• Shiv Putcha

Asia’s rapidly changing political economy is a big driver for the Digital Agenda

A recent opportunity to attend a GSMA conference in Singapore allowed for many meaningful interactions and a number of takeaways about how the Digital Agenda is shaping up across the region.

  • Singapore is in many ways the perfect location for such an event. Not only is it the regional hub for ASEAN for business and trade, it is also in many ways akin to the “Switzerland” of the East, wedged tightly between larger, more populous ASEAN countries and occupying the strategic space between Asia’s two behemoths in China and India. The average Singaporean is, in many ways, blissfully ensconced not only within the island’s affluence relative to the region but also an operating environment that is ideal for experimentation and progressive policies.

  • Indeed, Singapore’s near ideal environment was cited by Dr Janil Puthucheary, the Senior Minister of State for ICT of the Government of Singapore, who was involved in an insightful firechat chat to kick off the event. Amongst several comments made on the digital imperative for Singapore, he also spoke eloquently about Singapore’s status as a regional trade hub, how it has created so many opportunities but increasingly, it has also made Singapore dependent on international trade given its status as an entrepot. As a result, it is not enough for Singapore to pursue its digital agenda in isolation. Rather, they need to include digital agendas into all of their trade deals, both international and regional.

  • But it is not only Singapore pursuing digital policies. Others like South Korea and Japan are at the cutting edge of digital agendas in the APAC region. Dr Sang Hoon Song, Director General of Ministry of ICT in South Korea, spoke at some length about the country’s efforts to build digital infrastructure and capacity while simultaneously transforming Government to become digital. Perhaps the most insightful commentary was around South Korea’s need to embrace a digital imperative in order to effectively deal with a looming demographics crisis. Many countries around the APAC region are seeing their baby boomer generations age rapidly and pose mounting healthcare and productivity costs. These countries are also not about to embrace legal immigration as a way to overcome the demographic crisis. Rather, embracing digital will at least mitigate the short-term impacts of these demographics trends.

  • Asian countries are also embracing subsidies and other incentive structure to promote investment into and development of digital infrastructure. Japan’s “Digital Garden City” initiative is a case in point. Tax credits for deploying 5G in ‘unfavourable conditions”, promotion of infrastructure sharing policies, policies to enable buildout of datacenters, optical fiber connectivity and subsea cables are all part of the mix. On subsea cables, Japan is now focused on balancing the number of landing stations on the two coasts – the eastern-facing Pacific coast and the Western-facing Sea of Japan coastline, with the latter relatively underdeveloped.

  • Another trend driving the digital agenda in Asia is the Future of Work. Singapore is a great example, and in many ways, a crucible for the Future of Work in the APAC region. While it has emerged from the Covid19 pandemic relatively unscathed, there is no question that lockdowns and restrictions have had perhaps a near permanent impact on work culture. Singapore has embraced “hybrid” work, with many employees not required to come in every day, and company policies shifting towards supporting employees as they work remotely. Of course, the city-state is unique in that any employee that must come in urgently doesn’t have far to go. It is a small island after all!!! But the embrace of hybrid is giving a big fillip to the adoption of public cloud and also prompting enterprises to contemplate using private networks that combine 5G and WiFi with existing SD-WAN and MPLS networks to allow work anytime and anywhere. Another factor driving a new Future of Work is the exodus of employees from Hong Kong. It’s real and seems to be happening in large numbers. Eventually, these employees will get absorbed in Singapore or other ASEAN countries but in the short term, they will be effectively untethered and need remote access. That said, it’s not just white-collar jobs that seem to be on the move. Larger geopolitical realignments in the region are also promoting enterprises, especially in manufacturing and ancillary industries, to consider either outright relocation or new capacity investments in ASEAN. It will be hard to find new locations for sites but even harder to manage any transition without losses in productivity and spending overruns.

  • Industry ecosystems are being rebooted to cater to and realize emerging opportunities with digital. Much of the attention is still cornered by the hyperscalers and Internet companies who operate across the region. But the telcos, for their part, are busily attempting to reboot their own digital ambitions. Focus has been scaled back from ambitions of beating technology giants at their own game or simply by blocking them towards a more realistic positioning that embraces core competencies in connectivity and builds bridges with the wider technology ecosystems. More and more telcos are speaking of a transition to becoming "Digicos", not in a "world domination" sense but a vision that is centered around open networks, open APIs and building reliable, secure and high capacity interconnect between the multiple clouds mushrooming all around the APAC region.

All in all, "Digital" has moved beyond mere buzzwords to real-life policies and use case development. Significant investments are being made for the development of digital platforms and capabilities within Asian markets but attention is also being paid now to cross-border data flows and privacy concerns.

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