LEST some nasty autocrat gets alarmed, I am not talking about giving the people arms and weapons to overthrow him. No, I propose the people be empowered to realise their personal and societal potential.

Asean leaders must make good their afterthought which only latterly is trying to involve the people in regional community-building. If it is not just another piece of meaningless rhetoric, there should now be every intention to make it: Our people, Our Community, Our Vision.

Often education has been identified as the basis of realisation of people potential. This is absolutely true of course, but there are also more immediate ways nowadays to arm the people with the knowledge and instrumentality of leading a meaningful and rewarding life.

I refer to availability and use of technology.

Put more people on the Internet. Narrow the gap between rural and urban, between the richer and poorer states of Asean. A heart-warming story of how a woman selling seaweed in Sabah was able, with the help of TM Malaysia, to greatly improve her monthly income from RM450 to RM20,000, is an illustration of the power of good technology can do.

She got online and, through B2C connection, was able to source customers from China and Japan.

Asean is big on plans. There is an impressive Asean ICT Masterplan 2015, better presented and written than the usual Asean genre – must be the technology nous – which describes the transformational and creative nature of ICT for economies and people.

It is big on vision and mission and action. So let us pray the words and numbers come to mean something for ordinary people. There is no doubt the availability of the Internet will enhance incomes and narrow the develop gap, one of the four basic objectives of the AEC (the other three being a single market and production base, free movement of goods, services, skilled labour etc, and a competitive economy open to the world).

It would be wonderful if it all happens. Asean’s full potential – especially its young population – is simply amazing. Just imagine an Asean economy which is the fourth largest in the world in a decade from now, after the EU (European Union), China and the US. Yes, truly big league.

There are two things which must be warded: short-sighted and protectionist people masquerading as nationalists; and fearful leaders who think they can forever lord it over ignorant people.

The vested interests who do not want things to change can be powerful as they often bankroll those fearful leaders, and those two factors together can, if not exactly foil greater Asean integration, ensure a sub-optimal outcome for the region.

That would be a shame, The Asean economy and people will not be able to realise their full potential. As we are talking about technology, it is its application that enriches life. But if certain business sectors are protected, that application would be frustrated.

For example, take the retail industry. The value of B2C internet sales in Asean is just about 1% of total sales. In developed economies it is about 8% and growing. There is a growth of eight times to go for the benefit of price and convenience to come to the Asean consumer.

However, if e-commerce is not secure, e-payments are not in place (and resisted), and the logistics are not available (not just hard infrastructure but also inhibiting soft regulation), there will be a long wait before achievement of the eight times growth to just come to developed economy level.

The other impediment to empowering the people is a different kind of fear, the political kind.

Knowledge is a double edged sword. ICT provides a marketplace of readily available shared experiences. Bad experience will not only be seen in contradistinction to good ones elsewhere, but could also galvanise common action, and attract widespread attention. Not comfortable to those who enjoy being nasty in splendid isolation.

But enforced ignorance will ensure some Asean people and economies will never truly develop, never mind the Asean community. So do we want those people to remain colonised in the mind and subservient forever?

In any case, you cannot stop the technology revolution. Better to have a rising Asean than an uprising one.

Malaysia as the chair in this year of community formation has a central role also to absorb and manage values that not least technology brings. All too often technology is seen as a tool, but it is really an instrument of empowerment that cannot be avoided.

So back to political change management which Malaysia, and Asean, or anybody else, cannot wish away. Better to take charge and move it all in a positive direction having the people on your side.

Asean’s vision is of a community that is not only “a politically cohesive, economically integrated, socially responsible” community but also “a truly people-orientated, people-centred and rules-based” community (Bandar Seri Begawan Declaration on the Asean Community’s Post-2015 Vision) – as quoted in the Asean Communication Masterplan, October 2014.

–http://www.thestar.com.my/Opinion/Columnists/Comment/Profile/Articles/2015/02/14/Post2015-Asean-empower-the-people/