Asia's developing economies going greener with digital technologies

Prime Sarmiento and Yang Han in Hong Kong

Asia's developing economies going greener with digital technologies

Developing Asia needs to focus on green technology, digitalization and innovative solutions as it gradually moves to rebuild the pandemic-hit economy, according to the participants of a regional forum held on May 31.

But the new normal also means that Asia must take a new path to growth – one that is more equitable, environment-friendly and promotes a shared prosperity, according to government officials, senior company executives, civil society leaders and academic experts who attended in the Asia Economic and Entrepreneurship Summit (AEES) held in Malaysia.

The AESS’ theme is “The Great Reset - Asia Megatrends and Opportunities Post COVID”. The one-day forum, held in a hybrid format in Kuala Lumpur, was organized by the KSI Strategic Institute for Asia Pacific, Economic Club of Kuala Lumpur (ECKL) and China Daily Asia Pacific.

“We are now seeing the world rapidly reopening following two disruptive years brought about by the pandemic we expected to live with COVID-19 as an endemic, I'm cautiously optimistic that the region will bounce back better and stronger,” Ahmad Fuzi Abdul Razak, governor of the northwestern Malaysian state of Penang, said in his keynote speech.

He cited the OECD Economic Outlook for Asia, which forecast Asian economies to grow by 5.8 percent this year. But there are some short-term risks – including possible new waves of COVID-19, rising inflation and political instability. Ahmad Fuzi said Asia is a “resilient region that has proven itself to be able to meet difficult challenges. We must however, continue to be vigilant and to be able to adapt when necessary”.

Richard Marshall, senior economist for United Nations Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, said that post-pandemic recovery needs to emphasize inclusion, sustainability and strengthening resilience.

“Some of the challenges we face going forward around the post-COVID recovery (are) ensuring that businesses and workers are secure, leaving no one behind by securing economic and social participation,” Marshall said in a panel discussion.

Ahmad Amzad Hashim, Malaysia’s Deputy Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, said digital technology is a new driver of economic growth and this is evident in the Southeast Asian region which is among the world’s fastest-growing Internet markets. Ahmad Amzad delivered the special address in behalf of Adham Baba, Malaysia’s Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation.

Ahmad Amzad cited the 2021 report by Google, Temasek and Bain which projected that Southeast Asia’s digital economy will hit $1 trillion US dollars by 2030 and that 80 percent of the 450 million internet users in ASEAN are digital consumers. This, he said, is “a massive market. The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digitalization in ASEAN”.

Apart from digitalization sustainability is also important in light of climate change and as such one of Malaysia’s development goals will entail the use of science, technology and innovation to protect and manage the environment.

Albert Oung, chairman of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) Sustainable Business Network Green Economy Task Force and president of World Green Organization, reported how China is developing and promoting green economy.

Oung said in a panel discussion that when Chinese President Xi Jinping introduced the Belt and Road Initiative less than a decade ago, “we were already talking about green Belt and Road”.

“Belt and Road is somewhat an economic development initiative. But if you want to make it meaningful, we kind of put the green in front where we are not only dealing with economic growth, but also about people, serving the people in all the Belt and Road countries,” he said.

Deborah Biber, chairwoman of UN ESCAP’s Digital Economy Task Force and chief executive of Blue Moon Advisory said China has an “incredible role to play in the future of the (fourth) industrial revolution and the advance of digital technology”.

“Because without a proper mobile infrastructure scenario, Internet of Things and the Industrial Revolution … is not going to happen. And China has the technology. It has its own infrastructure. They have leapfrogged the West. That is a fantastic opportunity for China to move forward,” Biber said.

Raymond Kwong, executive director of Silverlake Axis, also finds BRI greener. “This green BRI is an initiative led by the Chinese government together with other partner governments throughout the world. Despite the geopolitics that we have today, there is one thing that unite us as a global family that is to save the planet,” he said.

Kwong also sees all businesses, for all intents and purposes, must go digital and green by 2050 and most of the carbon solutions in next decades rely on new technologies.

Caroline Macdonald, CEO of BBX International, noted trillions of financial commitment in the Asia-Pacific to harness opportunities from the launch of innovative products and industries as well as savings from existing and new resources and production costs.

She encouraged businesses to seize the opportunities to achieve sustainable energy, efficient logistics, and green connectivity in cities in particular.

In building a sustainable green economy through digitization, related people, businesses and agencies can collaborate to rethink their strategy on growth, adapt sustainable principles, and invest in innovative technologies to preserve our eco-system during development.

David Morris, vice president of UN ESCAP Sustainable Business Network, said fee market is good when it’s about the ability of businesses to function and to deliver good for society, ”but you do need some rules. You do need some guard rails … I think this is where we really do need to rethink the model.”

Morris encourages collective good governance that puts digital and green technologies to use for people-centered purpose of a common future.

Justin Lee, High Commissioner of Australia to Malaysia, said that while the pandemic and the Ukraine-Russia conflict are attracting the headlines at the moment, people also need to address other global challenges such as climate change and transitioning to a net zero future.

Lee, who is one of the panel discussants, climate change presents offers and opportunities to the region. One if these opportunities is in the development of low emissions technologies that can help countries attain a zero-carbon economy.

Roland Galharague, ambassador of France to Malaysia, said that the world is entering a fourth industrial revolution “and the driver for this fourth industrial revolution is precisely turning around our economies to make them green”.

“This has lots of implications in all fields of all fields of economic activity, whether it's building, whether it is mobility, whether it is town planning, whether it is smart cities, etcetera,” Galharague said.

At another session, speakers encouraged corporate leaders and business communities to enhance sustainability and governance for sustainable and healthy post-pandemic development.