ASEAN’s economy is worth $2.8 trillion USD, a number which is bolstered by a predominantly youthful population of 643 million people. As the Internet takes off, advancements in technology and infrastructure have launched a promising digital future for nations throughout the Asia-Pacific region. According to Cisco Systems Southeast Asia President Naveen Menon, these advancements, combined with a “young, educated, digitally connected base,” have helped to turn the region into an economic powerhouse.

Yet, it’s never quite that simple.

There’s a digital and social divide between rich and poor countries, large and small businesses, and urban and rural inhabitants, which will not close easily – not unless ASEAN nations invest in the right education and infrastructure.

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Although most citizens in Brunei, Malaysia, and Singapore have access to the Internet, more than 70% of Cambodians, Indonesians, Laotians, and Burmese remain offline.

If you’re living in a poor or isolated area, you will be even more ‘segregated’ from the knowledge economy and e-society.

Samia Melhem from the World Bank’s Digital Development Community

The Tech Trifecta: AI, Education, and ICT Infrastructure

ASEAN nations are willing to invest heavily in closing this digital gap because their future economies depend on their ability to succeed. Their employees must be trained and re-skilled in order for their economies to keep pace with Chinese and Korean tech superpowers, and smaller companies will need additional digital resources to enable them to keep up with their larger competitors. For this reason, governments are focusing on developing educational AI initiatives for an up-and-coming workforce.

High-powered international players such as UNESCO back this approach; theorists, researchers and policymakers spoke of AI’s potential at a recent global conference conducted in Paris, and Malaysian business leaders have projected that rates of innovation will increase 80% by 2021 with the development of AI.

What needs to be done before this future becomes a reality? First of all, organisations and governments need to launch AI curriculums and programs that equip Southeast Asian students with the knowledge to innovate in the field. This, consequently, will include a radical shift from indoctrinating students to meet standardised measures, to encouraging them to experiment and take calculated entrepreneurial risks.

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Luckily for the Parisian conference theorists, some ASEAN organisations have taken it upon themselves to start pioneering these types of innovative curriculums.

Microsoft and MIMOS

Young entrepreneurs and graduates will be given the tools to leverage the potential of IoT and AI in workshops at the newly established Microsoft Artificial Intelligence and Internet of Things Schools in Malaysia.

Economies and businesses that have yet to embark on their AI journey run a real risk of missing out on the competitive benefits that are enjoyed by leaders.

Microsoft Malaysian managing director K Raman

According to Digital News Asia, Microsoft is also upping the ante by pledging to equip 20 million ASEAN workers with digital skills and employment opportunities by 2020.


In Indonesia, the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organisation has pioneered online entrepreneurship courses and launched a technology-based SEA competition to ensure that students explore IoT, augmented reality, and software programming. So far, they have empowered 10,208 students and teachers to produce 344 technology projects – and by doing so, they have created a strong pipeline through which to funnel AI-educated students from classrooms to corporations.

But education is only half of the battle to close the region’s digital divide. Before these ‘upskilled’ students can put their knowledge to work igniting their national economies, they need the basic infrastructure to do so. If you’ve heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (the basic premise being that you need your basic physical needs met before you can focus on social, psychological or cultural ones), this is its technological equivalent. ASEAN nations need a solid ICT infrastructure – more specifically, ultrafast broadband – before they can capitalise on the potential of their young, digitally-fluent workforce.

Industry 4.0 Needs ICT

So far, older generations have resisted national education and tech organisations attempting to ‘onboard’ them into ICT initiatives. They hear the unfamiliar jargon, visualise complex implementation procedures, and consequently fail to see the direct benefits. Refusing to accept ICT, however, is no longer a viable option.

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To elaborate, let’s cede the floor for a moment to Richard Record, lead economist at the World Bank Group:

Without ultrafast broadband, innovations such as artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT) and Industry 4.0 will not be feasible.

Richard Record

In fact, ultrafast broadband is one of the major root causes of Southeast Asia’s digital divide. 75% of fixed broadband subscriptions originate in northern Asia, primarily in tech-powerful countries such as the Republic of Korea, which controls 40% of broadband infrastructure alone. Twenty other countries in the region possess a mere two subscriptions per every 100 citizens. As a result, the corporate Davids are radically separated from the Goliaths on the business battlefield of the ASEAN region.

This phenomenon will not go unaddressed, however, if national leaders get their way. A coalition of government officials has created a regional initiative named the Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway (AP-IS) that aims to speed countries from Turkey to Kiribati through the stages of digital and economic transformation. The mantra? ‘Make broadband accessible and affordable for all’.

Give the People Their AI

If AI knowledge and infrastructure barriers are promptly addressed, ASEAN could realise its extraordinary digital potential – not merely through giant corporations such as China’s Alibaba or broadband kingpin countries like the Republic of Korea, but across the region as a whole.

We stand now at the dawn of a new era, one which is built on the cloud and based on data-driven technologies.

Microsoft’s K. Raman states

Currently, there are hundreds of millions of young people across Southeast Asia who desperately want jobs that keep pace with a burgeoning digital economy and pay as such. Thus, if we can equip this generation with the AI education and infrastructure they need, they could be the ones who close this digital divide once and for all.

Bring it on, HAL.