Asean women leaders see digitalisation as key for sustainable societies

Reliable bank transfers and artificial intelligence can help uplift the lives of workers in Southeast Asia, but stronger governance of how emerging technology is being used is needed, said panellists at a Japan-Asean forum held in Tokyo.

Asean Japan
Speakers in the panel titled "Toward a Sustainable and Prosperous Society", from left: Aizawa Nobuhiro, moderator and associate professor, Kyushu University; Samira A. Gutoc, former commissioner of Bangsamoro Transition Commission, Philippines; Yenny Wahid, director, The Wahid Foundation, Indonesia; Serey Chea, assistant governor, National Bank of Cambodia; Jessica Cheam, founder and managing director, Eco-Business, Singapore. Image: Japan Foundation

A domestic helper working overseas was sending her hard-earned money to her parents in Cambodia. Little did she realise that the remittances were not used to pay for the school fees of her son. Instead, the funds were mishandled by her own parents, leaving her with no savings after years of hard work.

The series of events made her mentally ill, and she was unable to take care of her child. Fortunately, the child was adopted by a well-to-do Cambodian woman, and given a shot at a better life.

Serey Chea, assistant governor of the National Bank of Cambodia, was the one who adopted the boy. The story of her adopted child would later inspire her to launch a payment system that facilitates bank transfers between rural and urban areas. With the system, money sent from overseas, including to remote villages in Cambodia, is directed straight to billers such as utility providers and schools, hence preventing cases when intermediaries misuse the funds.

Speaking at an international symposium held in Tokyo last Thursday (16 March) to commemorate 50 years of friendship and cooperation between Japan and the regional grouping Asean that Cambodia is part of, Chea shared the story to illustrate what Asean member countries can do to help build and strengthen sustainable societies. 

“I was trying to think, in my position as a policy maker, how do I create an impact for people? I wanted to see with my own eyes how to do that so I started this project,” Chea said.

The Bakong Project, a payment service launched in 2020, has since seen new initiatives being launched, such as a cross-border credit information sharing platform between Singapore and Cambodia. It enables Cambodian migrant workers to gain access to financial services like loans, as their financial histories are made available to Singapore banks.

“What we did with Singapore is really groundbreaking and we hope to replicate that across the Asean region,” she said.

Chea also called on Japan to increase its quota of Cambodian migrant workers, and for both countries to work towards a connected payment system, similar to the one between Singapore and Cambodia, where credit infromation can be shared across two countries.

Although the rise of digitisation in the region is key to a sustainable society, it  must come with stronger governance, reminded Jessica Cheam, founder and managing editor of Eco-Business, a Singapore-based media and business intelligence organisation dedicated to sustainable development in Asia Pacific.

She cited how artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT, which can perform research and data analysis, including letters and reports, have disrupted patterns, but need to be vigilantly monitored.

“We’ve seen cybersecurity become a big issue … this is where the role of policymakers of Asean and the secretariat of Japan can come together to create the strong governance frameworks so that it has teeth, and it can actually help to move into the direction that we need to be,” Cheam told the panel.

“Don’t underestimate the power of governments to use state legislature and electorate support to actually push through the reforms that we need. The corporates are not going to volunteer the action that we need. The moral imperative is in our politicians..,” she added. 

No Asean relations without history 

There can be no relations among Southeast Asian nations without learning about each other’s history, said Samira A Gutoc, former commissioner of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission in the Philippines.

Gutoc lamented how contemporary text books in the country do not include information about Muslim culture: “The developed world took away memories of our ancestors. How can we build an Asean without history books that tell of ancient women and ancient livelihoods, ancient boat stories of old?” 

Chea echoed how Southeast Asian nations know very little about each other’s history, which can lead to a “judgmental sort of mentality [which] can be very detrimental if you want to build friendship”.

Yenny Wahid, director of Indonesian non-profit The Wahid Foundation, called for education across the region, not just for the youth, but across all generations in order to achieve a peaceful and sustainable society.

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