"In the context of the industrial revolutions, this is the first time Southeast Asian companies can compete with global players... It's the first time for Southeast Asian companies to be champions," Patrick Walujo, co-founder of private equity firm Northstar Advisors, said at the WEF on Thursday. Walujo's Singapore-based firm is a backer of Indonesian unicorn Go-Jek and manages more than $2 billion in equity capital.
ASEAN will take a long time to catch up to first-world nations in the realm of traditional industries, such as manufacturing, "but the eco-system for digitization is different, so that's an opportunity for us," he continued.
The region's digital economy already generates $150 billion in revenues per year, according to data from A.T Kearney, led by the information and communication technology (ICT) sector.
Venture capitalists have long remained bullish on ASEAN and now, a growing degree of regional cooperation between neighboring countries is fanning even further optimism. Speaking at the WEF, Paul Bragiel, founding partner of Silicon Valley-based venture firm Bragiel Brothers, outlined several improvements he's witnessed in the region's tech scene over recent years.
Not only have the quality of investors increased, entrepreneurs are also helping each other out, he explained. "That's how you move faster. When we invest, we're also gathering knowledge among start-ups so we can avoid repeating mistakes. That's part of the digital leapfrogging."
But plenty of roadblocks still remains for ASEAN to truly become a digital champion.
"We have great young talent but they haven't had opportunities to develop large companies," Tan Hooi Ling, co-founder of Southeast Asian ride-hailing app Grab, told CNBC on Thursday.
The businesswoman, who usually prefers to let CEO Anthony Tan handle media interviews, explained that five-year-old Grab was now at a mature enough stage to start giving back to the region, noting the firm's recent $700 million investment in Indonesia and newly-launched research and development centers across Asia and the U.S. Grab also holds regular talks with regional governments on promoting cashless societies, Tan said.