ASEAN loads up with more initiatives

Under Singapore’s chairmanship, ASEAN has new initiatives. They are ASEAN Smart Cities Network, an e-commerce agreement and ASEAN Innovation Network. With plans set in place, will there be results?


It has been five months since Singapore took the baton as ASEAN’s chairman. Under its chairmanship, ‘Resilience and Innovation”’ take the spotlight. This is one step forward from its previous announcement. Last year, it cited digital economy and e-commerce as the key themes. It now has an overarching direction to help ASEAN remain as a dynamic driving force in the changing world.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hosted the 32nd ASEAN summit in April 2018. The leaders met in Singapore to discuss regional and international issues. They also adopted policies to enhance resilience and innovation in ASEAN.

Singapore’s flagship initiative – ASEAN Smart Cities Network

ASEAN Smart Cities Network (ASCN) is one of the proposals by Singapore. It serves to contribute towards ASEAN community building. ASCN aims to connect digital infrastructure and services across the region better. It taps on ASEAN member states’ existing smart cities plans. From 2018 to 2025, it strives to bring all those cities together and build synergies. There will be specific projects, key principles and core outcomes in place. Member cities can also pair up with ASEAN’s external partners to develop their smart cities.

Initial responses to this proposal have been good. Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has given his support. Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang in Vietnam will be part of the ASEAN network of smart cities. If all ASEAN Member States (AMS) buy into the idea, it will be a hit.

Source: Channel News Asia

An ASEAN agreement on e-commerce ties in with ASEAN Innovation Network

Apart from the above flagship initiative, Singapore further proposed an ASEAN e-commerce agreement. The agreement will lower operating barriers to entry for businesses. Streamlining of regulations will help companies make sense of the different e-commerce regulations. By doing so, it also accelerates digital connectivity.

The region’s e-commerce scene is in its infancy stage, with vast room to grow. Evident in the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025, digital technology is crucial. It could be worth up to US$625 billion by 2030. It is no wonder that Singapore is focusing so much on the digital economy. Digital technologies can integrate the region’s economies on a whole new level. The people from AMS will have the skills and capabilities to help their nation prosper.

At the same time, Singapore brings some attention to the ASEAN Innovation Network. The proposed network aims to strengthen linkages between innovation ecosystems. When AMS share technological updates, they may spark new collaborations and solutions. Therein lies the benefit of bringing different innovation stakeholder together via the network.

On this note, Singapore has also issued a Statement on Cyber security cooperation. It shows that there was a comprehensive thought process. Without cyber security, cyber threats will derail the growth of the e-commerce scene.

The paradox of rotating chairmanship

There are multiple blueprints, visions and documents. There is ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), the biggest single economic policy initiative. Before AEC 2025, there is ASEAN’s Information and Communication Technology Masterplan 2020 and the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025. New documents usually accompany every new chairman. It does not help that each tenure is only one-year. This gives little time to get the buy-in from the nine other member states.

ASEAN’s current rotating chairman, Singapore is mostly ahead of its peers. Singapore announced its Smart Nation initiatives in its Budget 2018. When it took on the chairmanship, it proposed the ASEAN Smart Cities Network. Singapore has insights to lead the ASEAN member states towards a digitalised economy. However, would there still be progress after Singapore hands over the chairmanship position? Singapore will serve as host and chairman of the summit again in 2028.

Source: ASEAN

It is worthwhile remembering that all ten ASEAN nations have different sizes, populations and religions. Given the varying level of development, the different chairman will put forth different focus. The predecessor, Philippines, focused more on “Partnering for Change, engaging the World”. It is inevitable for the chairman to be biased towards its domestic priorities.

The next step forward

The Head of the Asean Studies Centre at Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, Dr Tang Siew Mun has summed it up. He noted that getting member states to prioritise regional well-being is hard. To be exact, he used the phrase “a constant struggle”. In the face of contentious issues, member states often prioritise national interest. They overlook their obligations and responsibilities to ASEAN.

ASEAN celebrated its golden jubilee last year. Industry players and onlookers will expect more from ASEAN. Having more documents signed does not guarantee progress. Sustainability and follow through of each initiative are what matters. Only when ASEAN stands united, it can then meet the interests of fellow members.