By Muhamed Hazali Abu Hassan, For The Straits Times

Asean's youth advantage

Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin (left) meeting youth grassroots workers in Pahang. Malaysia will take on the role of Asean chairman next year as the grouping grapples with the challenge of fulfilling the dreams of its youth.
Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin (left) meeting youth grassroots workers in Pahang. Malaysia will take on the role of Asean chairman next year as the grouping grapples with the challenge of fulfilling the dreams of its youth.ST FILE PHOTO

Asean is nearing its half-century milestone with quite a few notches under its belt, while facing new challenges with regard to its uniquely young demographic.

At its helm is Malaysia, which will assume the role of Asean chairman next year.

While an Asean bank may be some years off, China recently announced the AIIB - Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank - which includes all Asean members.

Moving forward, the grouping's main challenges lie distinctly in fulfilling the hopes and dreams of its youth.

One similarity all Asean nations have is our youth bulge.

According to a 2012 Credit Suisse report - "Asean's positive demographics underpin stable growth" - the median age for all Asean nations is below 40. This trend is expected to continue well until 2035.

Malaysia, for example, has a median age of 25.1 while Indonesia's is 27.9.

Another similarity is that most Asean countries are going through rapid development. Go to any Asean country and the story is the same - infrastructure projects and exciting businesses opening every day.

When there are many young people and they are provided employment or business opportunities, the country will experience a "demographic dividend" - a situation where people actively participating in the economy outnumber those who are dependent on it.

However, if their needs are not addressed, the youth bulge will become a "demographic bomb" as a large mass of frustrated young people is likely to become a source of social and political instability.

First, a few considerations - how do we get resources, jobs and opportunities to the youth? How would Asean address human rights, security or the environment, post-2015? How do we create more prosperity for all?

Aside from the basic needs and economic considerations, Asean's young people have consistently been vocal about finding non-material achievements. It is no longer enough to be financially or physically successful - it is also a question of how they get there.

While gross domestic product is a direct measure of a country's wealth, it is equally important that the people are able to find happiness in this community. This means a solid value system as well as job satisfaction from work that is individually fulfilling.

This could be a focus on community service, volunteerism and the spirit of conservation. These are soft factors but equally important for the well-being of the region and its people.

This is how young people typically want to drive the world forward - by promoting a better future holistically. This is in line with Malaysia's chosen theme for Asean next year - "a people-centric Asean".

United Nations Resident Coordinator for Malaysia Michelle Gyles-McDonnough said the solution lies in empowering the youth: "It's important for a country to really listen to her youth and regularly engage with them, to see how they want their country to be."

If history has taught Asean countries anything, it would be our stand in determining things for ourselves, free of other powers or blocs.

The same approach can be applied to empower the youth to participate in determining where we are headed. Meanwhile, the youth need to step up and answer these questions and other tough ones themselves.

The rest of us, the policymakers, academics - the incumbent cogs in the machinery of the region - need to provide a nurturing environment for these young people.

How do we employ technology to facilitate dialogue and cooperation between the youth separated by geography or language? What would they need? These are our questions and we will have to answer them now.

Online platforms are worth a look, or perhaps just improving connectivity to facilitate conversations. How about an Asean TV channel? A seamless Asean telco network?

The youth may not take kindly to overbearing government presence, so the idea is to create sandboxes for them to play and to ready resources when they want to move and do something.

For now, the possibilities are endless.

THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK