This is how I would describe my fellow ASEAN Minister counterparts at the 17th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Science and Technology, which took place in the capital city of Myanmar, Nay Pyi Taw, during the season of Deepavali.
There has been incremental progress by the ASEAN Committee on Science and Technology (ASEAN COST), which is headed by MOSTI on behalf of Malaysia, since my first participation as a Minister in 2015. We adopted the ASEAN Plan of Action on STI 2016 – 2025, the same year the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) was established.
Then last year, a follow up Implementation Plan was adopted at the 9th Informal ASEAN Meeting on S&T in Cambodia. Some immediate plans are to increase collaboration in research, create an ASEAN talent mobility platform, establish smart partnerships among science, technology and innovation (STI) enterprises and promote STI enculturation in ASEAN.
A fortnight ago in the latest meeting, Malaysia was the third member state after Thailand and the Philippines to accede to the ASEAN STI Partnership Contributions. One million USD (RM 4.24 million) would be available for international collaboration in five research priority areas, namely:
- Medical and Health Sciences,
- Engineering and Technology,
- Biotechnology and,
- Agriculture and Forestry.
The boost in international research funding for ASEAN comes at the same time where local Public Higher Learning Institutions are allocated RM 400 million in Budget 2018, up from RM 235 million the previous year.
We also revealed our decision to endorse the ASEAN Declaration on Innovation, which would be adopted by ASEAN Leaders during the 31st ASEAN Summit that would be held in about a week’s time. This is more than a reaffirmation of the cooperation of Member States in STI. I see this as recognition that “innovation” is no longer only affiliated with science and technology, but as a mean to drive regional growth and competitiveness.
This applies to providing holistic policies that foster entrepreneurship, realising opportunities arising from disruptive technologies and to achieve United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals in solving societal problems together.
Despite keeping a good momentum in our STI agenda, like comrades, fellow Ministers spoke truthfully, most of the time off the cuff, at the official meeting about the challenges we face in our respective countries in advancing in science and technology.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution, as advocated by the World Economic Forum since early 2016, has been deliberated with much fanfare in international forums across the globe, including in Malaysia. Is ASEAN as an entity, ready to address the impact of an unstoppable technological revolution on our economy?
According to the World Bank in 2016, the combined economies of ASEAN is worth USD$ 2.56 trillion in nominal GDP, making us one of the largest economic powers in the world. While most of us are aware of these developments, what concerns us is that most of the Member States are said to still be rooted in the Second Industrial Revolution where economies depend on mass production, or in the early stage of the Third.
The lesser-developed Member States are reliant on mass production of textiles and clothing, while others are manufacturers of electrical and electric products, and automotive parts. The majority of ASEAN is still dependent on the West, though now increasingly on China, for foreign direct investment and technology imports for our economic progress.
Critics have said that our overreliance on foreign contributions have caused us to neglect our own development in science, technology and innovation. We would be caught in the middle-income trap due to our lack of investment in STI, with the exception of Singapore that spends over two per cent of its GPD on research and development.
There are many aspects of ASEAN to be addressed for us to remain relevant and be competitive on the global stage, but as a MOSTI Minister I would like to broadly share two concerns that might impede ASEAN from fully reaping the benefits of the new economy.
Firstly, we should not underestimate the impact of automation on jobs. According to the International Labour Organisation, 56 per cent of the workers in five ASEAN countries, namely Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia and Indonesia (or equivalent to 137 million workers), especially in textile, restaurants, retail and manufacturing, are at risk of losing their jobs to automation an robotics. Job losses in the automotive and auto parts industry are as high as 60 to 70 per cent.
Secondly, while existing ASEAN institutional frameworks are promoting trade in the form of goods, moving forward, we need to look into liberating trade in the digital economy such as services and e-commerce.
Malaysia has demonstrated leadership in this area by realising the world’s first Digital Free Trade Zone (DFTZ) this year, together with Alibaba Group. On Friday our Prime Minister and Founder/ Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group Jack Ma flagged off almost 2,000 export-ready small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that would join the DFTZ.
With this, Malaysia is expected to become the regional hub for e-commerce and a major trans-shipment hub. The Prime Minister has urged SMEs to not just sell to their villages alone, but make the world their market by becoming part of the DFTZ.
MOSTI has been part of the effort in setting up the ASEAN Talent Mobility Platform since 2015 that facilitate the mobility of scientists in ASEAN and with partner countries. But in the face of automation we need to substantially level-up our respective scientific and technological capabilities in strategic focus areas of the suggested Fourth Industrial Revolution and promote labour mobility as a whole.
In view of the increasing popularity of digital labour for jobs that require little social interactions, ASEAN Member States would need to look into labour laws and regulations when digital cross border transactions occur.
With the many uncertainties ASEAN faces in the new economy, during the ASEAN 2050 Forum organised by the Academy of Sciences Malaysia last week, Malaysia has proposed to lead an ASEAN Foresight Alliance, where a single vision would be shared by 10 countries, or the current population of over 630 million, toward 2050.
While I stand that ASEAN holds a bright future for all of us, to lead a regional foresight movement, Malaysia needs to first be prepared in terms of STI governance, businesses’ innovation capabilities and the competencies of our research institutes.
We have already initiated our own national level foresight plan, called the National Transformation 2050. I am convinced that a regional vision would better prepare us for the unprecedented challenges ahead. One day, perhaps beyond my lifetime, I dream that our TN50 generation would be discussing about having a global vision, that is, one foresight plan for the whole world! That is when we have achieved the ultimate goal – world peace.
After all, as the President of Academy of Sciences Malaysia Prof Datuk Dr Asma Ismail correctly said at the forum,
“Diversity is our greatest strength.”