Jakarta. Following a day when government leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations called for closer economic integration, business leaders attending the two-day conference of the World Economic Forum on Asean got down to the nitty-gritty on Thursday (02/06) of how such integration can be effected.
In a session on the emergence of the digital economy in Southeast Asia, global and regional information technology leaders said countries in the region could miss out on major opportunities if action is not taken now.
They therefore urged governments to collaborate on harmonizing regulations and liberalizing the sector.
"What is happening is that the uptake of digital services is going so fast and is bringing down borders between these different nations," said Sigve Brekke, president and chief executive of Norway's Telenor Group.
Telenor, among other investors in the region, holds a mobile operator's licence in Myanmar.
"But I don't see Asean countries taking part in this. I am afraid that Asean is losing out. There are too many big words about digital opportunities, but I don't see the action," Brekke added.
In addition to coordinating policy frameworks, the region needs to foster startups and create products to meet the demand for digital services, Brekke continued. Local content could include information for farmers, which would allow them to cut out middlemen, and for use in education. Cashless payment systems should also be possible.
Brekke's message to policymakers was: "The revolution is coming extremely fast. There are great opportunities for Asean companies to take charge of the future. Get your act together – the sooner the better."
There are indications that Asean countries are waking up to the opportunities of the digital economy and the priorities for achieving it.
"For many years, Southeast Asia has had an insecurity complex relative to China and India," said Nick Nash, group president of Garena in Singapore. "But we are beginning to see home-grown companies. On the one hand, I appreciate the need for the proverbial kick in the pants, but there are rays of light."
No matter how you define the digital economy, government and policy play an important role in making it happen, Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation chief executive Yasmin Mahmood noted. While the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be driven by business, she observed, young people in Southeast Asia, where 40 percent of the population is below 30 years of age, will be creating innovations from cutting-edge technologies.
Government policy has to focus on schools and invest in education to turn young digital natives into digital producers, Yasmin emphasized. Inclusion is important, but this does not just involve access to the Internet; it also entails delivering faster transmission speeds.
Emirsyah Satar, the chairman of Indonesian e-commerce firm MatahariMall.com, said greater connectivity was critical for the digital economy. In Indonesia, an Internet user in Papua, at the eastern end of the sprawling archipelago, downloads files 25 times more slowly than someone in Jakarta.
"That is the challenge for the government," he said.
Maximizing the opportunities that will emerge from the digital economy will require massive reforms in education and skills training across the region.
Indonesia's Education Minister Anies Baswedan noted that the challenges facing Indonesia were similar to those faced by many other developing nations.
Speaking at a session themed "What if Jobs as We Know Them Disappear?" Baswedan said that preparing the country's youth for the Fourth Industrial Revolution was his ministry's top priority.
"We have 21st-century students, 20th-century teachers and 19th-century classrooms. So to tackle this issue, the government must empower the key stakeholders who are the teachers and parents. We often overlook parents but they play a critical role," the minister said.
The government is thus in the process of training Indonesia's 2.9 million teachers to be facilitators and not just instructors in the classroom. This will require a fundamental shift in mind sets, Anies said.
"We are all learners, including teachers and parents," he said.