The closing plenary of the World Economic Forum on ASEAN. Photo by: Sikarin Thanachaiary / WEF / CC BY-NC-SA

HANOI, Vietnam — Education, technology, and soft skills took center stage at the World Economic Forum on ASEAN this week as leaders discussed how to support their workforce — and particularly entrepreneurs — in a rapidly changing society.

Trade tensions between the United States and China loomed over the conversations, but ASEAN leaders stressed inclusive, complementary growth over rising unilateralism. Future connectivity in energy and digital technology will be used to drive economic growth, for example, but can also act as a solution to challenges such as cross-border natural disasters, noted several heads of state of the Mekong region as they pondered their vision for future collaboration.

In the same session, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen vehemently defended Myanmar against accusations that its military engaged in genocide against the country’s Rohingya minority. The closing statement by the strongman premier was an outburst stressing that countries do not understand the challenges that Myanmar and its neighbors face: “The countries that do not know our countries, please leave us to solve our problems for ourselves,” he said.

Still, government delegates and private sector professionals did seem to agree that the Fourth Industrial Revolution — which represents a “fundamental change in the way we live, work, and relate to one another,” according to WEF — is an opportunity to work together rather than a threat to political relationships in Southeast Asia. If anything, conversations throughout the week gave the forum’s co-chairs a sense of “economic optimism” for the region, noted Global Managing Partner of McKinsey & Company Kevin Sneader during the closing plenary.

From innovative financing for malaria to a first-time focus on sexual harassment in the workplace, here are a six conversations you might have missed from the three-day summit.

1. Vietnam blocked several human rights actors from entering the country

More than 1,000 participants from 43 countries gathered in Hanoi for the forum, but several people on the guest list weren’t able to make it past Noi Bai International Airport arrivals.

Amnesty International Senior Director of Global Operations Minar Pimple, who was set to speak on diversity and pluralism, was denied a visa ahead of the summit. Vietnam then refused entry to Secretary General of the International Federation for Human Rights Debbie Stothard when she arrived in Hanoi.

It’s evidence of the Vietnamese government’s ongoing crackdown against freedom of expression, according to an Amnesty spokesperson, and it also raises questions on the “need to ensure that states that get the public relations benefit for and the privilege of hosting these prestigious events should at least provide the courtesy of allowing conference guests in the country,” Stothard told Devex.

“We do need to start a conversation on developing such guidelines as this incident is a clear case of the shrinking civil society space creeping into … platforms such as WEF.”

2. Plan International’s CEO snuck in a talk about sexual harassment in the workplace

Leaders across sectors need to start examining their own unconscious bias, Plan International CEO Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen told attendees of the forum. The small, 30-minute breakout session on sexual harassment was a first for a WEF regional meeting, but the topic is one very familiar Albrectsen, who is currently leading a revamp of the organization’s approach to safeguarding its beneficiaries as well as its 10,000 staff members.

At WEF in Vietnam, Plan International CEO puts sexual harassment on the agenda

There are three main thoughts any private sector or development leader will have when confronted with a case of sexual abuse. But there is always only one way to respond, according to Plan International CEO Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen.

As co-chair of WEF on ASEAN, Albrectsen took the opportunity to raise a few ideas “that we felt could be quite both topical and interesting for [attendees] to discuss,” she told Devex at the forum. About 20 people, mostly women, attended the session held in a nook near the coffee stand. There is opportunity for WEF to continue to provide space to discuss the topic — perhaps next time in a bigger hall, she said.

3. Attendees found out where ASEAN youth want to work

Instead of speculating about what the future holds for ASEAN’s working population in the age of digital disruption, WEF, in partnership with Singapore-based internet company Sea, asked 64,000 youth what they think their future job prospects look like. The younger ones expressed a more positive outlook, while those in their 30s were less optimistic.

Are ASEAN youth interested in working in the social sectors?

Yes, but a new WEF survey reveals disparities between countries.

Most pictured themselves as setting up their own companies and being their own boss, or working for foreign multinational companies, instead of working for small- and medium-sized enterprises and startups. Fewer wanted to work for charities and social enterprises. But of the small percentage of youth who said yes to working in the social sectors, the highest concentration is from Indonesia. Youth in Thailand showed the least interest.

Santitarn Sathirathai, Sea’s chief economist, told Devex they don’t have rich enough data to explain this phenomenon, but he said a large percentage of youth in Indonesia shared the desire to have a positive impact on society as a reason for wanting to work in the social sectors.

4. Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi sidestepped questions about Rohingya

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi insisted the government accepts “100 percent of accountability” for the conflict in Rakhine state last year, when a violent Myanmar military campaign caused 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee for their lives. She downplayed the impact on the Rohingya population, which the U.N. has characterized as a genocide. "There are of course ways in which we, with hindsight, might think that the situation could have been handled better," she said in response to a question from WEF President Børge Brende.

Suu Kyi stressed that earlier and ongoing terrorist activity conducted by Rohingya derailed her plans of development and rule of law in Rakhine state. When prodded in particular about the Rohingya minority and the razed buildings and camps that now mark the region, Suu Kyi instead noted the region’s other “very small ethnic groups which are fast disappearing, yet nobody seems to be interested in them. For the government, we have to be fair to all of them even if the rest of the world is not interested in smaller groups.”

And even though government policies and military operations have kept Rohingya and other minorities from receiving an education, she presented a hopeful take on Myanmar’s education-driven place in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: “Our approach to the human factor [of the Fourth Industrial Revolution] is to invest as much as possible in our people. The young as well as the old, the ones for whom the education sector is wide open as well as the ones for whom the education sector seems to have closed,” she said during a panel with several Southeast Asian leaders.

5. Global health advocates made a pitch for blended finance 

To sustain interest in malaria elimination in the region, the Asia Pacific Leaders Malaria Alliance is working with the Asian Development Bank and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to launch a new regional health fund to help mobilize additional finance for countries dealing with malaria resurgence and multidrug-resistant parasites.

Asia-Pacific turns to innovative finance to stamp out malaria

Sustaining interest to reach malaria elimination is an increasing challenge within countries and from external donors in Asia-Pacific. Stakeholders are turning to different approaches to fill the gap.

The actors are still discussing the nuts and bolts of the new fund, but Benjamin Rolfe, CEO of APLMA, is hopeful this will be a gamechanger, not only in filling the gaps left by declining aid resources but also in holding governments accountable.

“You know, it's a very different thing when you're giving money to a malaria program saying, ‘Please deliver a hundred thousand nets and treatments,’ than saying to the ministry of finance, ‘Sign on the dotted line and you are contractually obliged to deliver these outcomes with this money,’” he told Devex.

The alliance also launched its latest initiative, called M2030, on the final day of the summit. The initiative takes after Product RED, in that partner companies can use the M2030 trademark and in turn run campaigns, promote awareness, and use their platforms to help raise funds for malaria programs in the region.

“Very much like RED, but it's Asia for Asia. That's what's exciting. So when someone buys a service here, an amount goes to the Vietnamese malaria fund through the Global Fund. And Global Fund can earmark that money to flow back into Vietnam, but it goes through the global fund procurement process so there's no risk,” Rolfe said.

6. An award-winning architect reminded leaders to design cities for people, not cars

Maria Rebecca Plaza, president of Manila-based architectural firm Plaza and Partners, said much of the region’s infrastructure is built for the 20th century, when there were fewer people living in urban areas and fewer vehicles. Today, cities are overly congested, accommodating half of the world’s population in areas filled with crowded roadways, but with few sidewalks or spaces for recreation.

“We began to build cities for cars and not people,” she said during a panel on Wednesday. “We must be designing cities with people at the epicenter of the town planning narrative.”

And there’s an added challenge for city planners: Climate change.

“As we speak, Manila is being plagued with what they call yet again … the most destructive typhoon of the year,” she said.

Others in the panel shared how they are using data to deal with the increasing impacts of climate change. Nguyen Thien Nhan, secretary of Ho Chi Minh City’s Central Party Committee, said flooding has become more frequent in the city. When they looked into the data, they found this is due to a combination of factors: There are more rains, the sea level is rising 1 centimeter while the city’s surface is sinking 1 cm each year, and the city is straining its groundwater supply. With that information, the city has started to develop a new policy to limit and eventually stop the use of groundwater, he said.

About the authors

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.
  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.