Digitalizing ASEAN (1): What It is and Why It is Important

In this first series of article, we introduce ASEAN Youth Initiative Empowerment Programme, a one-week program for ASEAN Youth organized by ASEAN Studies Center, Universitas Gadjah Mada. The theme of the program is “Digitalizing ASEAN”, which will be explained in this article and the following article.

ASEAN is now 50 years old. We are now witnessing the age of rapid technological development as well as greater connectivity in the region. We are also stepping forward into ASEAN Community, which has been implemented since 2015.The rapid development on regional economic cooperation under the so-called ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) demonstrates high commitment of ASEAN member countries to become not only the largest market, but also to establish a form of collective identity.

ASEAN has declared to be a “people-oriented” and “people-centered” organization in 2015. The consciousness of shared culture, geography, and history at the community level has bound the peoples together. the importance of ASEAN as a regional organization is now becoming a vehicle to create a more cohesive and united regional community.

The complexity in world politics necessitates ASEAN to embrace a form of ‘social integration’. The recent regional outlook from ASEAN Studies Center UGM has showed that the current trend in 2017 has showed a decline of regionalism, the rise of intra-regional problems related to economic growth, social cohesion, and some degree of political uncertainty.

ASEAN, therefore, needs to embrace a non-traditional form of integration. This is where the idea of digital integration comes to the fore. Digital integration does not only means greater connectivity among people across the region –it also calls the young people to embrace a sense of collectivity. Digital integration supports ASEAN to be a ‘people-oriented’ and ‘people-centered’

Against this backdrop, we call for the further steps towards ‘digitalising ASEAN community’. This notion constitutes the central theme of ASEAN Youth Initiative Empowerment Program, an annual event of ASEAN Studies Centre, Universitas Gadjah Mada that will be held in 23-29 July 2017.

Why digital integration?

Information and Communication Technology is the most important issue in the world politics in at least the last two decades. The invention of the worldwide web, the growing IT systems, and connectivity across the world, as well as rapid use of technology have largely contributed to the advancement of global society. It connects, along with a globally-connected IT systems, a quantum leap in people’s ability to communicate both one-to-one and one-to-many and also access to knowledge, are unlimited.

Klaus Schwab called this recent phenomenon as the fourth industrial revolution. It raises questions over how to deal with Big Data, not only in terms of ‘technological advancement’, but also in terms of the changing international order.

It also necessitates International Relations scholars to rethink the relationship between digital revolution, intergenerational changes, and the transformation of international order.

The concept of ‘digital revolution’, however, is not necessarily new in International Relations. Following rapid ICT development in some countries, several global governance institutions has brought about the issues of ICT governance as their main programme. The United Nations, for example, set up a task force on Information and Technology and several initiatives to address digital divide since 2000.

ASEAN is also adapting to this trend by establishing the ASEAN ICT Masterplan (AIM) in 2009. The first completion report was due in 2015 and was continued until 2025. It aims to bring ASEAN member states towards a ‘digital revolution’ by 2025 through many digital platforms and programs—the “smart city”, financial technology, as well as e-commerce.

Yet, we need more. With growing ‘digital integration’ in regional level, ASEAN still needs to deal with increasing development gap in the regionASEAN is also struggling to resolve the classic ‘digital divide’, as well as enhancing the participation of young people across the region.

ASEAN ICT Masterplan, so far, has only a little to offer to overcome these problemsm, given the limit of ASEAN integration.

But it does not mean ASEAN should abandon the ongoing ICT-related regional projects. With a large and youthful population increasingly equipped with smartphones, ASEAN has an opportunity to pioneer the development of new digital services, especially advanced mobile financial services and e-commerce. These sectors are likely to give rise to digital champions that will lead the way for the broader economy.

What ASEAN needs to do, nevertheless, is to integrating the ongoing digital integration in regional level with rising youth participation in the region. The future of ASEAN lies in the development of digital technology. It also necessitates ASEAN to embrace young people –those who are considered as ‘digital native’— to consider their special attention to the task of connecting community in ASEAN. Digitalizing ASEAN also can increasingly enable citizens to engage with governments as voice their opinions.

The advancement of technology should be a good platform for ASEAN to foster connectivity among people. This is also useful to embrace a culture of good “digital” citizenship, thus ensuring the realization of “people-oriented” and “people-centred” ASEAN.

Nevertheless, the rise of digital technology should also be followed by critical perspectives. Recent series of article by OpenDemocracy and Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute showed that the emergence of digital use in everyday economy (which is also renowned as ‘gig economy’) also creates many problems in workforce, labour-related issues, and broader socio-economic aspects in everyday life.

In Indonesia, for example, several start-up companies operating in transportation, such as Grab, Uber, or Gojek have clashed with ‘conventional’ ojek or Taxi drivers. Digital integration, therefore, does not entirely positive. Various social problems emerged from this development, which necessitates further analysis on how to resolve it. Addressing this issue requires creative and critical thinking from the young generation.

Here lies our challenge to talk about digital society in regional context. This is why we desperately need a more concrete action for “digitalizing ASEAN” in the future.


Ahmad Rizky Mardhatillah Umar is the Executive Secretary of ASEAN Studies Center