Asia 21 Young Leaders Summit | Melbourne Statement 2017

World Disrupted. Asia’s Future: Reflections on leadership, disruption and Australia’s place in Asia

Asia 21 2017

From 29 November to 1 December 2017, a group of one hundred of Asia’s emerging leaders gathered in Melbourne for the Asia 21 Young Leaders Summit. It was the first time the Summit was held in Australia in its 14-year history.

The Summit was convened in partnership with the Victorian Government.

In the course of three days, the Summit  - titled “World Disrupted: Asia’s Future” -  examined how the technological, political, and natural disruptions occurring globally manifest themselves in Asia and Australia, and what it means for the region’s future leaders.

The delegates - representing policy, business, social and cultural sectors - were asked three questions that will be critical for the future generation of the region’s leaders to understand and tackle:

  1. What are the biggest disruptions in Asia-Pacific that will fundamentally change how people live and how and when do you anticipate that they will impact people’s lives?
  2. What are the key capabilities and traits that leaders and communities need to lead through these disruptions?
  3. How does Australia and its leaders work collaboratively with Asia to manage and thrive in the face of geopolitical, technological and natural disruptions?

These are their answers – a statement summarising concerns, hopes, solutions and calls for action to ensure our region remains a centre of prosperity, dynamism and peace.

A21 Young Leader Adnan Malik

A21 Young Leader Adnan Malik (Pakistan) 


Dramatic changes are occurring throughout Asia. With them comes a marked shift in the way people in the region live.

In the past two decades, geopolitics has taken a bold turn. New global rivalries have formed, terrorism has surged, religion and race based conflicts have escalated, ethnic cleansing and mass migration has accelerated, tech innovation - AI - and cyber warfare has grown, urbanisation has sped up, and new patterns of global economic connectivity are emerging – of note, China’s One Belt One Road Initiative.

On the environment, natural disasters are increasing and natural resources are diminishing. A21 analysed the impacts of overpopulation, poor resource planning, and the overindulgence of developed countries and industries on climate change. Both the U.S. and China were marked as problematic for their relative neglect of the Paris Climate accord and lip service attitude to reducing carbon emissions.

The impacts of climate change are being felt most strongly in countries with the least ability to deal with it. Bhutan and Nepal’s cities are experiencing an unmanageable influx of migrants from rural areas where water for drinking and agriculture has dried up. The urban population surplus that results further contributes to rising global temperatures.

Equally, human induced changes to wild and farmed land – annual peat burning exercises in Indonesia and deforestation in the Philippines – are producing excessive levels of carbon that are manipulating natural climates.

A21 predicted that future global conflict would be over securitisation of water, food, or habitable land – a return to fights of generations past.

Food security is not about having enough food, it is about having enough food in the right place and of the right variety. A number of countries are being forced to rely on imports for means of survival, building an economic ring around already unsustainable practice. 90% of Singapore’s food is imported from overseas markets, with Hong Kong in a similar position.

Whilst a huge proportion of Asia struggles to source food, gluttony, meat-intensive diets, and food waste make for the biggest pollution issue on the planet, bigger than cars and industry.

"If food waste was a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world."

Carbon intensive energy production is another major contributor. Whilst the emerging shift to renewable energy sources – by countries such as India – marks a move in the right direction, green power is still a long way off. Governments need to reconcile the 50:50 urban to rural population split and develop networks that can deliver stable and sustainable energy to those outside of the metropolitan grid. A21 analysed how various production methods and distribution models of energy must adapt to reconcile the current dichotomy of living standards and emissions.

Turning to ‘soft-power’, the internet generation (and soon to be the ‘Internet of Things’) has taken connected devices from zero to a base of 4bn IP addresses. The next iteration will allow for 340 undecillion individual addresses. The speed of change is driving a wedge in traditional models of industry, governance, and global world order.

‘Fake news’ has become the weapon of choice. This, coupled with a crisis of trust in institutions, is seeing nations leave behind globalisation and resort to age-old techniques like hoarding gold.

Despite attempts by the current U.S. administration and Brexit to reinvigorate protectionism, we are undeniably witnessing a rise in connectivity. From the poorest slums through to the boardrooms of Singapore, we are all connected. Yet A21 identified how technology is both transformative and pervasive. A single device can be operationalised for social opportunity, social order and surveillance, or military exercise. Where on the spectrum it falls, depends on its use.

Innovation is also making moves geographically. Asia is quickly taking over Silicon Valley as the global powerhouse for development - Ali Baba has 350m active buyers compared with Amazon’s 305m - yet we still have a tendency to look West for inspiration.

In Indonesia for example - where problems with food contamination and counterfeiting are rife - they are using traceability technology to ensure secure chains of food production and delivery.

Many of these tech solutions belong to private companies, yet their national impact lends weight to government involvement and regulation. A21 determined that government oversight was only acceptable in the case of market (or legislative) failure.

Minority groups, and women alike, are also benefitting from the rise of technology. Led by a cohort of female entrepreneurs, Senegal has recently emerged as a tech hub for Africa. Launched with the aid of newly formed microfinancing products, the coding camps teach women how to program, enabling them to export their ideas through app development.

Keeping to grassroots, A21 highlighted the need for leaders to talk to rather than over their constituents. Governments need to understand the needs of communities, but equally need to invest time into rebuilding civic trust. A21 noted a systemic loss of trust in political and institutional leadership over the last decade.

“What doesn’t help is technocrats talking over people’s heads.”

“We need a lot less head and a lot more heart, we need leaders who are humble and sincere.”

“Leaders need to walk the talk.”

Asia 21 leader, Yin Mo Suu, Managing Director of the Inle Princess Resort in Myanmar, spoke of the importance of ‘win, win, win’ decision making.

"The win for you, the win for me, and the win for the next generation."

This theme was echoed by Jack Ma, Chairman, Alibaba Group, who said, ‘Today, making money is very simple. But making sustainable money while being responsible to society and improving the world is very difficult.’

As knowledge becomes ubiquitous and free, the world has moved from a knowledge economy to one that values problem-solving and critical thinking. The onus is on education outlets to match the changing pace of information and technology. Students need to be equipped with skills to navigate a new workforce and social space.

“We need to be teaching our children adaptability, resilience and flexibility… our children will change jobs every 18 months and will work in 17 different industry sectors across their lifetimes.” Hon. Philip Dalidakis, Victorian Minister for Trade and Investment, at the Asia 21 Summit

Given the exponential capacity for technology to change society, skills in technology are considered fundamental for future and current leaders.

2017 Asia 21 panel day 3

Asia 21 panel discussion

Australia in Asia: Policies and Capabilities

In 2018 Australia finds itself in an increasingly economically competitive and geopolitically contested Asia. Though becoming more integrated and connected with the region, Australia’s policy settings have yet to reflect ongoing external power shifts. Australia’s political and business leadership ranks have yet to reflect the diversity of contemporary Australia’s multicultural demographic.

With the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in 2016 and the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress in 2017, the region has witnessed symmetrically divergent trajectories between the world’s incumbent superpower and its aspiring contender.  While President Trump announced his ‘America First’ vision of domestic economic revival and an increasingly unilateralist, protectionist approach to foreign policy and global trade, President Xi Jinping has replaced the until recent status quo foreign policy posture of “biding one’s time and hiding one’s capacities” with a willingness to spearhead a range of Chinese-led multilateral initiatives such as One Belt One Road, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. These efforts have been reinforced by intensive soft and sharp power campaigns to preserve and promote China’s interests abroad, representing a radical departure from previously more inward-looking foreign policy.

Australia is a democracy and one of the closest alliance partners of the U.S. which also counts China – a Communist Party state and adversary of the U.S. – as its largest trading partner and a major source of migrants, tourists, and international students. In 2018, Australia finds itself managing the juxtaposition of incrementally insular American exceptionalism and an emboldened China unabashedly projecting its power and influence abroad – including towards and within Australia.

Australia is not alone in this predicament. Most countries in the region face the same challenge of preserving a harmonious dynamic between their respective dealings with China and the U.S. Regional actors facing this dilemma have typically employed ‘hedge and engage’ strategies – encouraging the U.S. to continue playing a dominant strategic balancing role in the Asia-Pacific, while actively engaging with China’s expanding regional trade and investment agenda. But this equilibrium is proving to be increasingly harder to maintain as the U.S. and China adopt more confrontational policies towards each other and place more pressure on Australia to make choices that either compromise Australia’s economic relationship with China or its security interests with the U.S.

Australia – internationalist in its instincts, policy and outlook and highly dependent on global markets for its exports and access to capital – would not consider it to be in its national interest for the U.S. to adopt an isolationist posture. But it is even more contrary to Australia’s national interest if the region were to witness an increasingly assertive and uncompromising Chinese quest for strategic dominance of Asia. Last year marked a milestone in Australia’s re-assessment of its relationship with China, with the revelations of an allegedly extensive campaign by the Chinese government (including through United Front efforts), to influence Australia’s political process and public opinion on China through the dominance of the Chinese language community media, advancing ‘diaspora diplomacy’, political donations by Chinese government-aligned individuals to members of federal parliament (such as former New South Wales Labor Senator Sam Dastyari) and attempts to monitor and mobilise international Chinese students at Australian university campuses for political purposes.

These developments occur in the backdrop of Asia which continues to be the world’s most dynamic region; firmly on a path to further economic growth and continuing modernization (including through the digital economy), but also facing significant political, social and environmental challenges which could hinder its upward trajectory.

Australia is changing. Its place in the region is evolving, creating significant opportunities for growth and prosperity, but simultaneously also posing significant challenges to established policies and structures.

Asia dominates Australia’s global trade and is largely responsible for Australia’s two decades of uninterrupted economic growth. In 2017, 71% of all merchandise exports headed to East Asia and 52% of merchandise imports came from East Asia.

Asia is rapidly replacing Europe as the major source of migrants to Australia, contributing to even greater diversity of Australia’s multicultural society, while generating new economic, cultural and personal connections between Australia and Asia. A 2016 Australian census revealed that China and India were now the top two countries of birth for new migrant arrivals, and for the first time in Australia’s history, the majority of Australia’s migrants born abroad are from Asia (and not Europe).

The mobility of people and capital between Australia and the region is also accelerating. China, Korea, and Japan account for almost a third of all tourist expenditure in Australia – contributing A$12.3 billion to the Australian economy in 2016.Investments from Asia also continue to grow. Japan is Australia’s second largest direct investor (after the U.S.) with total foreign direct investment stock at A$91 billion in 2016, increasing by 6% from the previous year. China is Australia’s fifth largest direct investor with a total stock value of A$42 billion, growing 16% from 2015. ASEAN, Hong Kong, and Malaysia have also grown their respective investments in Australia by an average of 12%.

As of October 2017, 606,780 international students were in Australia, with China, India, Nepal, Malaysia, and Vietnam being the top five source countries. Since its launch in 2014, the New Colombo Plan has supported over 17,000 Australian students to study and undertake work placements across Asia.

Yet despite the fact that Australia’s integration and connectivity with the region continues apace and has intensified over the last 5 years across the key parameters of migration, trade, investment, and mobility – it appears that Australian policy settings are adrift. Leadership structures within the public and private sectors are static; unrepresentative of contemporary Australian demographics.

In a 2014 PwC report ‘Passing us by’, a survey of 1,000 Australian businesses with respect to their involvement in Asia revealed that:

  • Just 9% were operating in Asia.
  • Only 12% had any experience of doing business in Asia.
  • 55% had no plans to change their strategy stance towards Asia in the following 2-3 years.
  • Of Australia’s top tier companies, while 50% were doing business in Asia, only 23% had staff and presence in-market.

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s report on the cultural diversity of Australian institutions found less than 5% of CEOs of top 200 Australian companies, less than 4% Members of Parliament, and less than 2% of Federal and State Government department heads are of non-European cultural background.

The share of Australian students (especially in primary and high schools) studying Asian languages is small and has fallen in recent times. There have not been any significant recent attempts to even measure the decline. The Australia in the Asian Century White Paper (issued by the Gillard Labor government in 2012) states that between 2000 and 2008, the share of Australian students studying a tertiary-accredited language other than English in Year 12 dropped despite overall student numbers increasing by almost 9%. In 2008, less than 6% of Australian school students studied Indonesian, Japanese, Korean or Chinese in Year 12. Fewer Year 12 students studied Indonesian in 2009 than in 1972. And, while Japanese remains the most widely taught language in Australian schools, student numbers fell by 16% from 2000 to 2008. With the exception of Chinese studies, there has also been decline in teaching and research on other major Asian countries at a university level.

Asia 21 2017 NGV

Asia 21 Young Leaders at the National Gallery of Victoria during the 2017 Asia 21 Summit


The opportunities and challenges for Australia in Asia are multifaceted, long-term, structural, and cultural. But Australia has a good track-record of pragmatic, issue-specific and evidence-based policymaking that can be applied to engagement with Asia.

Whilst the issues and themes presented by the Asia 21 cohort are global, recommendations have been tailored to Australia.

  1. Australian governments to invest in leadership and values training of its civil servants and political leaders

With daily media stories highlighting the inadequacies of political leaders across all levels of government in all jurisdictions, citizens have lost faith and trust in public institutions and political leaders.

Training in ethics, critical thinking, and governance needs to be provided to state bodies and individuals to raise the quality of Australia’s leadership. As it stands, policy makers lack the skills to assess the long-term implications of their decisions.

Whilst the onus is on government to fix cracks in its departments and gaps in its leadership, it is unsustainable to do on its own. A more holistic and through-care approach will ensure greater stability of future leadership. To achieve this, the government training model needs to be rolled out in education systems for teachers and students alike.

It seems the hallmark of change has arrived with the Australian Government sponsoring A21 leaders’ Ewa Wojkowski, Co-Founder and COO of Kopernik, and Gede Robi, lead vocalist of Balinese band, Navicula, for a combined music and ‘technology for change’ Australian tour. In the aftermath of the Mt Agung volcano, it seeks to raise awareness of the socio-economic and environmental issues Indonesia is currently facing. The government should continue to engage in cross-culture and cross-sector partnerships and exchanges.

  1. Australian government should learn from Asia to promote and invest in technological capability.

Ravi Agrawal, CNN’s Bureau Chief in New Delhi and Asia 21 Leader, declared the smartphone to have transformed civil society. Parts of India that were previously excluded from the internet grid, now not only have access to information, but also to services such as healthcare. New app development means doctors can now deliver treatment to patients via their smart phones.

The Australian government must look to Asia for technological change and capability. In order to remain relevant Australia needs to resist the ‘tech is threat’ rhetoric, and instead embrace innovation. Ultimately Australia should seek to develop and tailor technology of its own, but this remains a long shot when the tech profile in Australia is so low. In order to bolster skills, Australia must first increase awareness. These measures are imperative to ensure Australia does not get left behind.

  1. Australian Government to drive female participation in labour markets impacted by AI.

The adoption of AI is going to dramatically alter labour markets over the next five years. It is natural for industries to evolve as technology changes, but the difference with AI is that it chooses the industries it seeks to influence. Developers and entrepreneurs leading the tech movement are predominantly men, meaning the trajectory of AI hinges on the male belief of what deserves it. Australia needs to open up opportunities for women in design technology so that development can proceed without a gender bias. A21 recommended a foreign exchange program that encourages young women throughout Asia to collaboratively build skills in data development and analysis.

  1. Australian Government to invest in a bespoke Asia 21 Action Lab program.

The A21 cohort represents over 30 countries and industries. It is a melting pot of Asian culture and ideas and should be used as a blueprint for future engagement in the region.

The Action Lab program will operate across Asia using a grassroots approach. A21 alumni of the host nation will work alongside local organisations to run the program.

Case Study: Asia 21 Action Lab  - Funding pitch

The Asia 21 Action Lab concept was conceived by the Asia 21 Class of 2015 to fill the critical gap in the organizational support ecosystem by leveraging the Asia 21 network to foster collaboration, generate new ideas, and facilitate sustained engagement with a clear purpose. 

Mission: To support organizations founded or led by Asia 21 Young Leaders, to accelerate their growth and scale the impact of their work in addressing Asia’s most pressing issues.

Vision: An Asia 21 alumni-led program that systematically mobilizes Asia 21 network in-kind resources for high potential Asia 21 organisations to establish enduring and active connections between alumni for organizational development.

Key Features:

  • Annual organisation selection process: Each year a group of 5-10 high potential organizations from within the Asia 21 Network would be selected to participate in the Action Lab program. Organizations are selected based on their ability to benefit from the program as well as their potential to create impactful change in the region. Organizations at various stages of development are encouraged to apply.
  • On-site workshops: Workshops or “Action Labs” would take place annually/bi-annually at an easily accessible and affordable location within Asia to convene a group of roughly 15-20 participants. Participants would include Asia 21 Alumni involved in the organizations selected as well as those who wish to contribute toward furthering the outcome of these projects (see advisors, below). The program would consist of roughly 3-4 days of workshops to dissect the challenges faced by each organization and propose ways to address them in optimal ways.  
  • Advisors: The Asia 21 Network, made up of almost 900 young leaders from more than 30 countries, includes experts with diverse skill sets and sectoral experience that can be harnessed to help organizations achieve their goals. Advisors will be selected from different classes of alumni and with a wide range of expertise. 
  • Administrative oversight: In order to actualize the program, an Alumni steering committee will be formed. The Asia 21 Team in New York will support the planning, execution and oversight of the project.

Program Outcomes: 

Two retreats have been held (2016 Nepal, Kathmandu and 2017 Chiang Mai, Thailand) which have focused on 4-5 organisations with up to 20 participants in each retreat. Program outcomes have included:

  • Deep and ongoing connections between alumni, fostering cross-sector, cross Asia connections; and
  • Facilitating scale and growth of participant organisations through access to high-quality mentors from across Asia

5. Australia to sharpen and advance its soft power and bolster its engagement with the region

Australia must develop both a trade-focused ‘Brand Australia’ strategy and ‘hearts and minds’ soft power strategy encapsulating its good-will potential and track-record of constructive activism in Asia.

Australia is valued as a balanced voice in the region and a trusted, active, and constructive partner. It is the most multicultural nation in Asia and a successful one at that. Australia is striving to lead by example on gender and cultural equality and is already a major contributor to regional efforts in this area.

Over the past 60 years it has fuelled Asia’s economic rise. Since the Colombo Plan was initiated in 1951, Australian universities have been educating future leaders of the region.

Despite its efforts, Australia’s profile in Asia does not do it justice. In line with the United Kingdom’s British Council, Germany’s Goethe Institute and France’s Alliance Francaise Australia should seek to establish Australia Houses throughout key Asian capitals. Designed as multifunctional ‘soft-power embassies’ in partnership with Australia’s private sector, these will showcase the best of Australia and provide information about business, sporting, tourism, and educational and cultural engagement opportunities.

At home, Australia should establish a major Australia-Asia Centre in one of its capital cities – a prominent public space to serve as a national hub for geographic, cultural, and economic connectivity with Asia. The Centre can be host to a regional think-tank that brings together Asian and Australian experts to tackle shared strategic, economic, and social challenges. A pre-existing organisation such as Asia Society, with its deep regional and Australia-U.S. linkages, is ideally positioned to help advance such an agenda with commensurate public and private sector support.

Australia should also seek to widen and deepen its regional scholarship programs. In addition to the New Colombo Plan, it will be increasingly important for Australia to look beyond its full-fee paying cohort and attract the best and brightest from Asia. In order to stay competitive in a global war for talent Australia should consider developing - in partnership with government and the private sector - an Asia-bound scholarship and professional placements initiative for mid-career Australian professionals seeking to develop greater Asia connectivity.

There is ample opportunity to bolster business linkages in the region. Looking to Austrade, a comprehensive study of non-tariff, cultural, economic, and regulatory barriers for Australian business engagement with Asia would strengthen both inbound and outbound investment and help to expand Australia’s sphere of economic influence.

Stepping out of business and into politics, Australia needs to increase the frequency of national and state leaders’ visits to Asia. As Asia continues to grow as an economic powerhouse, there is greater demand for engagement. European, American, and African nations have all amped up their game. In order to stay on the map, Australia needs an edge - it has the luxury of proximity that other bidders do not. It is crucial that Australia capitalise on its geographical advantage by building channels of interaction and stronger people-people ties

Australia’s relationship with China, which is now moving outside of a purely economic sphere, is a good place to start. Under the Strategic Partnership framework, Australia should develop a more comprehensive and extended track 2 dialogue with China. Other relationships in Asia - India, Japan, Indonesia, ASEAN, and Korea – are all of equal import, and Australia should seek to bolster these also through both official and Track 2 channels.

6. Australia to boost cultural diversity in its leadership

Australia has been active and bold in changing the status quo on gender equality, including most recently in the leadership of its government, yet its population can no longer defined in such binary terms. As connectivity with Asia grows, so too is the diversity of the population. The diversity of leadership in Australian institutions needs to reflect this. Australia should establish robust and well-resourced mechanisms for data collection on cultural diversity and seek to establish cultural diversity targets for all government bodies.

7. Australia needs to strengthen Asian competency

As an active regional player, Australia will need to know Asia well and have an education system that prepares the next generation of Australians to be Asia-literate and Asia-connected. Integral to this is an undertaking of Asian studies and languages.

To get the ball rolling, the government should conduct a comprehensive audit of all existing policies and programs on Asian literacy domestically and abroad. A high-level and well-resourced advisory council on Asia competencies, to report to the Ministers of Education and Foreign Affairs, should follow. Under this comes a ‘policy lab’ intended to drive research, ideas-generation, and policy design.

Australia should embark on a multi-year, bipartisan political and funding commitment to sustainable policies and workable programs that increase uptake of Asian languages and studies at the school, technical and vocational, tertiary, and workplace-learning levels of the Australian education system. Moreover, credit should be considered for students that have pre-existing Asia capabilities upon entry into university. Similarly in the workplace, there should be a specific government-mandated metric employers request when shortlisting candidates for Asia-facing roles.

About Asia 21

Asia 21 is the Asia-Pacific’s foremost young leaders network convened by Asia Society with more than 800 influential alumni from over 30 countries.  They are social entrepreneurs, CEOs, academics, policy-makers, journalists and artists. They are change-makers, visionaries, and leaders that have made significant contributions to society and to the future of the Asia-Pacific region.

A decade ago, Asia Society had a dream: To build a network of young leaders (under the age of 40) across the Asia-Pacific as a way to promote mutual understanding and effective collaboration among the next generation’s most important and influential leaders. A decade later, we have built a movement of more than 900 powerful alumni from 40 countries. Today, the Asia 21 Young Leaders Initiative stands as the Asia-Pacific’s foremost young leaders network.

Asia 21 crosses geographic and sectoral boundaries. It convenes young leaders for discussions and collaboration and unleashes them to continue working across boundaries to maximum impact. Local Asia 21 chapters have sprouted in some of the toughest parts of Asia, where people are anxious for the connections and counsel that the Asia 21 network has provided.  The result is an incredibly active and vibrant community of young people dedicated to values-based leadership and to changing the world. Not surprisingly, many of the Asia 21 Young Leaders, especially those who joined the network in the earlier years, are today recognized as leading figures in politics, business, arts, media, and the non-profit sector.

They are laying the groundwork for a robust Asia-Pacific community capable of tackling the most vexing challenges facing the region—one leader, one connection, one project at a time.

More about Asia 21 >>

More on Asia 21