ASEAN’s future competitiveness will be driven by growth dividends the region is reaping from rapid technological development and youthful demographics, the leaders of four members of the regional grouping asserted in the opening session of the 26th World Economic Forum on ASEAN.

Fifty years since its founding and despite the more volatile global environment, “ASEAN has managed to maintain stable and strong peace and security with good cooperation among its members,” Samdech Techo Hun Sen, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia, told participants. “ASEAN must have an integrated agenda aligning its strengths to seize opportunities and address unexpected problems, promoting education and skills development and addressing issues such as inequality and cyber security.”

“We should invest in human capital,” said Rodrigo Roa Duterte, President of the Republic of the Philippines, which is the current chair of ASEAN. “The Philippines, along with other South-East Asian countries, is in a demographic sweet spot. The youth is a key sector in which we must invest.”

Thongloun Sisoulith, Prime Minister of Lao People’s Democratic Republic, said: “We need quality education aimed at developing labour skills to increase effectiveness and efficiency.” Private enterprise will play a critical role if ASEAN is to meet the challenges ahead, he noted. “I call on the private sector to continue improving and adapting themselves to increase competitiveness in the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Prime Minister of Viet Nam, agreed. “To maintain dynamic growth, we cannot rely on natural resources and unskilled labour but have to strive towards sustainable development and better quality growth so we can move up the value chain.”

Duterte cautioned that while young people represent the great opportunities ahead for ASEAN, it is necessary to ensure their well-being and safety by tackling the drug threat in the region. “We need to take a committed stand to dismantle and destroy the illegal drugs trade apparatus. We must realize our commitment to a drug-free community.”

More than 700 business, government and civil society leaders from 40 countries are participating in the 26th World Economic Forum on ASEAN in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, from 10 to 12 May 2017. The theme of the meeting is Youth, Technology and Growth: Securing ASEAN’s Digital and Demographic Dividends.