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What is Missing from the Debate on Technology in Southeast Asia

Thursday, January 14, 2021

The digitalization landscape in Southeast Asia is dizzyingly dynamic. Underpinned by ambitious top-down initiatives and with the market indicators to certify its buoyancy, the region’s technology sector is on a high-growth trajectory propelled by every acronym and mythical creature in the start-up lexicon. Elina Noor of the Asia Society Policy Institute argues that for the ASEAN community as a whole to benefit from technology, economics should not be the sole determining driver. Rather, a few other imperatives should be considered.

What is Missing from the Debate on Technology in Southeast Asia

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha at Digital Thailand Big Bang symposium on ASEAN connectivity, Bangkok, October 2019: Across Southeast Asia, ambitious tech plans and high growth (Credit: National News Bureau of Thailand)

This year, the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) aim to complete a Consolidated Strategy on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). From Singapore’s Smart Nation and Indonesia’s national artificial intelligence (AI) strategy to Thailand 4.0 and Malaysia 5.0, Southeast Asia’s governments – individually and collectively – are bullish on the transformative potential of technology. On the ground, strong demand and equally striking investment potential are giving credence and support to these bold policies and visions.

Even against the backdrop of a pandemic-induced global economic contraction, some 310 million people or 70 percent of all consumers in Southeast Asia were expected to go digital by the end of 2020, surpassing forecasts for 2025. With the region adding 40 million new Internet users last year alone, the digital economy in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam reached US$100 billion in 2020. It is projected to triple by 2025. And while regional unicorns, those startups valued at US$1 billion or more, took a hit during the Covid-19 lockdowns, particularly in the travel sector, there are early signs of revival and interest from extra-regional unicorns looking to expand.  

The immediacy of these commercial imperatives, along with Southeast Asia’s long-standing digitalization-for-development agenda, means that government and business deliberations about the role of technology have typically prioritized economic considerations, though for different reasons. This focus is apparent in the numerous recommendations for how countries could mitigate the impact on labor of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), how variances in data transfer regimes should be resolved, or how micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) could be most effectively integrated into the digital economy. These are important questions, of course, but they cover only narrow, sectoral implications of technology’s imprint on the region.

If ASEAN genuinely wants to advance inclusive and equitable development as well as a politically cohesive and “socially responsible society”, it must peer beyond the economic lens and critically reflect on some fundamental concerns.

First, the power and politics of technology. Today, two-thirds of the global population live in Asia. China and India account for the bulk of that figure. The biggest country in ASEAN, Indonesia, is the world’s fourth most populous nation. By the turn of the century, 90 per cent of the people on the planet are expected to live outside Europe and North America. If most people will be living in the Global South – Southeast Asia, included – and these regions represent the fastest growing markets for digital products and services, then it seems reasonable to expect that these consumers will determine how technology will change their lives. It would also be fair to expect the governance structures of technology – the norms, rules, and international legal frameworks – to reflect the perspectives, expectations and value-systems of this majority.

As it stands, it is the privileged “tech bros” in the English-speaking corridors of Silicon Valley that code much of the digital world and dominate its architecture. Platform and social media titans such as Google and Facebook – rife with controversial algorithms – have not only pioneered a profitable industry of surveillance capitalism but also “a global architecture of behavior modification”, as Harvard Business School social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff put it. Big Data, funneled by the private sector not only for monetization but also more insidious purposes when done in collusion with intelligence agencies, entrenches the specter of Big Brother and lays the basis for technological hegemony. Data extraction, the charge goes, is the new colonialism.

But the Global South is not always or not only a geographical construct. If framed more elastically as a metaphor for oppression caused by capitalism and colonialism on the global level, it would include marginalized or minority societies in countries north and south of the equator. It would also account for South-South exploitation through the export of surveillance technology. Like the Western firms that came before them, a Chinese corporate presence now spans the digital architecture of space (navigation satellite system), cyberspace (network, hardware and software applications), and sea (international submarine communication cables). As Southeast Asia finds itself once again in the crosshairs of great-power competition, it will have to be mindful of entrapment in either the empire of business or the business of empire.  

Startup developers meet-up in Cyberjaya, Malaysia: Platforms and systems are acquired mostly from abroad rather than developed indigenously at scale (Credit: Sham Hardy - https://www.flickr.com/photos/xshamx/41198464161/)

Startup developers meet-up in Cyberjaya, Malaysia: Platforms and systems are acquired mostly from abroad rather than developed indigenously at scale (Credit: Sham Hardy - https://www.flickr.com/photos/xshamx/41198464161/)

A second, often overlooked, issue in the digital race in Southeast Asia relates to data transparency and accountability. Unicorns and decacorns aside, the region still sits firmly on the demand rather than supply side of technology. Platforms and systems are acquired mostly from abroad rather than developed indigenously at scale. However, embedded in the technologies that are conceptualized, designed and built elsewhere are the assumptions, languages and cultural norms of their creators. Programmers do not operate in a vacuum and data sets contain inherent biases. Southeast Asians, therefore, will end up either struggling with awkward algorithms or introducing, replicating or reinforcing coded values in local contexts.

As the region grapples with migrating the backbone of its economy – MSMEs – into the digital economy, will the right questions be asked when technologies are imported for use by these businesses? Will these technologies be truly reflective of, and well suited to, local circumstances? What gathered data will have informed the development of these technologies to ensure optimal domestic performance? SMEs comprise up to 99 percent of all business establishments and contribute to over 90 percent employment in many ASEAN economies. Getting the basics of digitalization right for this cohort will be important on many levels. 

Even where applications have been developed domestically, entrenched biases that mirror real-life inequalities as well as the harms they cause remain a serious risk. The problems that beset every stage of algorithmic training are legion, from the design of the data sets to black-box processing and finally, the interpretation of predictions. But at least these predicaments involve the existence of data sets in the first place.

In Southeast Asia, data on many minority or indigenous communities and their concerns are often inadequately captured or completely missing. In Thailand, however, some of these communities have begun collecting their own census information and addressing questions very different from those asked in the national survey. In Cambodia, government policy as well as an open-data initiative, Open Development Cambodia, have resulted in “an energetic IT community that has produced Khmer Unicode and indigenized software”.

A third consideration is that of security; certainly, the security of technologies but crucially, the security of choice. As Southeast Asia builds out its digital infrastructure with the support of China, Japan, South Korea, the European Union and the US, governments will find it increasingly difficult to extricate themselves from the fabric of critical infrastructure interdependence. The flipside of a vendor mélange – single-source reliance – is also risky while the prohibitively high barriers to entry of homegrown solutions render them generally impractical for smaller states.

The reality is that Southeast Asia’s digital future will be mapped by a patchwork of international partnerships. But harmonizing connectivity across the ten ASEAN member states, preserving infrastructural or platform interoperability, and respecting states’ sovereign decisions to choose their own networks and vendors may prove tricky if the trends of technological fragmentation persist.

ASEAN states may have a tiger by the tail in their drive for digitalization. But by zooming out beyond economics, they will likely get a better handle on the beast as a whole rather than a limited part of it. Discussing some of the above issues at the inaugural ASEAN Digital Ministers’ Meeting scheduled for January 21-22 would be a good way to start.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute

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