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How Singapore can help Southeast Asia reach its digital potential

Singapore could play a vital role in supporting the digital transformation of its Asean partners in the Asian Century

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CW ASEAN: CW ASEAN: Singapore to guide neighbors to digital peak

Singapore has an important role in driving digital advancement across the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) region, with its pioneering attitude to business and technology.

In the future, the Asian Century might be interpreted as the period in history when countries including India, China and Japan become the world’s economic super powers. But there is a group of countries in the Asean economic block with huge growth potential, where technologies such as smartphones and mobile apps could fuel growth.

When set up in 1967, Asean was made up of Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia. It later added BruneiCambodiaLaosMyanmar and Vietnam. The region has a population of over 600 million, not far short of Europe’s. This population is made up of densely populated urban communities with a large proportion of young people.

But this is an economically eclectic group of countries. For example, Singapore boasts a GDP per capita of about US$50,000, in contrast to Myanmar where per capita annual earnings were a little over US$1,000 in 2015, and only a couple of hundred from 1960 until 2015. Then there is the stark contrast of Singapore’s free market capitalism and Laos’s socialism.

There are also huge differences in the level of digital adoption and its maturity in the different countries. But combined with and driven by the more developed Asean nations, countries in the Asean region have the potential to be a global powerhouse in the Asian Century.

Singapore leads the way

The Asean country that is leading the way when it comes to digital technology is Singapore. The nation state, which was a founding member of Asean back in 1967, has put digitisation high on its agenda.

In 2016, the Singapore government merged two departments to form the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) of Singapore. This signalled the next phase of the city state’s Infocomm Media 2025 vision. It coordinates citizens, businesses and the government, is designing an education system to ensure Singapore prospers in a digital economy, is creating legislation that is fit for a digital world, and works with organisations to help them use digital technologies to overcome their challenges. 

This type of policy has put Singapore on a pedestal. It has been ranked as the most technology-ready nation by the World Economic Forum (WEF).

It is in Singapore’s interest to carry its neighbours along on its journey, according to Gabriel Lim, civil servant and former CEO at Singapore’s IMDA.

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“Having a prosperous and stable neighbourhood is very good for Singapore. We want Asean to be strong, vibrant and successful,” Lim told Computer Weekly. “Asean really does have a story of opportunity. It has a population as big as Europe and has a very young population,” he added.

Lim pointed to programmes in Asean to support less-developed regions, which he said Singapore “takes very seriously”. Singapore’s IMDA provides technical support and assistance, running regional telecommunications meetings to support training and schemes to help countries build IT capabilities and education.

“We run study programmes and send our people into other Asean countries to give them advice,” he added. This includes advice on technology and legislation.

There is free movement of people in the Asean region, which means nations such as Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia, which are rich in IT skills, can provide IT professionals to other countries in the region.

Myanmar just starting out

In contrast to Singapore is Myanmar, which has only recently emerged from military dictatorship.

Where Singapore has smart everything, Myanmar is at the beginning of its digital journey, and is one country that Singapore’s experience could help. After all, when Singapore gained independence in 1965, it was a mere shadow of its current self, but has used its advantages to become an important member of the global community which punches well above its weight.

As a small city state with fewer than six million people and no natural resources to rely on, Singapore needs differentiation to prosper in the global economy. It focused on specific industries. Initially, it used its strategic position in the world to develop as a sea hub, which is now the world’s second busiest. It then turned to higher-value manufacturing before focusing on services, especially those in the finance sector, and has now put foundations in place to become a major user and supplier of digital services.

Myanmar is at the starting line. “Myanmar only opened up a couple of years ago and it is very exciting. The country is rolling out infrastructure now,” said Lim. It is early days. Not long ago the high cost of a mobile contract meant few used them and the nation is still reliant on cash.

One Singaporean who has worked in Myanmar in recent years described the transformation as incredible. “When I first went to Myanmar, a 3G SIM was about $250; now one is available for as little as $1 and mobile penetration has skyrocketed.”

ICT suppliers also see the potential, and Myanmar looks like emulating its tech-savvy, mobile-first neighbours.

In September 2014, following the opening up of Myanmar, Norwegian telco Telenor set up its network in Myanmar. Fredrik Östbye, vice-president internet of things at Telenor, said within two years it amassed 18 million mobile subscribers. This was staggering given that few had had mobile contracts previously. “Myanmar has a population of over 60 million people, but it used to be very rare for someone to have a mobile subscription because it was very expensive,” he said.

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Myanmar reached about 40 million internet users in the middle of 2016 – up from two million before the revolution in 2014 – and the country’s four telecoms operators sold a record 43.72 million SIM cards by May 2016, according to recent government figures.

When it comes to money, while consumers in Singapore are using apps such as Apple Pay and Samsung Pay on a daily basis, Myanmar is largely a cash-based society, with 97% of salaries paid this way, according to research by Wave Money, a mobile money joint venture between Telenor and Yoma Bank.

Its 2015 research found that of those with bank accounts in Myanmar, only 5% had ATM cards, making access to cash difficult. With a population of 60 million – of which fewer than 10% of adults have a bank account – the country has seen many turn to unregulated financial service providers, such as pawn shops, money lenders and “hundis” (payment brokers) for financial services.

Other modern technologies are finding their way to Myanmar too. For example, 3D printing technology is transforming the lives of farmers there. Non-profit organisation Proximity Designs makes and prototypes parts for farming tools for Myanmar farmers. The new irrigation systems, solar pumps and other tools have helped farmers to reduce costs and labour, and improve yields.

3D printing is another area where Singapore has built up expertise, with two 3D printing service providers setting up in Singapore. The UCT Additive Manufacturing Centre and a 3D printing factory set up by Fast Radius are recent developments.

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