Asean is in a good position to seize the opportunities the Fourth Industrial Revolution will bring, and it has taken steps to do so, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.
He was speaking at the opening plenary session of the World Economic Forum on Asean, which Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Chinese Vice-Premier Hu Chunhua also addressed, focusing largely on the key concerns and choices facing the region amid technological disruption.
In his speech, PM Lee outlined some initiatives Asean has taken to use technology to benefit its businesses and people in the present fourth wave of industrial revolution, in which disruptive technologies and trends such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence are changing the way we live and work.
These include an Asean Agreement on e-Commerce that will streamline regulations for businesses to sell their products easily in Asean, and an Asean Single Window that will use one online platform to speed up cross-border Customs cargo clearance to cut transaction costs.
The Asean Smart Cities Network which Singapore, as Asean chair this year, is spearheading has completed its first round of meetings and launched several projects, PM Lee noted. The network is a platform for cities to cooperate, share experiences and work with external partners as well as the private sector on smart city initiatives.
One of the projects that has been launched is a collaboration between Chonburi's Amata Smart City in Thailand and the Yokohama Urban Solution Alliance on a smart energy management system.
At a bilateral level, Singapore and Vietnam have established seven industrial parks, PM Lee said.
"They are doing well, bringing in more than US$11 billion (S$15.2 billion) worth of investment capital from 800 international companies, generating more than 200,000 jobs," he said.
Several Asean leaders who spoke at the session noted the varied impact of technological disruption on Asean countries. But to harness the opportunities offered by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a united strategy is vital, they said.
Taking turns, they outlined the strategy, which includes collaboration, openness and investment in education and skills.
Among the speakers were Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith and Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prajin Juntong.
Mr Phuc, the prime minister of Vietnam which is hosting the session, said that even as technology creates many opportunities, it also poses "enormous" challenges. These include workers being displaced by automation and the risk of a widening income gap if the gains of disruption are amassed only by the well-educated, both of which will lead to social instability, he said.
Faced with these risks, Asean nations need to craft policies based not just on their own perspectives but also those of the entire grouping, Mr Phuc said.
To collectively prepare Asean for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, he suggested initiatives it could take on. These include standardising the conditions for effective data sharing among governments and a system to provide single-rate mobile coverage across Asean.
Several leaders, including Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, spoke on the importance of equipping people with the skills and educational opportunities for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
She noted that Asean can no longer rely on cheap, low-skilled labour to attract foreign investment. "We have to be creative," she said, adding: "Creativity has to be linked to practical skills... to make our creative talents marketable."
Myanmar wants to learn from education systems worldwide to shape its own, she said. To close the gap between her country and more developed nations, "we need to shift the emphasis in education to practical skills rather than academic qualifications".