5 things to watch out for at the World Economic Forum on Asean 2016

The World Economic Forum (WEF) on Asean will be held at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia this week. PHOTO: AFP

Regional and international stakeholders will come together in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia this week for the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Asean.

In its 25th year, the annual conference will see heads of state in conversation with leading academics and representatives from international organisations over key economic challenges surrounding the region.

The theme this year is "Shaping the Asean agenda for inclusion and growth."

Here are 5 things to watch out for at this year's forum:

1. What's on the agenda?

The regional forum aims to address some of the fresh challenges that await South-east Asia as the region continues to establish itself as an important stakeholder in the global economy. Seeking to engage senior decision-makers with leading representatives from the commercial, academic and civil sectors, the meeting hopes to serve as a platform through which greater cooperation can be facilitated.

A key issue to be discussed will be Asean's capability to master the gains of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and lay the basis for more sustainable growth. Another key issue will the evolving regional architecture and Straits Times Associate Editor Ravi Velloor will be moderating a session, titled ""Battling Over Asia's Economic Architecture", on 2 June.

There is also a special focus on how the region can increase the rate of participation for women and girls in the economic sphere. As South-east Asian nations continue to grow in the face of globalisation, it will become ever more crucial for Asean member states to tap into its female workforce and to ensure that economic growth is more equally spread out across all sectors of society.

2. The region's people to watch at the Forum

More than 40 senior political figures from Asean will attend this year's meeting. The list includes Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razik, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla and Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Trinh Dinh Dung.

Key representatives from various international stakeholder groups will be serving as co-chairs of the conference. These include Sigve Brekkie, chief executive officer of Telenor in Norway, Yoshiaki Fujimori, president and chief executive officer of LIXIL Group Corporation in Japan, and George Yeo, Visiting Scholar at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore,

The forum would also see the participation of its very own team of youth leaders from the region and beyond, including those in the business sector, such as Yeen Seen Ng, chief operating officer of the Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute In Malaysia and Juliana Chan, Associate Professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Budding social innovators, who have shaped the world with their unique enterprises, such as Amanda Witdarmono, founder of We the Teachers in Jakarta, Benjamin Galazzo, co-founder and chairman of Bright Foundation in Manila and Hai Nguyen, founder and chief executive officer of Lua Mia in Ho Chi Minh, will be joining in in the discussions too.

Last but not least, be sure to catch key participants, such as Michelle Yeoh, actress and cultural leader, Hans-Paul Bürkner, global chairman of The Boston Consulting Group and Anthony Fernandes, the Group CEO of Air Asia, who will be in town to share valuable insights about their respective industries.

3. The focus on future of jobs at the forum

Asean faces a significant challenge from the rise of what has been termed as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which has consequently led to the expansion of new technologies in the commercial sector.

As businesses and enterprises turn towards the use of technology, lower-skilled jobs are increasingly replaced by automation, further contributing to the problem of unemployment.

On the other hand, the WEF's Human Capital Index reveals that most firms in the region are currently facing an acute talent shortage, since a large pool of skilled labour is simply not available here.

Concerns over how businesses and governments can best equip their population with the necessary skillsets to adapt to the changing landscape in this globalised world will most certainly dominate the floors at the conference.

Traditional jobs in labour-intensive industries, say the organisers, have to make way for a new labour force with "stronger social and collaboration skills, unique human traits that go beyond mastering machines" and "a new level of aptitude for working with technology".

4. Why is the WEF focusing on Asean?

Over the years, Asean has successfully established itself as an economic powerhouse in the international arena.

Producing a combined GDP of US$2.5 trillion in 2014, the region, it is estimated to be the seventh-largest economy worldwide when combined and predictions have it that the bloc might even surpass the EU within 10 to 15 years' time.

Having brought together nations from diverse political and economic backgrounds, Asean's cultural diversity has long been one of its most attractive features, lending its market a great degree of vibrancy and dynamism.

The region is also known for its rich bio-diversity and wealth of natural resources, despite the relatively small land mass it occupies - Southeast Asia alone serves as the living space to 20% of all known species in the world and accounts for a quarter of global fish production.

Despite the decidedly gloomy outlook for much of the global economy, economic experts have largely remained optimistic about the prospects of growth in South-east Asia.

The number of consumer households in the region, which totals at around 67 million, is set to double by 2025, making it one of the fastest-growing consumer markets in the world. 7 per cent of global exports, the WEF says, originate from Asean and trade with the United States has steadily risen since 2002, at a rate of 62 per cent.

The region is also home to 227 of the world's largest companies, which have so far generated more than US$1 billion in revenue.

All these are testament to Southeast Asia's allure as a region with boundless economic potential.

5. What are the key challenges that Asean members face?

New digital technologies in the Fourth Industrial Revolution have dramatically changed the way businesses and governments worldwide conduct their relations with each other.

In the face of rapid technological advancement, it is no longer possible for countries to depend solely on labour-intensive, export-based manufacturing for economic growth.

Increasing mechanisation has also reduced the number of positions available in the job market, and disrupted the workings of other sectors in the economy.

Digital literacy amongst the workforce has thus emerged as a key concern for many Southeast Asian nations seeking to prepare themselves for these changes.

Such a development will require a higher degree of collaboration between business and government leaders.

The educational system will also have to be tailored to meet the shifting demands of the global economy.

Whilst the growing number of consumers has propelled Asean into the focal point, its member states will also face the tricky issue of having to keep up "with changing consumer demand", write Ali Potia and Jaana Remes from McKinsey & Company, a global management consultancy firm.

The risk of being left behind in this dynamic and ever-shifting environment is a very serious issue that the region has to tackle if it wants to cement its position in the economic sphere.

Whether Asean is able to mitigate such challenges will be dependent on their ability to adapt and reshape itself in the changing circumstances.

Sources: World Economic Forum, BBC, Philstar, McKinsey & company

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