On the 53rd anniversary of ASEAN’s formation, ASEAN secretary-general Lim Jock Hoi emphasised on the importance of building a concrete and thorough recovery plan to alleviate the socio-economic implications resulting from the pandemic. Key to ASEAN’s recovery will be the digitalisation of ASEAN economies.

The pandemic has expedited digital transformation in ASEAN, as consumers embraced teleconferencing, online shopping and digital financial services. Videoconferencing has allowed people situated far away to communicate with one another, while e-commerce facilitates regional and international business opportunities.

During the novel-coronavirus pandemic, there were disruptions to business operations as supply chains were disrupted and brick-and-mortar stores were forced to close. This led to a drastic drop in consumption figures, with a lack of movement of people countrywide and worldwide due to strict travel restrictions, lockdowns and quarantines.

As businesses closed due to movement restrictions, they had to offer goods and services to consumers by engaging them via the digital space. Many businesses started to explore and adapt their business models and activities accordingly, in order to attain business growth or to stay afloat.

In Singapore, the “Hawkers Go Digital” programme was developed during the coronavirus pandemic to encourage hawkers to leverage on e-commerce and e-payment solutions, which will provide more business opportunities.

With a significant increase in digital banking transactions, activities and financial planning services in major ASEAN banks such as Maybank and DBS, banks had to expedite their digital transformation processes instantaneously. This is to ensure that ASEAN banks maintain a competitive advantage and do not lose out on potential business and investment opportunities available in the digital space.

In an Ernst and Young survey of 263 ASEAN retailers in May, 59 per cent of retailers seek to digitalise their firm operations within the next year. Fifty-seven per cent of them are pushing for online sales by selling via their websites, and also on business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) platforms.

Ernst and Young consumer products and retail sector leader for Southeast Asia Olivier Gergele believes that business and operating models in the retail industry have to be elementally reconsidered and transformed post Covid-19, given that tastes and preferences, thinking and behaviour of retail customers are quickly changing.

Manufacturers such as Vietnam’s Garment 10 introduced modern technology and solutions into their manufacturing production, internet marketing and sales. Garment 10 had utilised the data collected about customers, leveraged on Industry 4.0 technologies such as automation, to improve efficiency, customer experience and satisfaction.

Prior to the pandemic, cloud technology capabilities and Internet of Things innovations such as the driverless cars, wearable smart devices, digital home appliances and smartphones have already revolutionised the way people work and live, facilitating real-time collaboration and automating processes. The computing power of computer processing chips growing by one trillion times in the last 50 years is one prime example how the Fourth Industrial Revolution has expedited change.

Digitalisation has evidently proven in the last few months to have further improved the efficiency of business operations and facilitated business opportunities.

It can also foster a greater bond between businesses and consumers, by revolutionising the consumer experience. Group managing director of Genaxis Group Nuraslina Zainal Abidin believes strongly that with digital transformation, businesses can create an immersive and engaging experience for consumers on digital platforms.

There is a huge potential in the Southeast Asian market. ASEAN has the quickest-growing digital market worldwide, with 125,000 new internet users daily. Over the next decade, this will bring an additional $1 trillion to ASEAN’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Southeast Asia is currently home to 10 major technology unicorns, including the likes of Gojek, Grab, Lazada and Razer. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, ASEAN countries had already been planning for a new digital future.

The Brunei government announced the Digital Economy Masterplan 2025 in June to provide its citizens with the right digital environment and infrastructure.

In Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative entitled “Smart Mobility 2030”, Singapore is running trials of autonomous vehicles and buses. It rolled out its electric vehicle-sharing initiative in December 2017, with sufficient electric charging stations nationwide.

Vietnam visualised four potential digital futures and will transit into a digital economy by 2030, while growing sustainably and improving business competitiveness and productivity.

With a score of 0.6667 points, Vietnam scores higher than the global, Asian and ASEAN E-Government Development Index, as the Vietnamese government seeks to leverage on the digital space for policy-making and government initiatives. The way Vietnamese citizens access public services, interact and communicate with the government has been entirely revolutionised.

As the chair of ASEAN this year, Vietnam has been working with other ASEAN countries to embrace and leverage on Industry 4.0 digital technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotic process automation, predictive analytics, machine learning, augmented reality, virtual reality and blockchain. It is highly believed that such transformational technologies will improve data-sharing, trade and manufacturing and service standards, and create change economically, socially and politically.

Indonesia, being one of the largest markets for technology giants, is quickly leveraging on the digital space to equip low-income groups with connectivity, information and necessities. The Southeast Asian country commenced the “Gerakan 100 Smart Cities” (or “Movement to 100 Smart Cities”) plan in 2017, to develop smart city digital solutions and programmes, aiming to be amongst the top 10 global economies before 2030.

An Indonesian city, Bandung, entered the UNESCO Creative Cities Network in 2015, and was nominated as UNESCO Creative City of Design. Former Mayor Ridwan Kamil portrayed Bandung as having spearheaded the smart city development in Indonesia and ASEAN.

Technologies are leveraged to develop smart digital solutions, which will ensure smart city advancements and urban transformation in Bandung. Ensuring urban mobility and the effectiveness of public transport and services are at the forefront of this development. Amongst government agencies and officers, there is greater data sharing and higher digital literacy rates.

Regionally, Go Digital ASEAN was authorised by the ASEAN Coordinating Committee on Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises in November, in collaboration with the Asia Foundation. The project seeks to equip 200,000 ASEAN micro-enterprises and citizens with a repertoire of digital technology knowledge, skills and tools.

This would help facilitate business opportunities, while mitigating the economic disruption and problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office expects that ASEAN+3 economies will rebound to six per cent economic growth next year, despite a drastic decrease this year. Economists predict that ASEAN will be the fourth-largest economy, with a $4 trillion GDP.

Consumer spending in ASEAN is expected to double by 2030, propelling the bloc to be an attractive consumer market while offering a robust and rejuvenated digital ecosystem.

It is of paramount importance for ASEAN nations to seize the opportunities presented by Industry 4.0 technologies, and to share, learn and collaborate together in order to recover strongly and quickly from the pandemic.

With greater economic and social collaboration, regional governance and policy-making have to be regulated more closely, in order for greater continuity and adaptability of ASEAN leadership. Business environment, laws and regulations in ASEAN have to be harmonised, in order to benefit from economies of scale and network effects, and having open access to ASEAN markets.

Ong Bo Yang has written for five ASEAN newspapers, namely Singapore’s The Straits Times and TodayOnline, Malaysia’s The Star and New Straits Times, and Vietnam’s VnExpress.