Is ASEAN Prepared for the 4th Industrial Revolution?

Introduced by Professor Klaus Schwas, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, the term ‘4th Industrial Revolution’ first came onto the scene in 2016 just as many of its characteristic technologies were coming into global prominence. Building on the 3rd Revolution, or the ‘Digital Revolution’, this 4th Revolution is characterised by the ‘fusion of technology that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres.’ The technological changes that have disrupted almost every part of human life from society to politics to the economy have forced leaders and policy-makers to respond efficiently and effectively, or risk being overwhelmed by a volatile global landscape. However, while mostly used in terms of the economy, its security implications particularly with non-traditional security must be looked at with great care. Regionally, the 4th Industrial Revolution has already started to influence policies in Southeast Asia. ASEAN’s prioritisation of this issue is clearly seen in the recently launched 2019 ASEAN Integration Report, which has an entire chapter about it. Moreover, with the adoption of initiatives such as the Smart Cities Network and the inclusion of 4th IR priorities in ASEAN documents like the  ASEAN Work Plan on Education 2016-2020, the organisation has been accelerating the spread of digital technology across the region.

Effective regional governance is particularly key when dealing with non-traditional security issues, which include climate change, pollution, natural disasters and migration. These issues  tend to be transnational, crossing national borders and affecting the politics, economy and society of the region. As such, robust regional mechanisms must be in place to respond effectively. While the 4th Industrial Revolution has the potential to improve on current regional responses to these non-traditional security issues, it also has the power to cause disruptions.

On one hand, with its new technologies of artificial intelligence, block chains and widespread mobile internet, this revolution will benefit not just the economy through the empowerment of small and medium enterprises (a key goal for ASEAN), but also other areas related to non-traditional security. For example, data sharing is a key area of importance. The transboundary nature of most non-traditional security challenges means that any solution will have to be multilateral. The already existing network of crucial information and data sharing across the ASEAN region that is vital to the creation of these solutions will become even stronger with the advances in data management.

On the other hand, the new technologies that come with the 4th Industrial Revolution are also likely to cause disruptions in the region. For example, the improvements in artificial intelligence and robotics also mean that more jobs are at risk of automation, in particular low-skilled repetitive jobs. According to the International Labour Organization, an estimated 56 per cent of jobs in five ASEAN member-states (Cambodia, Indonesia, Viet Nam, Thailand and the Philippines) are at high risk of automation in the next few decades. Moreover, not all ASEAN member-states are equally prepared for this future with only Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand considered to be ‘leading’ states that are ‘well-positioned’ according to the World Economic Forum Country Readiness Index.

The shifts in power created by these new realities will create new security concerns for the region. Unless the 4th Industrial Revolution is managed and regulated appropriately by leaders and policy-makers, inequalities in the region could grow faster rather than shrink further. In order for ASEAN to keep up with the current accelerated pace of change, it needs to become more flexible and quick to make decisions, while still maintaining a people-centric approach.