ASEAN’s Digital Economy Aspirations: An assessment of the policy documents of the ADM2025, ADIFAP, and the BSBR

The digital economy has grown in importance around the world. It refers to the broad range of economic activities that use digitized information and knowledge as key factors of production (Asian Development Bank, 2018). Enablers include the internet, cloud computing, big data, fintech, and other new digital technologies. Asia’s digital transformation is already having a massive impact on the region’s economies, and in 2018 alone Asia’s e-commerce transactions accounted for 25% of the business to consumer (B2C) markets in the world, led by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) (Asian Development Bank, 2018).

ACI’s paper titled “Frameworks, Masterplans, and Roadmaps: ASEAN’s Digital Economy Aspirations” provides a summary of ASEAN’s digital economy initiatives, and provides an overarching report card on its progress. Specifically, three recent ASEAN policy documents are focused upon, i.e., the ASEAN Digital Masterplan (ADM2025), released in January 2021, the ASEAN Digital Integration Framework Action Plan (ADIFAP) 2019-2025, and finally the Bandar Seri Begawan Roadmap (BSBR), endorsed in October 2021.

Key takeaways from this paper include the following. First, in terms of assessment, the ADIFAP clarifies the ADM2025 as well as BSBR. These clarifications are not insignificant, given the criticisms of ASEAN’s disorganised “noodle bowl” of policy documents (see Jones and Hameiri 2020, p.198). Given the consistent calls for ASEAN to harmonise digital standards and regulations to allow the ease of cross-border data flows and trade, such efforts at streamlining the initiatives are welcome. This allows ASEAN to give a clear stance on its initiatives relating to the digital economy, and affords a degree of accessibility for observers, businesses, or policymakers looking into this topic.

The paper recommends that one area for improvement for ADIFAP is for it to include articles relating to decarbonisation, sustainability, or climate change. Such topics were raised under masterplans such as the ADM2025, which explicitly linked ASEAN efforts to address climate change and grow the digital economy, but are conspicuously absent in ADIFAP. With ADIFAP set for a review in 2022 to account for “emerging developments in the digital ecosystem” (ASEAN 2021c, p.4), the paper posits that the opportunity is ripe for ASEAN policymakers to establish linkages between ADIFAP and ASEAN policy documents relating to the climate change. More hard hitting, harmonized measures are needed between ASEAN countries to protect against climate change, and more regulations are needed with regard to decarbonisation and sustainability.

ADM2025 on the other hand, is firmly rooted in the context of needing to drive ASEAN’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. To meet this goal, ADM2025 lists eight Desired Objectives (DOs), accompanied with 37 Enabling Actions (EAs). Specifically, ADM2025’s DOs involve prioritising ASEAN’s recovery from COVID-19; improving the quality and coverage of fixed and mobile broadband infrastructure; delivering trusted digital services while preventing consumer harm; creating a sustainable competitive market for digital services; increasing the supply of public e-services; using digital services to connect businesses and facilitate trade; increasing the capability of businesses and people to participate in the digital economy; and removing barriers to the use of digital services. The EAs essentially function as sub-points that support the pursuit of their associated DOs, and also recognise the cross-cutting nature of digital development challenges by noting the network of prioritisation and dependencies between EAs.  Whilst sharing some similarities with the priority areas of ADIFAP over the larger issue of digital transformation, in ADM2025 there is a distinct focus on building infrastructure and improving trust and regulation standards. ADM2025 also consists of results based on surveys conducted by a consulting company, in which stakeholders, including policymakers in the ICT ministries and national regulatory authorities, are polled. The paper’s authors contend that the survey results yield some interesting data, especially with regard to what stakeholders perceive as the biggest barriers to achieving ADM2025’s vision. The ADM2025’s survey reveals that the most important perceived barriers include the lack of digital literacy among end-users, lack of infrastructure investment, as well as the lack of a harmonised approach across ASEAN. However, as part of a criticism of the methodology that ADM2025 uses, this paper’s authors note that the survey’s respondents mostly consist of government representatives, taking up over 75% of the polling body (p.125). Civil society actors, who might have important insights or views on the effects of digitalisation on societal harmony or the environment, are altogether excluded. Furthermore, the composition of different member states in the poll is skewed, for example, Thailand is heavily overrepresented, with 10 of the 38 responses coming from them. However, by contrast, the region’s largest nation, Indonesia, only had 1 response. Survey responses from the Philippines and Cambodia were altogether excluded. As such, the paper’s authors conclude that the results might not represent a diverse range of voices.

Second, this paper’s authors note that there has been a subtle shift in the language of the ADM2025 policy document. Since Southeast Asia possesses numerous shortcomings in areas such as broadband access, a particular problem concerns intra-ASEAN skill gaps. Without skilled labour, member states would be poorly positioned to embark on digitalisation efforts. A previous document, AIM2020 noted the importance of “cross-border flows of ICT professionals in order to identify and address skill gaps”. However, ADM2025 seems to downplay the issue of labour mobility in favour of re-skilling the domestic workforce, dropping mentions of cross-border flow of human capital, skills diffusion, or foreign labour. The focus is instead solely on up- or re-skilling, and establishment of “Centres of Excellence” to facilitate this (e.g. p.65). This approach is domestic, with a primarily inward-looking approach to addressing skilled labour shortages. Worker mobility, in contrast, was only mentioned in the context of developing common curriculum standards in ICT across ASEAN (p.27, 110, 112).

In terms of language of ADM2025, the shift from the use of the term “ICT” to “digital” also suggests a more conscious and purposeful shift to transform ASEAN’s socio-economic institutions, where entire societies, and not just the ICT sectors, are digitalised. It signals a much bolder and accelerated push towards digitalisation of the entire economy and society, as opposed to focusing simply on select sectors. The authors believe that this may send a signal of intent not just to actors within ASEAN, but external actors, who are often mentioned as the target audience of ASEAN. However, with ADM2025 not being heavily reported in the media, the authors argue that it remains unclear if ASEAN has managed to achieve the attention required to attract greater investments, or even cooperation in the digital sector.

Finally, the BSBR aims to map out the steps that ASEAN should prioritise from its ongoing initiatives to expedite its digitalisation process (ASEAN 2021c, p.2). With three effective phases (Recovery (2021-2022), Acceleration (2022-2024), and Transformation (2025)), BSBR aspires to offer a more condensed, simplified roadmap to digitalise ASEAN, echoing the desire of the ADM2025 authors to create achievable EAs and avoid AIM2020’s “spray-gun” approach. BSBR is a relatively short, streamlined document, and it outlines in point form the main initiatives to expedite ASEAN’s digitalisation process.

Overall, with regard to these 3 documents, the authors of this paper conclude that these must be assessed within the context of security-related developments in the South China Sea, or other geopolitical matters. It remains to be seen whether member states’ political agendas, or other considerations, will help or hinder the effectiveness of the initiatives described in these documents. The authors of this paper also contend that a great deal of depth can be added to country-specific comparative analyses, including quantifying the extent to which the specific factors outlined by the documents will affect rates of digitalization, and prospects of achieving ADM2025’s vision. Analysis of the specific capabilities, challenges, and objectives of each member state is therefore seen as the logical next step when studying the digital economy of ASEAN. Finally, the authors conclude that a more inclusive framework is needed for assessing ADM2025 (for example, by ensuring that the distribution of respondents is fair, across not just countries but industries), and also, that there is the need to craft better data sharing arrangements for anti-cybercrime enforcement.

By CHOW Yi Lin Dawn


Asian Development Bank (21 February, 2018).  Understanding the Digital Economy: What Is It and How Can It Transform Asia? Retrieved from

Researchers: Say Jye QUAH, Kevin CHEN

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