Originally published in Advancing ASEAN in the Digital Age Book, 14 November 2017.


The Digital Age: The great divider?


Identifying the beginning of the “digital age” depends on which definition and criteria adopted, but certainly there was a time when the rapid acquisition of digital technology by middle class populations – represented by the personal computer, internet connectivity and mobile phones – was supposed to herald an era where greater communication, knowledge exchange and virtual interaction was supposed to have eliminated barriers across communities and nation states, promoting peace, mutual respect and the advancement of democratic values.


Across the world we see examples of greater distrust, societal division and security challenges to nation states catalysed by the very same technology.


That promise has not been universally fulfilled. Across the world we see examples of greater distrust, societal division and security challenges to nation states catalysed by the very same technology. The propensity of authoritarian states in controlling the media continually catches up with technological advancements, and in some cases the state has successfully pressured so-called champions of free speech to modify their principles in return for market access. But even in democracies, public confidence in traditional institutions has been dented, accompanied by polarising ideologies and radical politics. The proliferation of fake news and its dissemination on social media platforms further fuels a confrontational and sceptical mindset amongst citizens.

The two now classic examples that relate to this phenomenon are the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States and the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union. The response to these events in turn has also triggered reactions ranging from those advocating for a return to constitutional principles on the one hand, to those who feel that only radical change can result in sustained peace and prosperity once again.

In ASEAN too, we see evidence that similar narratives may be unfolding. Despite the existence of the ASEAN Charter and regular public commitments to the development of the ASEAN Community, across the region we see how divisions among ethnic, cultural, religious, linguistic, geographical or class lines persist, or in some cases are being widened, often in pursuit of political objectives. In other words, deliberately sowing division can lead to electoral rewards or the consolidation of power.

The most graphic and egregious example is the tragedy affecting the Rohingya in Myanmar that is increasingly being described as “ethnic cleansing”. But all across the region political actors can be seen to be making appeals to narrowly-defined constituencies to strengthen their position, stultifying democratic progress.

Despite this, it must be recognised that many advances in the ASEAN agenda have been made by these leaders or their predecessors. Commemorations of the 50th anniversary of ASEAN have pointed out of course that the bloc’s raison d’être has changed over the five decades, but even to maintain peace between countries of such diverse cultural and religious populations and forms of government is a feat in itself, when some other regions of the world have fared far worse.

Explicit ASEAN agendas that comprise dialogues and conventions towards freer trade, greater connectivity and cooperation on problems such as human trafficking or transboundary pollution have indeed helped to raise living standards for potentially millions of people across the ten countries. These in turn encourage the private sector and civil society to push for more, and indeed it is often noted that the greatest contributions to intra-ASEAN interaction and connectivity have been enabled by businesses.

These are important drivers in a world where economic nationalism coupled with political authoritarianism are (once again) becoming a new normal, championed as they are by the world’s traditional and emerging superpowers. Yet, a key question will be how successful non-political agents can be in such an environment.

The answer will come from within the cohort of young middle class ASEAN citizens who have fully embraced the digital age. It is they who will be assessing how well the promises of ASEAN – apart from their own national institutions – are serving them. If participation with the regional agenda remains too aloof and remote, they may conclude that ASEAN is irrelevant to them.

It has long been a staple of conferences on ASEAN to cite the lessons we are able to learn from the European Union: don’t transfer too much (any?) sovereignty, be careful about establishing a common parliament or adopting an overarching legal system, and don’t create a common currency without an understanding of the economic consequences. As I write, another lesson will no doubt be drawn from the EU’s response (or lack thereof) to demands for independence (and the legal status of referenda on that question) in Catalonia.

Advancing ASEAN in the digital age will no doubt require its chief proponents to understand these lessons, but before that, an important prerequisite is working towards a common understanding of the ASEAN Charter and the pillars of the ASEAN Community at the very least – if not the introduction of ASEAN-related history and geography components in schools across the region. That is a crucial link in the necessary step of transferring participation in, and ownership of, ASEAN from the political and diplomatic elites to a wider base of citizens.

Without these ingredients, ASEAN’s peoples may turn towards greater polarisation and division, with the advent of the digital age serving destructive, rather than cooperative, interests.

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About Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin


Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin is Senior Fellow at CARI and the Founding President of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs. A regular columnist in the Malaysian press since 2008, he is a trustee of four foundations, an independent director of two public listed companies, a director or advisor of several educational organisations and a patron of numerous cultural initiatives.