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Empowering ASEAN's future: the imperative of quality education for sustainable development

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By Alex Hong

· 18 min read


As the globe works towards sustainable development, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) remain critical, particularly within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). SDG 4, commonly known as 'Quality education', is particularly important for the region's growth. SDGs, including SDG 4, have changed over time, with concentrated attempts to address global concerns.

SDG 4 is critical to accomplishing all other SDGs by 2030. Education empowers individuals, stimulates economic progress, and promotes long-term development. This goal is crucial in ASEAN because it serves a dual purpose. For starters, it is a vehicle for providing ASEAN's diverse people with the information and skills needed to contribute to long-term growth. Second, it serves as a catalyst, ensuring that progress towards all other SDGs does not leave anyone behind.

ASEAN has made significant progress towards achieving SDG 4, with an emphasis on inclusive and high-quality education. Singapore's Voluntary National Review Report, for example, emphasises the country's commitment to promoting accessible and high-quality education for all, emphasising the value of lifelong learning.

Despite these efforts, ASEAN suffers major educational gaps throughout the region, particularly between rural and urban areas and between developed and developing countries. These inequalities highlight the continuous importance of prioritising SDG 4 in order to overcome these divides and progress ASEAN's sustainable strategy.

Education is the key enabler to SDG development

Education plays a complex role in supporting sustainable development, and it is especially important in the context of ASEAN. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) establish a comprehensive framework for global progress, with SDG 4, "Quality Education," at its heart. Here, we expand on the vital role of education and its connection to various ASEAN SDGs:

  1. Eradicating poverty (SDG 1): Quality education provides people with the skills and information they need to avoid poverty and contribute to economic prosperity. Initiatives aiming at providing access to excellent education have been significant in lowering poverty rates in ASEAN nations such as Cambodia and Myanmar. This aspect is important because, amongst ASEAN member countries, there are marked differences between GDP per capita. Education will help create better access to opportunities between ASEAN member countries and to provide a wider pool of skilled labour for increasingly complex and digitalised regional economies such as ASEAN.
  2. Health and well-being (SDG 3): Education raises health awareness, which leads to improved healthcare decisions and outcomes. Education programmes in ASEAN have been critical in preventing diseases such as HIV/AIDS and guaranteeing improved health for the populace. It will also encourage access to modern medication to create a better quality of life for all ASEAN via better nutrition, access and knowledge of medical treatments available so that ASEANs can have much more fulfilling lives. 
  3. Gender equality (SDG 5): Women and girls are empowered by education, which promotes gender equality and reduces inequities. ASEAN member countries such as Thailand and Vietnam have made considerable strides in narrowing the gender gap in education, allowing women to fully engage in society. This move all also enable greater female participation in key policies in ASEAN governments, institutions and businesses to create more opportunities for women and enhance the dynamics of ASEAN economies towards sustainability and circularity. 
  4. Innovation and infrastructure (SDG 9): Education promotes innovation, which contributes to better infrastructure and long-term industrialization. Singapore's educational investment in a knowledge-based economy has transformed it into a global innovation hub. Through the combination of pedagogical knowledge and digital education, Singapore and other advanced economies in ASEAN can accelerate innovation in the region. This is especially important as ASEAN pivots towards sustainability and energy transition. The region is in great need of collaboration and the iteration of innovative ideas towards our current sustainability and net-zero challenges. 
  5. Reducing inequalities (SDG 10): By enabling access for marginalised people, quality education minimises inequities within societies. In ASEAN, inclusive education policies seek to alleviate inequities among various ethnic groups, ensuring that no one falls behind. Education can be the preverbal “tide that lifts all boats” by empowering all ASEANs to flourish in a new era of knowledge and discovery. The reduction of inequality will generate greater wealth and expand the internal market and commerce within ASEAN. This in turn will bring greater stability, understanding and opportunities for all.  

Education in ASEAN is more than just learning knowledge; it is a driving force behind the achievement of several SDGs. By focusing on SDG 4, ASEAN states are not only investing in their citizens' futures but also pushing sustainable development across multiple dimensions, resulting in a more equal and prosperous ASEAN community.

Digitalization of education

The digitalization of education has grown in importance in ASEAN, particularly in bridging the rural-urban educational divide. Singapore, for example, has embraced technology by launching the "Singapore Smart Nation Initiative." This effort includes providing students in remote regions with digital devices and internet access, ensuring that they have access to high-quality online learning tools.

Furthermore, Indonesia's "Merdeka Belajar" or "Freedom to Learn" programme makes use of digital platforms to provide instructional information to pupils on isolated islands. This novel strategy has enabled millions of Indonesian students to continue their education despite geographical constraints.

Scholarship programs

ASEAN governments are taking significant steps to enhance access to education through scholarship programs. Malaysia's "MyBrain15" scholarship program, for instance, provides financial support to students pursuing higher education in STEM fields. This initiative encourages more students, especially from marginalized backgrounds, to pursue careers in science and technology.

Thailand's "One District One Scholarship" program focuses on uplifting education in rural areas by granting scholarships to underprivileged students. These initiatives not only increase access but also promote inclusivity and diversity in education across ASEAN.

Curriculum enhancement

Curricula must be modernised to reflect 21st-century capabilities for the future workforce. ASEAN countries are prioritising STEM education to promote innovation and long-term growth. Vietnam, for example, has redesigned its curriculum to emphasise STEM courses from the beginning, fostering a new generation of innovators and problem solvers.

ASEAN member states are engaging proactively in new solutions to advance SDG 4. They are ensuring that great education is accessible to all by embracing digitization, granting scholarships, and modernising curricula, thereby supporting sustainable development and economic prosperity in the region.

Recent advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the use of Natural Language Processing (NLP) through Large Language Models (LLM) have also created the necessity for ASEAN to be trained in such advancements to extract greater efficiency and to remain globally competitive. While it is often not discussed, the proliferation of AI need not be viewed with fear and apprehension, because when it is used appropriately (with regional regulations likely), it has the ability to enable rapidly aging economies in ASEAN such as Singapore to leverage on AI to fill the void of our rapidly reduced workforce in the future. Such realities should be dealt with an open mind, the ability to iterate and the will to work with communities to synergise increasingly limited manpower with AI to optimise efficiency and to provide new opportunities for business and community development in the region. 

Challenges of digitalization in ASEAN

  1. Technological challenges: ASEAN comprises countries at various stages of technological development. Advanced countries like Singapore have well-established digital infrastructure, while others may lack reliable internet connectivity and access to digital devices. Addressing this technological divide is essential to ensure equal access to digital education.
  2. Cultural challenges: Cultural diversity within ASEAN presents challenges in digital education implementation. Different languages and cultural norms may affect the content and delivery of digital education. Tailoring education to suit diverse cultural backgrounds is crucial for inclusivity.
  3. Implementation challenges: Implementing digitalization uniformly across diverse ASEAN member countries can be challenging. Differences in governance, policies, and administrative capacity require harmonization efforts. Effective coordination and cooperation among member states are necessary to overcome these hurdles.

Equalizing disparities

ASEAN, with its diversified economies, has a large development disparity among its member members. While countries such as Singapore and Malaysia have sophisticated infrastructure and robust education systems, others in the region, such as Cambodia and Laos, confront barriers to excellent education and have lower development metrics. Goal 4, which focuses on quality education, is critical in closing this development gap. ASEAN nations may provide their populations with the skills needed for future job markets by investing in education infrastructure, teacher training, and curriculum development. Furthermore, increasing collaboration and knowledge sharing across ASEAN can assist less developed economies to benefit from their more advanced counterparts. 

As education becomes more accessible and relevant, it can serve as a catalyst for economic growth, creativity, and social development, ultimately leading to a more equitable and prosperous ASEAN region. The following measures can be used to bridge the educational gap between advanced and developing ASEAN countries:

  1. Collaborative initiatives: ASEAN member countries can work together to share best practises and resources. Singapore, for example, can provide expertise and assistance to developing countries in order to improve their digital infrastructure and educational institutions. The city-state has been engaged in digital transformation for quite some time and has developed many nationalised initiatives for implementing various digitalisation systems to enhance the efficiencies of various industries over the past decades. 
  2. Regional funding: Create regional funds dedicated to educational digitization projects. This might include contributions from more developed economies to fund digital education programmes in developing countries. Such funds will help member nations support their digitalization programmes and roll out digital education tools suitable for their community needs. The availability of such funds will also foster closer collaboration, empathy and understanding between member nations. 
  3. Capacity building: Invest in training and capacity building for educators in developing nations to use digital resources for education successfully. Regional programmes and collaborations can help with this. Having an ASEAN-wide capacity-building programme will also help to develop standards necessary for ASEAN member countries to reach certain education milestones so that they can reach common goals and standards in a systematic and orderly way. The training of manpower to support digital education and infrastructure will also increase the pool of skilled labour within ASEAN and enhance social mobility within the region.
  4. Inclusive content: Ensure that digital educational content is culturally sensitive and inclusive, taking into account ASEAN's various demographics. In the long run, ASEAN-centric content will also create better understanding amongst the citizens of ASEAN and develop ASEAN norms and standards. This may even result in the future manifestation of a shared ASEAN culture and the development of supranational institutions for the betterment of all ASEAN citizens. 

Financing digitalization

ASEAN can finance digitalization and digital education through:

  1. Public-private partnerships (PPP): Collaborate with private sector companies to invest in digital infrastructure and educational technology. The ASEAN Cyber University (ACU) initiative is a remarkable example of a successful public-private cooperation programme in ASEAN for education. ACU is a joint initiative of ASEAN member governments, educational institutions, and commercial sector partners to deliver high-quality online higher education possibilities, meeting the region's need for accessible and affordable tertiary education.
  2. Foreign aid and grants: Seek international assistance and grants from organizations like the UN and World Bank to finance digitalization projects. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has worked with nations such as Vietnam to improve higher education quality through investments in curriculum development, faculty training, and infrastructure. This assistance has helped bridge educational gaps and prepare students for the labour market, thereby contributing to the region's economic development.
  3. Regional funds: Establish regional funds or bonds specifically for financing sustainable development goals, including digital education. The Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau for Education (APRBE) of UNESCO is a notable example of a successful ASEAN regional fund for education aligned with Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4). The APRBE has been actively involved in promoting education and lifelong learning in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly ASEAN countries. This initiative supports a variety of programmes and projects aimed at enhancing educational quality, access, and equity. It collaborates closely with governments, educational institutions, and other stakeholders to accomplish SDG 4's objectives.

To provide equitable access to quality education across the region, solving the difficulties of digitalization in ASEAN requires a multi-pronged approach incorporating technology advancements, cultural sensitivity, collaborative efforts, and new finance structures.

Digital infrastructure development and key emphasis for equal development in ASEAN

ASEAN's sustained emphasis on SDG 4 (Education) encompasses a number of critical aspects linked to digitalization, affordability, accessibility, readiness, security, interoperability, and sustainability:

  1. Digital infrastructure development: To enable digital education, ASEAN must invest in robust digital infrastructure. Singapore and Malaysia, with their extensive internet networks that facilitate remote learning, serve as models in this regard.
  2. Equal access to quality education: The goal is to ensure equal access to high-quality education. Initiatives such as e-learning platforms and free educational resources, as seen in Indonesia and Vietnam, can bridge the divide between urban and rural locations.
  3. Affordability and cost management: Affordability is critical in all ASEAN countries. To eliminate educational gaps, governments might subsidise digital devices and internet access. An establishment of a regional fund will also help to lift other less developed member states.
  4. Digital-ready educators and administrators: Capacity-building programmes and training for educators and administrators ensure that they can use digital tools and platforms efficiently. The Teacher's Academy in Singapore for example, supports the country’s digital education initiative by providing training and the development of digital-ready educators
  5. Assessment of readiness: A thorough assessment of each ASEAN member's digital preparedness is required. This evaluation assists in identifying infrastructure and skill deficiencies and informing targeted improvements. This will enable member countries to help each other with ongoing digital education improvements as we leverage key comparative advantages between member countries.
  6. Digital security development: With the increased usage of digital platforms, improving cybersecurity is critical. As indicated by regional initiatives, ASEAN should collaborate on cybersecurity policies and tactics. Cooperation in cyber security arrangements will also strengthen ASEAN's economic resilience towards current and future cyber-attacks and disruptions. It also provides impetus towards a common goal of a more secure ASEAN.
  7. Interoperability: It is critical to ensure that digital systems and platforms are compatible and can communicate data seamlessly. Interoperability improves the efficacy of digital education systems. Once ASEAN develops and ratifies our ASEAN taxonomy in various industries such as digital education and sustainability, the ability to work together at scale will be greatly improved.
  8. Sustainable IT development: IT development must prioritise sustainability. Green IT practises, such as energy-efficient data centers, are consistent with SDG 4 and other long-term sustainability objectives. Sustainable IT is a growing movement to enhance the efficiency of our IT system via practice and infrastructures. This holistic understanding of sustainability as our societies increasingly depend on sophisticated IT systems to function efficiently will be critical for ASEAN to accelerate our net-zero and future regenerative ambitions. 

The continuous emphasis on SDG 4 in ASEAN necessitates a comprehensive approach that includes digital infrastructure, affordability, accessibility, preparedness, security, interoperability, and sustainability. By addressing these issues cooperatively, ASEAN can promote education for all while embracing the digital era.

Joint ASEAN initiatives

The conceptualization of cooperative ASEAN initiatives such as the ASEAN University Network (AUN) and the Quality Assurance Framework for Higher Education plays a critical role in improving the region's education in line with Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4). These efforts encourage collaboration, knowledge exchange, and higher education quality improvement among ASEAN member countries.

  1. ASEAN University Network (AUN): AUN is a consortium of ASEAN institutions dedicated to strengthening collaboration in higher education and research. It improves educational quality and makes student and faculty mobility easier. AUN-QA (Quality Assurance), for example, ensures that universities maintain high standards, benefiting students and encouraging ASEAN-wide qualification recognition.
  2. Quality assurance framework for higher education: This framework establishes a set of criteria and recommendations for quality assurance in higher education across ASEAN. It contributes to the alignment of educational practises, ensuring that degrees and programmes meet worldwide quality standards. This is critical for attracting students and investing in education.

Example: Collaboration between the AUN on cooperative research projects in domains such as environmental sustainability and healthcare has resulted in important advances. Universities from several ASEAN countries contribute expertise and resources to successfully solve regional concerns.


  • These efforts encourage equitable access to high-quality education throughout ASEAN, bridging the gap between developed and developing member nations.
  • Collaboration strengthens ASEAN states' potential to achieve SDG 4 by sharing resources, expertise, and innovative solutions.
  • They promote the exchange of best practises, ensuring that educational institutions can benefit from one another's triumphs and challenges.

ASEAN's cooperative initiatives, such as AUN and the Quality Assurance Framework, are critical to the region's advancement of education and sustainable development. They embody ASEAN's collaborative spirit and demonstrate the organization's commitment to attaining SDG 4 by facilitating information exchange and quality improvement.

Suggested focus for policymakers at the SDG Summit

Focusing on SDG 4 (Education) in ASEAN at the SDG Summit is critical for attaining sustainable development. Regional policymakers should prioritise the following critical areas:

  1. Equity: Equal access to high-quality education is critical, especially in underprivileged areas. Governments should put policies in place to decrease educational inequality. Malaysia, for example, has enhanced access to education for marginalised people through scholarship and financial aid schemes.
  2. Increased investment: Policymakers should commit resources to develop school infrastructure and provide comprehensive teacher training programmes in order to increase education quality. Singapore's commitment to spending extensively on school facilities, for example, has resulted in consistently high-quality education.
  3. Digitalization: Technology and digital literacy investments are critical for modernising schooling. ASEAN countries should prioritise incorporating digital technologies into the curriculum and promoting digital literacy among students and educators. Singapore's Smart Nation initiative is a good example of educational digitalization.
  4. Coordinate collaboration: Policymakers should encourage collaboration among ASEAN members. A paradigm shift is required to emphasise cooperatively creating digital competencies while avoiding zero-sum games. ASEAN University Network (AUN) initiatives encourage regional cooperation in education.

By focusing on these areas, ASEAN can make progress towards SDG 4, ensuring inclusive and high-quality education for all, and contributing to the region's long-term development.

Public engagement towards a better 2030

Public engagement is vital for achieving SDG 4 (Quality Education) in ASEAN by 2030. Citizens play a crucial role in advocating for, supporting, and participating in educational initiatives:

  1. Advocacy: Citizens can ask the government to enhance education funding. This involves advocating for increased funding for educational infrastructure, teacher training, and technological integration. Singapore's concentration on education spending has resulted in educational outcomes that are globally competitive.
  2. NGO support: It is critical to support organisations striving for fair access. Many NGOs in ASEAN are committed to providing quality education to marginalised areas. Financial or voluntary support for these NGOs can have a major impact.
  3. Participation: Students benefit immediately from volunteering and mentoring in educational programmes. Citizens can assist in bridging educational gaps by donating their time and knowledge. Volunteer programmes in Cambodia, for example, bring together local and international mentors to improve teaching quality.
  4. ASEAN vision: Envisioning ASEAN norms and commonality helps improve collaboration and understanding. Citizens can participate in conversations that foster educational collaboration across ASEAN member states. Initiatives such as ASEAN's Quality Assurance Framework for Higher Education promote regional cooperation.

By actively participating in these ways, ASEAN people may help to achieve SDG 4, providing inclusive and equitable education for all by 2030.

Conclusion and call to action in ASEAN

ASEAN's emphasis on Sustainable Development Goal 4 (Quality Education) is not just a moral obligation, but also a strategic necessity for the region's long-term viability. In preparation for 2030, below is a call to action for ASEAN countries and institutions:

  1. Commitment to SDG 4: Governments must reaffirm their commitment to attaining SDG 4, which includes equitable access to quality education for all. This commitment should be institutionalised in national policies and budgets.
  2. Universal access: The ultimate goal should be universal access to high-quality education. Governments must ensure that no child falls behind and that education is both inexpensive and accessible.
  3. Closing educational gaps: ASEAN must prioritise bridging educational gaps, particularly in disadvantaged regions and among marginalised people. This can be accomplished through focused interventions, enhanced infrastructure, and teacher training.
  4. Collaboration and investment: Collaboration among ASEAN member nations and increasing educational expenditure is critical. ASEAN University Network (AUN) and Quality Assurance Framework for Higher Education initiatives promote knowledge exchange and quality improvement.
  5. Vision of shared prosperity: ASEAN should imagine a future in which education is a driving force for shared prosperity. This includes promoting a sense of ASEAN identity and commonality among member states through education in order to improve cooperation and understanding.

By taking these steps, ASEAN will be able to harness the power of education to create a more egalitarian, prosperous, and sustainable future for all of its residents. This vision is consistent with the key concepts of the SDGs and represents ASEAN's desire for regional progress and unity.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Alex Hong is the Executive Director of Digipulse Data and strategic advisor. He is the Chief Sustainability Coordinator of the Youth Networking Business Committee (YNBC). Alex is LinkedIn’s Top Voices (Green) in Singapore 2022 and represents the Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC) as the Ambassador of Southeast Asia.

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