Investors and entrepreneurs alike agree that “surprise surprise” the shift to an ever more digitised economy is inevitable and happening exponentially fast at that. The benefits on living standards and more coherent society (supposedly) are also undisputed. 

Policy makers across Southeast Asia understand both developments very well. Acting fast is of the essence in order to position countries and the region well in the new digital order. Or so say the pundits in their usually indecipherable lingo. 

ASEAN in particular has vowed to stay ahead of this change with proper policy. Over the years numerous documents like the Blueprint 2015 or the ASEAN working programme on E-commerce have been signed. 

Key issues like consumer rights, cyber security, accessibility or alternative dispute resolution mechanisms have been brought up on these summits.

On the face of it, ASEAN is aligned on the path to digitisation. In reality, as we know how diverse this region is, such alignment would take a lot of commitment and hard work to bring about. 

Yes, they want their economies to be open, competitive and collaborative, but liberalisation cannot come at the expense of national interests. Ultimately they have domestic interests to take care of, whether the government is elected, or not. 

Here a few examples for illustration:

  1. Thailand for instance struggles to process and enforce IP applications. About 38 000 patents are currently pending and IP enforcement is done by sporadically taking down content in slight suspicion of infringement by government decree. 
  2. Indonesia on the other hand imposes domestic component quotas of 30% on foreign products sold locally (hard and software). Furthermore, the value of imports subject to taxation has been lowered in recent years. 
  3. Malaysia & Vietnam insist on data localisation, lacking assurances on proper foreign stewardship of their citizen’s data.  
  4. The Philippines limited the public ICT sector to domestic companies and forced foreign companies into local collaborations upon market entry in general.

As the geopolitical weights shift and unicorns pop up left-right-and-center elsewhere, we remain hopeful that ASEAN leverages its distinct advantages in a unified market. 

The most desirable outcome for all parties is to open up and reform their economies in a fair manner. However it is undesirable to be alone in opening up, meaning the status quo becomes the natural settling point. 

Amidst all of this, some ASEAN countries simply have a bigger interest in liberalisation than others. It is collective action and mutual assurances that are required to establish the role of individual countries in Asean according to their comparative advantages. Only this will achieve the collectively most desirable outcome.

In the meantime, for all the true entrepreneurs, all the above is noise, or rather, one of the many considerations for decision making. They find ways to adapt, and seize the opportunities. 

Ultimately, when the market is fully open up (if they ever do), and competition is efficient, you might already have lost a lot of precious time.



Thanks for reading The Low Down (TLD), the blog by the team at Momentum Works. Got a different perspective or have a burning opinion to share? Let us know at [email protected].