Prospects for an ASEAN Digital Community

On 29 February 2024, the Tech For Good Institute (TFGI) participated in a seminar, Navigating Global Challenges: ASEAN’s Responses to the Changing Strategic and Economic Landscape, organised by the Centre for Multilateralism Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. The panel examined the role of digital integration in realising regional integration for Southeast Asia against a changing strategic and economic backdrop.

Southeast Asia is not only growing economically, it is becoming increasingly important geopolitically in the shifting global system. The seminar organised by the Centre for Multilateralism Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, examined how Southeast Asian countries remain globally competitive economically, while working together to maintain strategic autonomy, individually and as a region, in light of uncertain geopolitics, rapid innovations in technology, and the urgent need for energy transition and sustainable development.

The panel “Prospects for an ASEAN Digital Community” discussed the challenges and potential impact of the ASEAN Digital Economy Framework Agreement (DEFA), negotiations for which began last year (2023).


Moderator and Panellists:

  • Joel Ng, Research Fellow and Deputy Head, Centre for Multilateralism Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
  • Ming Tan, Founding Executive Director, Tech for Good Institute
  • Maria Monica Wihardja, Economist, and Visiting Fellow in the Media, Technology and Society Programme, the Regional Economic Studies Programme and the Indonesia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute
  • Ibrahim Kholilul Rohman, Senior Research Associate at the Indonesia Financial Group (IFG) Progress and Lecturer at School of Strategic and Global Studies, Universitas Indonesia


Key Takeaways:

1. Leapfrogging Legacy Technologies and Building a Resilient Digital Community

Southeast Asia has experienced a rapid growth of digital adoption, particularly fueled by mobile technologies and online platforms. However, within this growth, significant challenges such as digital inequality, regulatory gaps and cybersecurity vulnerabilities persist. DEFA therefore needs to balance the dual goals of unlocking the potential of its digital economy and ensuring equitable growth. Success depends on addressing known challenges such as connectivity, cybersecurity, and regulatory alignment, as well as remaining responsive to technological advancement through knowledge sharing, innovation and talent development.

2. Embrace Trade Law 4.0 for Digital Economy Regulation

Transitioning from Trade 2.0 to Trade 4.0 marks a pivotal shift towards regulating the data-driven economy. Unlike traditional trade in physical goods, there is a glaring absence of internationally agreed-upon principles for digital trade and cross-border data flows. The emergence of Digital Economy Agreements (DEAs) and frameworks like DEFA underscores the necessity for regulatory frameworks tailored to the digital era. With the exponential growth of the digital economy outpacing traditional sectors, the absence of comprehensive governance could impede productivity, innovation, and cross-border access to vital information. Therefore, embracing Trade Law 4.0 is imperative to establish transparent, non-discriminatory regulations that foster predictability and facilitate cross-border data flows essential for economic growth and societal progress.

3. Address Digital Divide for Equitable Growth
Despite the promising growth prospects of the region, the panel identified several challenges and risks associated with ASEAN’s digital transformation. Digital inequity stands as a significant concern, threatening to widen the gap between ASEAN member states (AMS) as well as within countries. As digital natives increasingly dominate online spaces, equitable growth hinges on ensuring inclusive access to digital technologies, digital literacy and opportunities to benefit from technology-enabled business models. Cybersecurity threats, workforce disruptions, and environmental impact pose significant hurdles to sustainable digital development. By fostering a regulatory environment prioritising digital inclusion, ASEAN can mitigate disparities and foster resilient, innovative growth across the region.

4. Align Policies for MSMEs’ Digital Transformation

Micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) constitute the backbone of ASEAN’s economy, yet digital adoption among them lags behind that of their larger counterparts. Aligning policies, including infrastructure development, digital taxation, and data protection, is crucial to unlocking the potential of MSMEs in the digital economy. Establishing common definitions and frameworks for MSMEs across ASEAN nations facilitates comparative analysis and promotes policy coherence. Furthermore, building digital trade relationships with strategic partners and leveraging online platforms can empower MSMEs to access global markets and drive economic growth.

5. Keep Implementation Challenges Front of Mind

The goal of DEFA is not just to promote intra-ASEAN interoperability, but to make ASEAN a globally competitive region with multiple strategic partners. This will only be possible with collaborative action in guiding the region’s digital integration efforts. Governments, businesses, civil society organisations, and academia must work together for capacity building and technical assistance to secure domestic buy-in and translation from policy to practice.

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Mouna Aouri

Programme Fellow

Mouna Aouri is an Institute Fellow at the Tech For Good Institute. As a social entrepreneur, impact investor, and engineer, her experience spans over two decades in the MENA region, South East Asia, and Japan. She is founder of Woomentum, a Singapore-based platform dedicated to supporting women entrepreneurs in APAC through skill development and access to growth capital through strategic collaborations with corporate entities, investors and government partners.

Dr Ming Tan

Founding Executive Director

Dr Ming Tan is founding Executive Director for the Tech for Good Institute, a non-profit founded to catalyse research and collaboration on social, economic and policy trends accelerated by the digital economy in Southeast Asia. She is concurrently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Governance and Sustainability at the National University of Singapore and Advisor to the Founder of the COMO Group, a Singaporean portfolio of lifestyle companies operating in 15 countries worldwide.  Her research interests lie at the intersection of technology, business and society, including sustainability and innovation.


Ming was previously Managing Director of IPOS International, part of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore, which supports Singapore’s future growth as a global innovation hub for intellectual property creation, commercialisation and management. Prior to joining the public sector, she was Head of Stewardship of the COMO Group and the founding Executive Director of COMO Foundation, a grantmaker focused on gender equity that has served over 47 million women and girls since 2003.


As a company director, she lends brand and strategic guidance to several companies within the COMO Group. Ming also serves as a Council Member of the Council for Board Diversity, on the boards of COMO Foundation and Singapore Network Information Centre (SGNIC), and on the Digital and Technology Advisory Panel for Esplanade–Theatres on the Bay, Singapore’s national performing arts centre.


In the non-profit, educational and government spheres, Ming is a director of COMO Foundation and Singapore Network Information Centre (SGNIC) and chairs the Asia Advisory board for Swiss hospitality business and management school EHL. She also serves on  the Council for Board Diversity and the Digital and Technology Advisory Panel for Esplanade–Theatres on the Bay, Singapore’s national performing arts centre.


Ming was educated in Singapore, the United States, and England. She obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford University and her doctorate from Oxford.