The ASEAN Economic Community is bursting with immense opportunities - in economic development, in the role of human capital and in the development of infrastructure and information technology. But these opportunities do not come without challenges. And it is for this reason I believe there is a need for countries and organizations in the ASEAN to invest in leaders who can cross boundaries.

I’m optimistic that the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), launched on 31 December 2015, has the potential to bring ASEAN out of the headlines and to the people. The onus has now shifted from diplomatic enclaves to citizens - leaders across the sectors who can bring opportunities to a region that holds the third largest labour force in the world.

The prize for getting this right is no small matter. The Philippines is already surging ahead with growth of over 6% with Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) tripling since 2010. All eyes are also on Myanmar – where economic reforms have spurred growth at 7.8%. Thailand has plans to spend an estimated Thai Baht of 2.4 trillion from 2015 - towards infrastructure and improved connectivity to the growing markets of Cambodia, Lao DPR, Myanmar and Vietnam. Indonesia, which accounts for close to 40% of the region’s economy, has also taken steps to improve its investment credentials. And Vietnam has a powerful growth story to tell with its per capita GDP doubling in just 11 years from $1300 to $2600.

But the ASEAN region is not without its challenges. There will be increased competition in a region that is already famously competitive, pressure from income inequalities and cultural differences that may prove to be problematic. What is clear is the ability of leaders from different countries, cultures and sectors to work together in order to make the planned investments for growth inclusive and successful.

This is especially true when we consider just how much personal relationships matter in this region - how they influence decisions at all levels – in my opinion, more so than in Europe or Africa. With person-to-person interaction underpinning so much of the success or failure of business and social enterprises, the need for leaders who can work with people who are unlike them is strong. We need young student leaders who have the confidence to bridge nations, business leaders to choose cross-cultural strategies, IT czars with the vision to bring affordable innovation to households. It is this type of leadership that will go a long way to helping the AEC deliver its promise.

I feel very privileged to launch the ASEAN Leaders Programme in partnership with GE and the ASEAN Foundation. The programme will bring together leaders — from all sectors and walks of life—onto a common platform where they will work together to address a carefully selected challenge relevant to the region. I deeply believe the programme will deliver on its promise of helping leaders in the region build strong connections, share knowledge and develop the cultural intelligence required to grow ASEAN’s cities and secure the future of its people for generations.


So watch this space and follow me on Twitter @AdirupaSengupta for regular updates.

Read more about the ASEAN Leaders Programme.