2020 was a historic year for the world. The world faced a pandemic, causing disruptions to almost all facets of life.  As a medical doctor, I welcome strategies to prioritise the safety and health of people,  but, as a global citizen, I believe we need to understand its impacts beyond health alone.

I would like to reflect on the challenges ASEAN and Australia are facing, drawing on perspectives shared at the 2020 UNSW ASEAN Conference. Under the theme Inspiring the Present, Envisioning the Future, the conference explored Australian and ASEAN perspectives on restarting and rebuilding in the wake of the impact of COVID-19.

While the COVID-19 pandemic might make our future seem bleak, the discussions over the course of the conference brings renewed hope to the joint future of ASEAN and the world. The esteemed speakers and panellists that presented inspired us to do more and trigger discussions on not only problems but also possible solutions to implement.

Through this article I will discuss what inspired me most from the conference, focussing on three themes: diversity, technology, and sustainability and equity.


Regionalism is an important part of identity for ASEAN. With a population of almost 700 million and including 10 countries, is filled with enormous diversity in language, race, religion, culture and tradition. Reflecting upon its regionalism, ASEAN is not the European Union and will likely never be one. But as Emeritus Prof Carlyle Thayer (UNSW Canberra) and the ASEAN Regionalism panel has shared, its centrality is on consensus and cooperation, having successfully quelled interstate conflicts for this diverse region for almost 50 years. It can only remain so if, as Benjamin Bland shared, ASEAN does not isolate any of its members but continue to bond together. By focusing on this bond, the ASEAN Way is not without its challenges and imperfections. Its consensus-based approach has limited its reach to bring accountability on intra state issues and provided greater direct benefit to citizens from a more connected region.

Despite this, ASEAN can still play an important role as a pivot in not only Southeast Asia but the Indo-Pacific and even Asia Pacific region. Some of this relates to its enormous market size and human capital with ASEAN being the third largest market globally after India and China. ASEAN’s inclusion in trade agreements such as Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership inline with international best practices is also another example of its reach. Beyond this, the deepening US-China trade war presents opportunities for ASEAN to be the next global manufacturing powerhouse as industries shift their production facilities.

Beyond diversity in its heritage, ASEAN is filled with diversity in the relations between its people, power structures and politics as discussed by our expert panel of academics, politicians, civil society leaders and activists. While different in their approaches, they reflect that ASEAN citizens in big and small ways have shown that the ideas of democracy, solidarity and participatory politics can take root despite all the challenges presented by the various power structures in the different countries. They reflected that through this natural history of at times struggle and challenges, more democratic processes can develop that tend to result in more durable peace.

Politics often relates to human rights. While it remains an issue with progress being made, our diverse panellists including Mrs. Yenny Wahid (Wahid Institute), Mr. Jason Wee (Architects of Diversity). Mrs. Diah Saminarsih (World Health Organization) concur that intervening at the curriculum level remains the most important thing. Furthermore, promoting inclusiveness and equity as key principles will push forward human rights in the long haul.

Diversity in its economic activities also brings opportunities for ASEAN. Dr Ong Kian Ming (former Deputy Minister for International Trade and Investment Malaysia) shares his perspective on how ASEAN can attract greater foreign direct investment (FDI) in the midst of the US and China trade conflict. Even so, disparity in FDI remain rampant in ASEAN with FDI linkages a possible solution to improve equity (at a national level) in its distribution beyond the ASEAN countries. 

This image is a screenshot of the presentation by keynote speaker former President the Hon. Prof. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. It shows him in the middle of the screen presenting to the camera. On the right side of the screen is a chat function with introductions from participants.
The Hon. Prof. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono presents at the 2020 UNSW ASEAN Conference.


The world is moving from the 3rd Industrial Revolution with Computing as its hallmark to the 4th Revolution with Intelligence as its driver and Society 5.0 symbolised by global connectedness.

The world is moving from the 3rd Industrial Revolution characterised by a focus on computing technology towards a 4th revolution focussed on intelligence and even greater levels of connectedness. Prof Merlin Crossley (UNSW) opened the conference sharing how e-learning, in particular the transitions catalysed by COVID-19, has allowed the world to bridge distance in education access. However, this is not without the potential widening of inequities. as Adam Brimo (OpenLearning) challenged the concept of utilising e-learning to replicate classroom learning. Instead, he suggested that we should reconceptualise online teaching paradigms to reduce inequities and pursue better outcomes for students. 

In addition to education, COVID-19 has certainly accelerated the development and implementation of digital health technologies. For example, in several ASEAN countries there has been a reported up to 10 fold growth year-on-year on the number of telehealth consults. It has helped relieve pressure on hospitals which are focused on managing the rising number of COVID-19 cases.

Outside of its multiplier effects to increase access and quality, digital health is an opportunity to be a positive example where humanity intersects with technology in a beneficial way. Even so, reflecting upon the expert panel’s discussion, patient outcomes, community trust and accountability the most important factors. Digital health can be a double edged sword when implemented without these considerations in mind, for example using artificial intelligence supported medical systems trained with biased datasets can sustain and even widen discriminatory practices. Personalised health tracking with sensors can also amass granular health data that would be disastrous if it falls into the wrong hands or are utilise only for commercial intent and not to improve people’s quality of life.

Lastly, cyberspace is where current and future wars will be faced. Our multidisciplinary panel has discussed that everyone is vulnerable. The risk of breaches to our health data, educational data and in our other activities online will always be present, but it should not detract us from utilising and benefitting from it. The inconvenient truth is that cybersecurity is the collective responsibility of everyone and mitigating it will be through training ourselves to think critically. No single institution or cybersecurity agency can replace this.

Even so, as we go further into the fourth and fifth industrial revolutions where technology is ingrained into everything that we do, it is paramount that cybersecurity be on top of the agenda for governments globally and in ASEAN. There are encouraging signs in ASEAN with the recent release of ASEAN’s Digital Masterplan 2025 but more remains to be done to put it into practice. As a bloc, there is benefit for ASEAN to jointly invest in leading cybersecurity approaches such as blockchain, create practical risk governance and threat analysis frameworks, and create communities of practice aligning with goal 3 of the masterplan on the delivery of trusted approaches to prevent consumer harm.

As Dr Yang Executive Director of the ASEAN Foundation has shared, these uncertain times present opportunities to support deskilling and reskilling for the future. One such opportunity is certainly to upskill ASEAN’s citizens in technology to futureproof the workforce from current and future digital disruptions.

Sustainability and Equity

Rapid urbanisation in the past decades, pollution, deforestation and climate change are some of the sustainability challenges faced by ASEAN countries today.

From plastic pollution to water and renewables, our panel of industry leaders, academics and former Minister for Environmental Affairs Hon. Prof Rachmat Witoelar has showed that climate change and prosperity are strongly interlinked. One should not be prioritised over the other. A key recommendation is to promote industries to develop strategies to shift their posture to one that's sustainable, supporting sustainable solutions should not alienate a sector of the industry but pushing for a change for all. Some examples on where this is occurring is through eco-tourism in the various national parks in the region and presence of national Green Building and Energy Efficiency Codes in the various ASEAN countries.

On the other hand, we also reflect on cases of ASEAN supporting social entrepreneurships that looks beyond profits but also prioritise social impact. Giving those in ASEAN access to 3Ms - money, mentoring and market - including through the ASEAN Mentoring and Entrepreneurship Network discussed in the session is one way to achieve this.

Beyond supporting social entrepreneurship, we are also inspired to hear the various initiatives in the ASEAN countries to support informal economic activities that form a part of the ASEAN economy. We hear how it is important to share the benefits of being formal but also understanding the reasons for them staying informal. From Brunei Darussalam’s ASEAN Business Advisory Council Chair, we hear on their plan for their chairmanship in 2021. We note how supporting these small medium enterprises and sustainable development in ASEAN is a priority of this year’s Chair of ASEAN, Brunei Darussalam as outlined in their three-prong strategy – recovery, digitalisation and sustainability with 10 priority economic deliverables.

Gender equity especially women's empowerment is an area that the conference strongly supports including through our keynote session on Women Empowerment.  The speaker, Mrs Shinta Kamdani who’s chair of the Indonesia Business Coalition on Women Empowerment shared the current state of women in business globally. One of the key points shared was how despite women being almost equally represented in entry level positions, at leadership positions such as the mid-to-senior-management and especially as CEO, they are substantially underrepresented. An example is how only 8% of CEOs in Singapore and 5% in Indonesia are women. Even so, she notes how this is better than the US and Norway where only 3% and 2% of CEOs are women.

Some of her recommendations to counter this are through business certification for gender equality, capacity building for women talent and increasing opportunities for women to network. Closing off, she quoted the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg that it’s time to push for more gender equality and empowerment for women.

Personal Reflections

Beyond the global threats, challenges and opportunities above, I envision our joint future. As we reflect on COVID-19, this pandemic is not our first and certainly won't be our last. However, as described earlier, humanity also face numerous other ongoing challenges.

Even so, quoting former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's speech, despite our hardships, humanity will prevail, and we have showed this time and time again. But this is only possible if we build bridges not walls, maintain multilateralism against the rising protectionist sentiments and isolationism. Togetherness is the answer to many of the above problems.

The ASEAN Identity, spirit of we as mentioned by H.E. Mr. Mahendra Siregar (Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Republic of Indonesia) should be strengthened. ASEAN’s diversity, peace and prosperity can be and should be an example to the world. As gracefully embodied in the ASEAN Anthem - peace and prosperity, to dream, to care and to share together – they are everlasting tenets ASEAN can share to the world.

Closing this article, paraphrasing former Prime Minister Rudd's blunt statement during the Conference, if the West does not build bridges, it’s time for ASEAN to take the lead.

For the youth reading this article, current leaders and leaders of tomorrow, as H.E. Minister U Thaung Tun (Minister of Investment and Foreign Economic Relations Myanmar) poignantly stated - it is time for the current generation to solve many, if not most of the above challenges.


I would like to especially thank the over 40 organising committee members, our advisors, speakers, moderators, partners and sponsors who have volunteered their time, energy and resources to make the UNSW ASEAN Conference 2020 a success.