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Youth in South and Southeast Asia: A Common Denominator

30 Apr 2018
By Ankush Ajay Wagle

In South and Southeast Asia 15-24 year-olds make up around one fifth of the population. This presents an opportunity for cross-border cooperation including in higher learning, entrepreneurship and cultural linkages.

South and Southeast Asia are two of the fastest growing regions today. Both share deep and ancient cultural linkages and have developed extensive political, economic, security and social ties over several decades. However, their future progress and development may very well lie in mutually tapping what is a common denominator and resource for both sides: youth.

The United Nations defines youth as people in the age-group 15-24 years. This demographic category is a crucial element of the populations of both South and Southeast Asia. Based on this definition, the five largest South Asian nations (by population) –India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan–collectively have a youth demographic of over 300 million which is on average close to about one fifth of the population of each country. Similarly the five most populous Southeast Asian countries–Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar–together have over 90 million youth or close to an average of 17 per cent of each country’s population.

At present, young people in these countries face daunting challenges. Poor educational infrastructure, poverty, a chronic lack of skills and unemployment are turning the demographic dividend of these countries into a demographic time-bomb instead. The wasted potential of these youth will ultimately impose a hefty price on the development of their countries.

In the face of such a dire situation, concerted action is needed across the board. While many of the solutions to youth-sector problems within the member-states depend on domestic policies, there is strong case to be made for cross-regional youth cooperation as well. Such cooperation is critical for two reasons. Firstly, cross-regional cooperation can help to unlock a broader range of potential opportunities. For example, India has been witnessing a boom in youth-led entrepreneurship. The government has recognised this and encouraged entrepreneurship development across several sectors. Separate Indian state governments have also implemented start-up policies to promote investment in start-ups, many of which operate in emerging industries such as financial technology (fintech), healthcare and e-commerce. Ot the same time, Southeast Asia is one of the fastest growing internet economies in the world, with a vast number of connected and tech-savvy youth. This means Indian start-ups can diversify their reach abroad through tapping youth markets in Southeast Asia.

Secondly, from a long-term perspective, youth cooperation between South and Southeast Asia is critical for a far more basic reason. In today’s globalised world, where digital connectivity has blurred physical borders, countries can no longer remain isolated. Alongside political and economic aspects such as regional cooperation, free trade areas and supply chains, the social aspect of people-to-people connectivity is vital. The youth of today will be the leaders and actors of tomorrow. As such, fostering youth cooperation will naturally lead to better gains in the long run for the countries and regions involved.

Having identified the potential and reasons for youth cooperation between South and Southeast Asia, what action can be taken? Three potential steps, taken in tandem, would lay the foundation to bring South and Southeast Asia youth closer and, in time, create lasting value for them.

The first step is that of creating a dedicated, long-term programme for institutions of higher learning on both sides to cooperate in education, skills development and vocational training. Such a programme should include and strongly promote short-term exchanges, work placements, language skills development programmes, social expeditions and other such initiatives with partner organisations. The ERASMUS programme of the European Union has already proven the value of such exchanges in developing youth linkages and regional identity.

Secondly, governments on both sides need to come together to identify areas of youth cooperation and work together to integrate these into their respective public policies. Entrepreneurship and innovation are good examples. Here, a bilateral approach could actually benefit the countries as two countries with similar socio-economic youth challenges could work together. It is critical that such cooperation focuses on the long run.

Lastly, there should be a strong focus on each side for developing youth awareness about the other region. This will likely require much cooperation between public and private sector stakeholders such as government, businessmen, academia, diaspora populations and others. South and Southeast Asia possess the advantage that their people share historical and cultural linkages. These linkages should be leveraged to spread awareness among youth. For example, Islamic countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan could partner with Malaysia and Indonesia to disseminate knowledge through theological education and tourism. Similarly, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Cambodia could engage youth through Buddhism.

In conclusion, against the backdrop of the much touted ‘Asian Century‘, South and Southeast Asia stand at the brink of a new era of progress and partnership, the key to which lies in the mutual development of their youth population. If harnessed properly, young people can help usher in a brighter future for all their fellow citizens, for as former English Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli wrote, “the Youth of a Nation are the trustees of posterity”.

Ankush Ajay Wagle is a research assistant at the Institute of South Asian Studies, an autonomous research organisation at the National University of Singapore. He can be contacted at All views expressed here are those of the author alone.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.