The post-COVID world is certain to look significantly different to the way things were before the pandemic. There will likely be shifts that we have yet to foresee, but elements that do appear inevitable are an acceleration of digitisation, a genuine focus on a more sustainable economy and a greater need for trust on many levels than ever before.
A pair of online panels on August 25 titled ‘Unlocking the Region’s Potential’ discussed how ASEAN can meet these challenges, as part of the Standard Chartered ASEAN Business Forum 2020, which was hosted in cooperation with Reuters.
A measured response
The reaction of ASEAN to the crisis was hailed as a success by participants, both in terms of keeping death rates from COVID relatively low compared to that of many other regions as well as in focusing on a trust-based unified approach to the pandemic and in plans for its aftermath.
The UK Ambassador to ASEAN Jon Lambe lauded the bloc of Southeast Asian nations’ response, saying it, “has been measured, it has been focused on working together and avoided populist instincts...”
Simon Tay, Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, pointed to the wide-ranging policy initiatives adopted at a special ASEAN summit in April as evidence of the determination of the region to take constructive measures.
“Vietnam is the current chairman of ASEAN and they have brought everyone together to agree on a ‘Hanoi Plan’ on strengthening economic and supply chain connectivity precisely in response to some of the breakages of links we saw in the early stages of the COVID problem,” said Tay.
Trust is key
Such closer cooperation both requires and fosters trust, which will be crucial in addressing the current challenges and those in the years ahead, emphasised Tan Chin Hwee, Asia CEO of commodity trading and logistics firm Trafigura.
“You can have all the legal documents in place, but if you don’t trust each other you’re back to square one. If you can trust one another then you can predict each other’s behaviour,” he added.
ASEAN is aiming to expand its sphere of cooperation with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a trade deal that will bring it together with China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, and cover around 30% of global GDP. Signing of the deal has been delayed by the pandemic and India has withdrawn from the talks, but there are hopes it will be concluded by year-end.
“I am confident that when India sees the benefits of RCEP it will come back on-board,” said Tay.
Ambassador Lambe called ASEAN a “huge bright spot,” and said, “In the middle of all these different challenges ASEAN is committed to free trade; it has seen the benefits of it over the last 20 or 30 years and wants to extend them into the future.”
Lambe added that with the UK leaving the EU, it was, “Obvious and necessary that we would deepen our focus even more here.” He noted that 2019 saw record two-way trade and investment between ASEAN and the UK, saying, “There is a very strong rationale for that given the extremely bright prospects this region has.”
The backbone for the future
Harnessing digitisation was cited as a driver of growth for the region by panellists, who acknowledged that this must be accompanied by investing in human capital through reskilling and upskilling workforces to ensure sections of society were not left behind.
Consumer behaviour and ways of doing business will not go back to the way they were pre-pandemic, and digitisation is now essential not optional, agreed the panel.
“Digitisation is also a key element in reducing costs and streamlining procedures such as certificate of origin documentation for trade, and lowering fraud risk,” said Trafigura’s Tan.
There has also been ambitious talk of more sustainable and equitable economies post-pandemic, but this will not become a reality without the kinds of cooperation, integration and trust that ASEAN is working to strengthen.
Tan called sustainability “another key element” in the post-COVID recovery, adding, “We have a large carbon footprint; if we can get our act together with our neighbours…we can make this a digitised and sustainable ASEAN, which would be the backbone for a long future.”
“COVID is a wake-up call,” said Tan. “We can’t go back to doing the same things we were doing before.”
Building increased cooperation and trust among the ASEAN nations will help it ride the wave of digitisation, and help build the kind of sustainable economies that can prosper long after the passing of the pandemic.