Bridging the Divide: AI Governance in ASEAN

This op-ed is part of AASYP’s Digital Dialogues 2021, which is a programme that aims to provide a platform and forum for future leaders from across the region to contribute to the policymaking and diplomacy sphere by engaging in issues relating to Gender and Diversity, Green Recovery, and Emerging Economies.

The rapid pace of technological advancement under the Fourth Industrial Revolution presents the opportunity for intensified multilateral cooperation between Australia and ASEAN states on artificial intelligence (AI) governance and policy—to collectively address the growing algorithmic divide, both between states and among their citizens. The proliferation of AItechnologies across Southeast Asia carries the unparalleled potential to effect significant change and disruption across various sectors of society, including finance, manufacturing, transportation, and healthcare—demonstrated through smart cities, automated vehicles, and facial recognition technology. In financial year 2018/19, the ongoing information and communications technology (ICT) trade between Australia and ASEAN  amounted to A$1.05 billion. While AI adoption and integration is predicted to uplift the region’s GDP by around  $1 trillion (10-18 per cent) by 2030, this newfound prosperity will not benefit all countries or peoples equally. 

As defined by the OECD, the digital divide represents the gap between individuals, households, businesses, and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels concerning their opportunity to access ICTs. Within the AI context this translates into the concept of the “algorithmic divide”—a term describing the ever-widening gap between groups in their ability to leverage and enjoy the benefits of AI. This is predicated upon differences in awareness surrounding new AI technology, the access of such technology, its availability across different locations, and its alignment with local laws, customs, and needs. 

Left unchecked, the algorithmic divide may eclipse the benefits promised by AI, with both Australia and ASEAN members facing similar challenges across several areas in balancing the socioeconomic implications of AI technology. Firstly, AI and automation carries the disruptive potential to automate 50 per cent of the work activities across ASEAN’s four largest economies: including the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. This is projected to result in the loss of up to 28 million jobs across ASEAN’s six largest economies by 2028, a figure which does not bode well for the future of the region’s 161.2 million youth (15-29 years). Similarly, Australia’s job market is forecast to decline by 1.5 million workers by 2030 due to AI and automation. Policymakers face multiple challenges in creating a coherent and adaptable roadmap to help upskill workforces for AI.

One possible solution involves increased cross-border exchanges and cooperation on education, focused upon reskilling and training programs targeting workers and sectors most affected by the coming disruption. This would capitalise upon existing Track 2.0 dialogues such as through the ASEAN-Australia Education Dialogue, driving people-to-people and institutional cooperation on the development of AI and STEM-related programs and degrees, scholarships, and academic exchange opportunities. Paired with financial support from regional governments and working partnerships with native technology companies, this would incentivise young people to future proof their careers, enable unemployed individuals and blue-collar workers to pivot toward new careers, and address the underlying causes of shortages in AI talent through the development of a sovereign, resilient, and diverse talent pool of AI professionals. 

Furthermore, the fragmented state of AI adoption across the region illustrates the growing economic divide between developed versus underdeveloped member states, with 83 per cent of ASEAN members remaining in the early stages of AI adoption. Statistics on AI investment over 2019 highlight Singapore’s $68 worth of AI investment per capita, versus the $1 fronted individually by Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. By comparison, Australia’s investment in AI at present amounts to $2 per capita. Consequently, more developed countries will become increasingly and disproportionately advantaged because of their early adoption in AI as time progresses. 

This existing difference in investment is expected to accentuate the uneven distribution of economic benefits received from AI by 2030—with Singapore’s $110 billion in projected benefits contrasted against $41 billion to be received collectively by Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. In contrast, AI and other digital technologies would collectively contribute A$315 billion to the Australian economy by 2028. It is clear that this growing investment capability gap carries grave implications for regional development, the cross-border flow of data, and socioeconomic stability.

This challenge may be overcome through an emphasis upon inclusivity across policymaking, adopting a common but differentiated approach which recognises the responsibility of AI proficient ASEAN member states and Australia to accommodate and support AI development and implementation across less developed states through targeted cooperation. This may translate into a variety of practical initiatives—including the establishing of multi-site test beds to demonstrate how AI solutions can be employed, promoting the shared use of resources, data, and infrastructure, and specialised guidance on the formation of AI-relevant domestic laws, policies, and regulations.

Finally, ASEAN member states and Australia face overarching challenges in the continuing absence of a formative guidance document on AI ethics and governance. Referenced under the recent release of the ASEAN Digital Masterplan 2025, Clause EA2.7 acknowledges that the region’s ongoing progression toward digital transformation is reliant upon the increased confidence of consumers and individuals to use AI technologies, requiring the formation of a regional guide on AI ethics and governance. This would promote understanding and trust in regional digital ecosystems by addressing common governance and ethical issues arising in the use of AI. However, the formation of such a guide is not yet definitive and remains uncertain given several unique regional realities. 

The ASEAN Way’s emphasis upon consensus-driven decision making and non-interference in the internal affairs of members may frustrate the pending formation of a uniform document on AI ethics and governance. This is reinforced by the diminished nature of market and regulatory integration across the region when compared to other supranational bodies like the European Union, and is compounded by the reality that many ASEAN members have yet to seriously develop and integrate AI systems and technology. 

Given Australia’s experience in developing its own set of AI Ethics Principles, and in devising and implementing a voluntary framework concerning the safe, secure and reliable use of AI may help shape and inform ASEAN’s envisioned guidelines. This would prove particularly beneficial in promoting a commonality of values between Australia and ASEAN in the use of AI, founded upon respect for human rights and liberal democratic values—including transparency, accountability, fairness, inclusion, and sustainable development.

In summary, the capacity for policymakers to overcome these structural issues and bridge the algorithmic divide requires ASEAN-Australian concordance in relation to employment and upskilling, inclusivity, and AI ethics and principles. Focus on these areas must follow upon the aspirations of the 2018 Sydney Declaration, in driving a strong, resilient, and cohesive relationship; as founded upon the open, resilient, transparent, and trusted use of technology. This will play a pivotal role advancing the free flow of goods, services, and data—thereby driving rapid economic recovery, facilitating digital transformation and integration, and improving the health and livelihood of our region’s citizens.

This article was written by Jonathan Lim, edited by Siobhan Honey, and reviewed by the AASYP Publications Team.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and in no way represent nor reflect the position of AASYP and members of the AASYP Publications Team. The AASYP Horizons Blog provides a platform for the free expression of opinions and intellectual discourse.

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