At the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, my homeland the Lao PDR, like many other nations, closed its schools. Over 1.7 million children in the Lao PDR suffered from learning loss during this period. In ASEAN, school closure resulted in an unprecedented and sudden disruption of education for around 152 million children and youth in 2020. The Lao PDR and all other ASEAN countries carried out online learning. We soon found out, however, that the requisite infrastructure for online education was far from sufficient.
There is a significant disparity in access to technology in Southeast Asia. Our ASEAN Rapid Assessment: The Impact of COVID-19 on Livelihoods Across ASEAN (2020) reveals that only 53 per cent of rural children and adolescents have an internet connection at home as opposed to 72 per cent of urban kids. Moreover, in countries like Cambodia, the Lao PDR, and Myanmar, only a small portion of homes have access to broadband internet. And while mobile penetration is high in most ASEAN countries, many still do not have access to unlimited internet on their mobile devices. The prices to access digital networks are also too high, thus, limiting internet use.
Unleashing the power of digital transformation
The COVID-19 pandemic is a catalyst for accelerating ASEAN’s development agenda. The crisis pushed the region’s digital initiatives forward, incorporating the Fourth Industrial Revolution into its recovery strategy. In the wake of the crisis, ASEAN developed the Consolidated Strategy on the Fourth Industrial Revolution for ASEAN (2021), which provides policy guidance in building an ASEAN digital community across the three pillars and maximising the benefits of this digital transformation.
In his statement at the 28th ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) Council Meeting, ASEAN Secretary-General Dato Lim Jock Hoi affirmed that the ASEAN Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) Task Force Group will provide cross-pillar coordination in implementing the priority initiatives under the 4IR Consolidated Strategy. He stressed that ASCC must continue to harness the opportunities of digital transformation to support regional recovery and improve the lives of our people.
ASEAN cannot downplay the urgency to adapt to this new era. Both the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework (ACRF) and the Ha Noi Declaration on the ASEAN Community’s Post-2025 Vision recognise that accelerating inclusive digital transformation is necessary to create social and economic opportunities for people and reduce social disparity.
Digital transformation efforts in the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community
Several initiatives of the ASCC sectors are consistent with the 4IR Consolidated Strategy. On education, the 12th ASEAN Education Ministers Meeting held in October 2022 endorsed the Declaration on the Digital Transformation of Education Systems in ASEAN, which sets a clear agenda to optimise digital technology for teaching and learning and develop a safe and secure digital education ecosystem. ASEAN Leaders adopted the declaration during the 40th and 41st Summits in November.
Digital health and health information systems are key components of the ASEAN Post-2015 Health Development Agenda (2021-2025) that can strengthen health systems and improve public access to care. The ASEAN health sector’s immediate and collective response to the pandemic was implemented through existing mechanism like the ASEAN Emergency Operation Centre Network for Public Health Emergencies and the ASEAN BioDiaspora Virtual Centre, and the ASEAN Portal for Public Health Emergencies. These platforms enabled the health sector to share situational updates, real-time data, and technical exchanges that were crucial to the response.
With ASEAN’s partners, the health sector is scaling up capabilities to prepare for, detect, and respond to health emergencies and emerging diseases. For example, the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases (ACPHEED) has been launched and will soon be operational. Information sharing, data management, and analytics are some of its key functions in disease surveillance, detection, and risk assessment. Also established is the ASEAN Public Health Emergency Coordination System (APHECS) to implement a more unified regional response to future crises.
On poverty eradication, the ASEAN Framework Action Plan on Rural Development and Poverty Eradication 2021-2025 offers workshops on optimising digital and smart villages to revitalise the village economy. Meanwhile, the ASEAN Declaration on Promoting Competitiveness, Resilience, and Agility of Workers for the Future of Work reaffirms ASEAN’s commitment to developing a human-centred approach in preparing ASEAN workers’ ability to adapt to the transformative changes, such as technological advances, demographic transitions, and the rise of the green economy. These are all stipulated in the ASEAN Labour Ministers’ Joint Statement on the Future of Work: Embracing Technology for Inclusive and Sustainable Growth, as well as the ASEAN Declaration on Human Resources Development in the Changing World of Work.
The ASEAN Disaster Resilient Outlook, published in 2021, recommends technological innovations in disaster management, including an Information, Communication, and Technology Roadmap on Disaster Management; artificial intelligence for anticipatory humanitarian action; regional framework for data governance; and information-sharing platforms. It also points out the importance of increased digital literacy to strengthen response mechanisms and build people’s resilience during disasters and crises.
On culture, the ASEAN Cultural Heritage Digital Archive (ACHDA) was launched in 2020 as the first digital repository for the valuable historical and cultural heritage of ASEAN Member States. The web-based archive allows visitors to have an in-depth look into the collections of museums, galleries, and libraries through three-dimensional models, images, audio recordings, and valuable videos of cultural heritage.
In the information sector, several initiatives and activities focus on the digital readiness of ASEAN citizens including digital and media literacy, digital accessibility, and digital communications. For example, Member States encouraged citizens to uphold the five Core Values on Digital Literacy for ASEAN-responsibility, empathy, authenticity, discernment, and integrity-highlighting the elements necessary to create a safe online environment and promote socially responsible online behaviour. Several policy initiatives, meanwhile, focus on digital transformation. One is the Framework for Developing Digital Readiness Among ASEAN Citizens adopted in 2021, which underscores the need to expand digital access, improve digital literacy, and increase digital participation of all segments of the ASEAN population. Another is the Framework for Promoting Accessibility for All in ASEAN Digital Broadcasting which seeks to promote equitable access to broadcasting services for all groups of people, especially the vulnerable population. In addition, to advance ASEAN collaboration on minimising the harmful effects of fake news and misinformation, the ASEAN Task Force on Fake News was established in 2022 to develop a common terms of reference for such concepts as fake news and disinformation, and to facilitate exchanges on strategies to address these issues.
The Senior Officials Meeting on Education launched a comprehensive Training-of-Trainers Program to Counter Disinformation and Promote Media Literacy in early 2022. The training toolkit provides educators and trainers with the resources to help students critically analyse the onslaught of information and messages from various media platforms.
Preparing ASEAN and our people for the digital future
We must prepare the ASEAN Community and our people for the future as we transition to a digital economy and society. ASEAN must make progress on four fronts to prepare for the digital future. First, skills. The changing world of work and the 4th and future industrial revolutions will require our people to reskill, upskill, and learn new skills to remain relevant. Lifelong learning is also becoming essential to the future of work. The ASEAN Declaration on Human Resource Development for the Changing World of Work is our steadfast commitment to equip our workforce with competence that will enable them to be relevant and resilient in the future.
Second, we need to strengthen digital infrastructures. An excellent telecommunications infrastructure is the bedrock of any digital transformation. The ASEAN Digital Masterplan 2025 indicates the interventions necessary to ensure that telecommunication and digital infrastructures, such as broadband coverage, are upgraded and that coverage is extended to rural areas.
Third, we need to ensure the digital transformation of businesses. The Masterplan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025 promotes the adoption of digital technology by micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) to enhance their participation in the digital economy. We also signed the ASEAN Agreement on Electronic Commerce to promote the growth of e-commerce in the region and to strengthen the national capacity to implement them. Implementing the e-commerce agreement is instrumental for economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
And fourth, digital public services. We need to harness digitalisation and promote a high-quality public service delivery system that is agile, responsive, and people-centred. Access to electronic health records and other essential government services can leverage technological advances to improve service delivery and enable governments to better accommodate individual needs and public expectations. This area is looked into by the ASEAN Cooperation on Civil Service Matter Work Plan 2021-2025.
At the 28th ASCC Council Meeting, ASEAN Member States solidified their commitment to build resilience and prepare for future challenges in the new era. At the meeting, the ASCC Council Chair and Minister of Education, Youth, and Sport, Dr. Hang Chuon Naron, called for a more significant push in promoting the digital transformation of the education system. In line with Dr. Naron’s call, Thailand, the incoming ASEAN education sector chair, announced its chairmanship theme in 2024: “Transforming Education to Fit the Digital Era.”
Echoing the importance of inclusive education, Indonesia emphasised ASCC’s strong commitment to accessibility and the future of education, underlining the gravity of digital transformation in equipping our people with relevant skills in the changing world of work.
Meanwhile, Malaysia mentioned various national policies to kickstart a journey towards greater digitalisation, including the National Digital Economy Blueprint. Brunei underlined the importance of digital transformation in uplifting the livelihood of cultural and creative workers, mostly youth, women, the elderly, and persons with disabilities. At the same time, the Philippines reminds us to capitalise on global technological and rapid digital transformation to create a high-performing, people-centred civil service while promoting good governance.
In the coming years, the ASCC will work with other pillars and Member States to ensure that all digital policies and initiatives will fully benefit and create a safe environment for the ASEAN population, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, and economic status. With all hands on deck, we can take advantage of digital transformation for a stronger ASEAN.