum stages its regional meeting in Indonesia this year. The World Economic Forum will convene its annual “World Economic Forum on ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific” in Jakarta on 7-9 July 2020. We hope you can join the conversations. But most important of all, we hope that you can join the commitments for action.


Head of Asia Pacific, and member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.

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