The ontology of policy is a dynamic concept. The most effective and efficient policies are far-sighted and reflect a deep political appreciation of causal relationships among a variety of factors that impact governance. Migration policy is no exception. It has to incorporate elements such as skills development, economic development, social integration, health, housing accommodation, and transportation. Migration governance should also factor in regional and global occurrences that could directly or indirectly impact policy-making. This is one way to stay relevant in a changing world and be best prepared for unforeseen circumstances. To maintain a stable domestic environment, potential disruptions should be identified early and policies adapted accordingly. Migration policies in ASEAN have to adapt to two major phenomena – China’s rising interest and investment in the region, as well as a rising fourth industrial revolution.
Though it may be far-fetched to link migration to unripe investment ventures and rigorous technological advancement, the future of migration in Southeast Asia is likely to be influenced by such large-scale occurrences. Policies need to change in order to extract maximum benefits from these trends and the corresponding patterns and demands of labour mobility. Many skills in demand today will become obsolete tomorrow.
Singapore has taken proactive steps to upskill workers. It has set up technical training centres in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam to offer skills training that goes beyond the classroom. Could Malaysia, Thailand and Brunei help expand this venture that invests in the human capital of less developed ASEAN states? Could more be done to prepare potential migrants for the fourth industrial revolution? Jobs will be lost during this period but new jobs will be created. These jobs need appropriate skills matches. The more developed states stand to gain when the skilled labour pool in less developed states expands. It is this pool of labour which will be required to offset the demographic challenges of Singapore and Thailand. More research is required on how ASEAN states can assist one another in the context of the digital revolution.
Sharing of expertise and best practices, as well as investing in less developed states are some ways in which the region’s more developed states can assist. As a result, the whole region stands to gain economically and a significant increase in intra-ASEAN migrant flows is likely. China is at the forefront of harnessing digital technology and artificial intelligence. Its involvement in ASEAN could influence and promote upskilling. More workers could then have more opportunities to reskill and upskill. Migration policies should be flexible and facilitate cross-border movements of these workers so that supply can meet demand in an effective manner, minimising unnecessary costs. Member states should prioritise skills development, which in turn would create a larger pool of better-skilled workers who may have options of migrating to unconventional destinations.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) opens up less developed countries like Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam to the rest of the world. Its heavy investment in ASEAN has already created thousands of jobs in the region. Though there have been controversies about China’s joint ventures, in the long run, developing member states are expected to benefit from increased investment and improved infrastructure. If domestic opportunities increase, Southeast Asians may choose not to cross borders. On the other hand, more development could lead to more migration. There is a possibility of non-traditional migration trends resulting from increased connectivity via the BRI. Migrants would have a wider choice of job opportunities in different parts of the world.
This line of thought may come across as premature today. Nevertheless, given China’s aggressive determination to expand and deepen its influence globally, it is important for policy-makers and researchers to study the possible outcomes that such ambitions could have for migration in ASEAN. The BRI will continue for a substantial period. Meanwhile, less developed member states will continue to benefit in terms of the number and types of jobs created, infrastructure-building, improved transportation and most importantly, improved lives of the poor. More study is required on the extent of China’s investment in ASEAN and the great power’s influence on future human mobility in the region. Migration trends are likely to change. If such a situation arises, policy adaptation would be a necessity.
ASEAN’s adaptation process to the fourth industrial revolution is an opportunity for the region and member states to grow economically and advance technologically. Digitisation also presents opportunities for countries to strengthen their collaboration, cooperation and engagement with one another. There is potential for interdependency to crystallise. More good than bad could come out of China’s influence and the digital revolution, with regard to migration and migration policies in Southeast Asia; provided rules-based multilateralism is strengthened and transnational threats like climate change, cyber attacks and terrorism are managed. The ontology of policy is indeed intricate!