The Promise of Brain Circulation in the ASEAN Economic Community


The ASEAN goal of encouraging intraregional mobility must be understood in the context of changing population dynamics, rising educational levels and aspirations, and increasingly dynamic — if complex — economic forces. These so-called ‘megaforces’ are poised to transform the supply, demand, and mobility of skilled professionals across ASEAN.

Diverging Demographics

ASEAN represents a demographically diverse region. Some countries, such as Brunei Darussalam, Singapore, and Thailand, are projected to see their labour forces age and decline, resulting in a growing elderly population and a narrowing worker pipeline. By contrast, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), and the Philippines might continue to see their labour forces grow over the next couple of decades. Taken together, these complementary pressures are likely to encourage people of working age — including the highly educated — to move within the region.

Rising Educational Levels and Aspirations

The changing skill and education levels of the population in the region will also affect the size and composition of migrant flows. In the past few decades, all ASEAN countries have made large investments in secondary and tertiary education. Larger cohorts of ASEAN citizens with a vocational or college education mean a greater pool of skilled workers who are likely to migrate, given the right incentives. In addition, more students from ASEAN countries are seeking an international education. Unlike in the past, when a lack of education opportunities at home drew many to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, the educational aspirations of the new generation of students can be met regionally.

Continuing Economic Disparities and Opportunities

Wide variation in economic opportunities in the region has been and will remain the key driving force for migration across the skills continuum. The 2007–2013 Gallup World Poll highlights two important observations about the mobility aspirations of skilled persons worldwide: they are almost twice as likely to intend to emigrate (19%) than those in low-skilled occupations (10%), and they are more likely to have the means to do so. As rapid economic growth increases regional demand for the highly skilled, ASEAN Member States need to commit the necessary capital and policy investments to attracting and retaining ever-larger shares of well-qualified workers in the region.

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