Insight – Innovation the key to creating opportunities in ASEAN

By Daniel Havas, Senior Trade Commissioner, Austrade Malaysia

The ASEAN region is one of Australia’s top three trading partners and the largest source of export revenue for Australian small and medium-sized goods and services exporters. As ASEAN continues to grow, its future holds even greater promise for Australian business, and the recent ASEAN-Australia Summit in Sydney has put the region on the main stage for Australia’s small and large industries.

During the Summit, a plethora of discussions were held with nation and business leaders in a concerted effort to both elevate the relationship between Australia and our closest neighbours and provide a clear direction of engagement.

The series of business events – including the SME Conference, Women in Business Breakfast and CEO Summit – demonstrated the value of businesses of all sizes coming together to share practical advice and strategies for collaboration and to identify future priorities.

Importantly, the Summit gave hundreds of Australian SMEs the chance to better understand the diversity of the ASEAN region, including the unique business challenges, modes of operation and cultural practices of individual countries, as well as the emerging trade opportunities.

An immediate outcome from the Summit was the Australian Prime Minister’s announcement of an A$30 million investment fund to support ‘smart cities’ in South East Asian countries. The ASEAN-Australia Smart and Sustainable Cities Initiative will set up a knowledge bank of sustainable urban planning ideas to be shared between ASEAN and Australia, and highlights Australia’s commitment towards the development of a healthy and prosperous relationship with ASEAN countries.

While the meetings, roundtables and networking events clearly showed the strength of trade and investment prospects across multiple industries, one of the key takeaways was how innovation and digital transformation will create more opportunities for Australian businesses in the ASEAN region.

It was also evident that industry and government need to evolve and adapt quickly to take advantage of the opportunity arising from the rapid change in a region of more than 600 million people. As Austrade CEO Dr Stephanie Fahey pointed out during the SME Conference, “The future for Australian businesses on the world stage is inextricably tied to innovation – both leading the world in it, and responding to the disruption it can cause.”

With its predominately young, growing and highly tech-savvy population, the ASEAN region offers significant opportunity for Australia in the digital space alone, and more broadly in traditional trading sectors such as food and agriculture and energy supply, which are also undergoing their own tech disruptions.

The significant number of CEOs in attendance from ASEAN and Australia highlighted the importance industry leaders place on the Australia-ASEAN opportunity. Over the two days, a number of ASEAN CEOs pointed out to me they had never before seen such a significant event take place which offered a platform to deliver both a blueprint for the future of business within the region and to make significant changes to drive business opportunity and collaboration. The CEO Summit covered key areas such as the need to invest in human capital, the role of businesses as drivers for inclusive growth through sustainable business practices, infrastructure development and regulatory reform.

The Summit was a key step forward in elevating Australia’s relationship with ASEAN and follow-up will be critical to strengthen trade and investment relationships. Implementing programs to continue creating more awareness of each other’s capability, resources and needs to meet the challenges of the future in a digitally disruptive environment will lead to tangible benefits for business, government and academia, and for collaborations between all three to flourish.

Find out more about opportunities for Australian business in our ASEAN NOW report.

Along with its proximity to ASEAN, Australia is an ideal partner with whom to develop green building projects that support growth, invest in communities and prepare the region for a low-carbon future. Our Australian Green Building for ASEAN 2018 report has more information on Australia’s capability in this important sector.

Daniel Havas is Austrade’s Senior Trade Commissioner in Malaysia. Contact