By Brianna Ang, Tech for Good Institute
As the diverse Southeast Asian economies each rapidly pursue their own digital transformation plans, they must align on a common emphasis: promoting digital inclusion. Despite the region’s digital economy being poised for burgeoning growth with its 460 million internet users and high internet penetration rate of over 70% in most countries, this threatens to be eclipsed by the significant digital disparity that remains – about 20% of Southeast Asians still lack access to fast working internet, and accessibility and affordability of broadband remains uneven across the region. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will need to confront complex roadblocks like the urban-rural divide, inadequate digital infrastructure and training, and low digital literacy that (re)produces this inequality and impedes the full benefits of digital development.
Digital divides are multi-faceted and overlapping in nature; while building essential technology infrastructure to increase access and connectivity is a step in the right direction, equally critical is raising understanding and enhancing digital skills. The Tech for Good Institute’s report, “From Tech for Growth to Tech for Good”, foregrounds how closing digital divides will fundamentally depend on whether individuals can leverage on technologies in a meaningful and useful way.
With digital adoption outpacing digital literacy, averting and mitigating the associated risks on data protection, cybersecurity and safety will require appropriate digital literacy training. Additionally, digital literacy programmes should imbue individuals with relevant and in-demand technical skills while guiding them to fully exploit digital solutions for productive and practical ends. Enabling digital inclusion that encompasses all members of society – especially vulnerable communities including the rural, low-income or disabled peoples – will be vital to maximise the potential of the digital economy. To achieve a more confident digital society for equitable and inclusive adoption, governments across the region are prioritising building digital literacy.
The report highlights key initiatives undertaken by governments across the 6 Southeast Asian economies:
- The Siberkreasi National Movement for Digital Literacy, which aims to accelerate digital literacy development by focusing on digital ethics, digital culture, digital skills, and digital safety. This initiative is a multi-stakeholder programme with institutional partners from the private sector, government, civil society, media and academic institutions.
- The Saya Digital initiative drives awareness of digital technology and encourages use of digital technology in everyday life
- eRezeki helps urban B40 (bottom 40% income earners) and M40 (middle 40% income earners) families, non-income groups, senior citizens and youth to earn additional income from digital platforms
- Gig workers can learn digital skills with the “GigUp” programme
- The Malaysian government encourages citizens to volunteer their time in digital training through the “My Ikrar” programme.
- The Department of Education (DepEd) of the Philippines established the Digital Rise Programme to promote digital education by integrating technology into school curriculums and providing training for teachers.
- Singapore’s government started the Digital for Life (DfL) movement to engage citizens in digital literacy and to consider it as a lifelong learning opportunity. The Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) and IMDA are partnering with the private and civil sectors to co-create opportunities in developing digital skills
- The Libraries and Archives Blueprint 2025 (LAB25), implemented by the National Library Board (NLB), seeks to promote lifelong learning and mastery of digital skills through immersive and interactive programmes.
- The Ministry of Digital Economy and Society aims to train four million people in digital literacy through its Net Pracharat course.
- Resolution No. 52-NQ/TW (27/9/2019), Decision No. 392/QĐ-TTg (27/3/2015), Resolution No. 23-NQ/TW (22/3/2018), Decision No. 99/QĐ-TTg (14/01/2014), and Decision No. 21/QĐ-TTg (06/01/2021) identify digital training for the workforce as an enabler for Vietnam to actively participate in the Industrial Revolution 4.0 and to develop its digital economy
- In 2017, the Directive No. 16/CT-TTg called for improvements in training and education in STEM and information technology in the national curriculum and vocational schools; and The Decision No. 749/QĐ-TTg (2020) highlighted the importance of affordable and accessible digital training.
Addressing barriers towards greater availability and affordability of services need to be matched with readiness and relevance of skills – the promising opportunities that connectivity brings can only go so far if users are unaware of how to properly utilise it to their advantage. Ultimately, governments must take the helm in establishing a digitally-enabled and proficient society to bridge ever-widening digital divides, so as to reap the greatest rewards of digital inclusion.