KUALA LUMPUR – KSI Strategic Institute for Asia Pacific played host to the 2002 ASEAN Leadership and Partnership Forum, a gathering of government officials, the business community, civil society organisations, and academicians from across the 10 ASEAN membered countries and beyond to discuss issues pertaining the pact of nations. Traditionally organised concurrently with the ASEAN Summit in the country chairing ASEAN for the year, the ALPF in year 2020 had no choice but be hosted in Kuala Lumpur as Vietnam, the chairs of ASEAN that year, restricted all incoming international flights due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Held over the course of two days, the first day of the conference was held on 27th August 2020 at the Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur while the second day was conducted entirely via Zoom for the benefit and safety of speakers, most of which were from overseas.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the rate of digital adoption. Businesses that are able to adapt and cater to the needs of the market by leveraging upon digital solutions and reaching a wider market have been able to flourish despite these conditions. To facilitate digital transformation, greater decisiveness in direction and strategy is needed from governments in the ASEAN region with initiatives like the ASEAN Common Data Policy. Infrastructure, such as access to broadband, which has not been universal. Bureaucratic government obstacles toward digitisation need to be removed to facilitate and support this transformation. Also, there has also been a lack of knowledge on how to carry out the process of digitalisation. However, digitalization if not conducted inclusively, will lead to deeper inequalities in society. There have been signs that countries and regions are developing their own digital rules and regulations that are incompatible, which will lead to a split in the digital domain.
ASEAN’s economic challenges can be overcome by strengthening partnerships within the region. Its governments need to put differences aside and focus on resolving the COVID-19 crisis by resolving the limitations imposed by tariffs, border controls, and restriction of labour movements. The region’s supply chains need to be strengthened by putting supporting policies in place among the individual ASEAN states to facilitate border controls, such as the e-issuance of certificates of origin. ASEAN needs to utilise its regional mechanisms which are already in place as they have not been used effectively, such as the ASEAN Single Window, which has not led to improvements in the flow of goods across borders. Trade pacts like RCEP and CTPPP are key models for the partnership for countries keen on liberalising trade and investment. ASEAN’s platform should be used to promote constructive engagement between countries including major powers, as COVID-19 has created a very different regional and global trade environment. With lesser support from the multilateral system, ASEAN as a bloc is now in a position to safeguard law and order in the area of trade.
The economic slowdown, while causing many to be unemployed, has also triggered new enterprises to emerge in the informal sector. Despite the risks brought by the pandemic, it has also brought opportunities where entrepreneurs with innovative ideas can fill new gaps in the market. Entrepreneurs need to take account of the changes in the market as consumer preferences have shifted to online platforms. More focus is needed on helping micro, small, and medium enterprises, as they make up an overwhelming majority of businesses, making their contributions key in revitalising the economy. They should be given access to financial support, simple credit schemes, low-interest loans, tax rebates or other forms of incentives. Capacity building workshops should also be conducted for aspiring entrepreneurs, with greater emphasis on women and youth. However, not everyone has access to digital means and the internet. Offline marketing through cooperatives and methods of face-to-face marketing is still needed in an economic revitalisation policy. Community-based economies can offer alternative frameworks to the larger businesses.