Achieving Digital Inclusion in a Profit-first World

On 3 November 2023, the Tech For Good Institute participated in a plenary at the launch of the e-Conomy SEA 2023 report, organised by Google, Temasek, and Bain & Company. The event shared key highlights on the future direction of Southeast Asia's digital economy, followed by panel discussions on its implications.

(Photo Credit: Google Singapore)

Left to right: Panel moderator Rachel Teo, Head of Government Affairs & Public Policy, Google; Dr. Le Quang Lan, Director of Market Integration Directorate, The ASEAN Secretariat; Dr. Ming Tan, Founding Executive Director, Tech for Good Institute; Dr. Robin Bush, Country Representative, The Asia Foundation

The e-Conomy SEA reports have tracked the rise of Southeast Asia’s digital economy since 2016. In the latest edition of the report, Google, Temasek, and Bain & Company continue their comprehensive analysis of Southeast Asia’s digital economy, offering insights for future growth. This year’s report shares revenue data in addition to gross merchandise value (GMV) figures, providing a more detailed perspective on how businesses continue to navigate macroeconomic headwinds. Some highlights from the 2023 report follow:


  • Despite global economic challenges, Southeast Asia’s GMV is on an upward trajectory – projected to reach $218 billion with an impressive 11% year-on-year growth. Equally noteworthy is digital economy revenue, which is poised to reach $100 billion at the close of 2023, growing 1.7 times faster than GMV.


  • The report underscores the importance of high-value users, who significantly contribute to transaction values – Over 70% of digital economy transaction values are made by the top 30% of SEA spenders. However, digital inclusion, particularly in non-metro areas, is a critical challenge that needs collective attention across all stakeholders.


  • There is a need for digital companies to demonstrate clear pathways to profitability to attract investments, especially with the decline in private funding. Yet, substantial uninvested capital remains available, signalling growth potential for the next stage of SEA’s digital economy. 

Addressing key themes from the report on digital inclusion, alongside monetisation and profitable growth, the panellists discussed the role of governments, businesses, as well as nonprofits, and how it is essential for digital inclusion to be front and centre in powering sustainable growth of Southeast Asia’s digital economy.


Moderator and panellists:

  • Rachel Teo, Head of Government Affairs & Public Policy, Google 
  • Dr. Le Quang Lan, Director of Market Integration Directorate, The ASEAN Secretariat
  • Dr. Ming Tan, Founding Executive Director, Tech for Good Institute
  • Dr. Robin Bush, Country Representative, The Asia Foundation

Key Takeaways: 

  1. Symbiotic Relationship Between Digital Inclusion and Profitability

As digital businesses have shifted their focus to monetisation and high value users, a common misconception is that digital inclusion clashes with profitability. However, the panel emphasised that digital inclusion is not at odds with making a profit; it is, in fact, a pivotal factor in achieving sustainable profitability. Hence, while businesses naturally aim to increase their efficiency and financial prudence, they should consider lifetime customer value and potential across customer segments, recognising that digital inclusion is a rational investment in the long-term sustainability and growth of their operations.

2. Digital Inclusion as a Vital Element for ASEAN’s Digital Economy Growth

The establishment of the ASEAN Digital Economy Framework Agreement (DEFA) signifies a significant milestone in the region’s pursuit of digital transformation. With the ambitious goal of reaching US $2 trillion across ASEAN digital economies by 2030, it is clear that digital inclusion will be an essential driver for the region’s economic prosperity. The success of this initiative may be realised through the collaboration between public and private sectors – with a particular focus on the 71 million micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), which account for some 97% of all businesses in the region.

  1. Role of Governments and Policymakers in Fostering Digital Inclusion

Governments within ASEAN countries are vital players in the digital inclusion landscape. The path to digital transformation differs for each nation, considering varying levels of development. Still, the ultimate goal is to create a coherent, interoperable regulatory framework that facilitates a seamless digital market across the region. Policies should support not only digital connectivity, but also build confidence and trust in the digital economy.


  1. Partnerships and Collaboration for Achieving Digital Inclusion and Resilience

Digital inclusion is a multifaceted challenge that cannot be tackled by any single sector or entity in isolation. Achieving digital inclusion requires a collaborative approach involving the public, private, and philanthropic sectors. Businesses alone cannot accomplish this task, nor can governments, but together, they have the power to bridge the digital divide. Reducing barriers to access for marginalised communities, especially in remote areas, is a crucial component of ensuring that digital inclusion extends to all segments of the population. Partnership is the key to resilience and ensuring that no one is left behind in the digital transformation journey.

Conclusion: Shaping Technology for Societal Good

It is important to acknowledge that the digital divide persists, with 150 million in Southeast Asia, especially the underserved, lacking access to digital technologies. In a profit-first world, emphasis on catering to markets with higher purchasing power will further exacerbate existing inequalities. Yet, while retaining high-value users is essential, expanding reach to non-high-value users is critical for unlocking the next phase of growth.

Technology can be a powerful force for bridging the digital divide and driving equitable progress. The digital economy has grown rapidly in Southeast Asia, but this expansion should be a means to an end: offering increased opportunities for all, regardless of their location or economic status.

Additionally, technology should be leveraged to shape society in a positive way. It is not a passive tool but something that can be harnessed to serve the needs of the people. Stakeholders, including investors, businesses, developers, customers, and employees, have the collective power to influence the trajectory of the digital economy in Southeast Asia, ensuring that all Southeast Asians have the opportunity to participate and benefit from this digital-driven growth.

Please find more about the e-Conomy SEA 2023 report here, and register to watch the event recording here

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Mouna Aouri

Programme Fellow

Mouna Aouri is an Institute Fellow at the Tech For Good Institute. As a social entrepreneur, impact investor, and engineer, her experience spans over two decades in the MENA region, South East Asia, and Japan. She is founder of Woomentum, a Singapore-based platform dedicated to supporting women entrepreneurs in APAC through skill development and access to growth capital through strategic collaborations with corporate entities, investors and government partners.

Dr Ming Tan

Founding Executive Director

Dr Ming Tan is founding Executive Director for the Tech for Good Institute, a non-profit founded to catalyse research and collaboration on social, economic and policy trends accelerated by the digital economy in Southeast Asia. She is concurrently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Governance and Sustainability at the National University of Singapore and Advisor to the Founder of the COMO Group, a Singaporean portfolio of lifestyle companies operating in 15 countries worldwide.  Her research interests lie at the intersection of technology, business and society, including sustainability and innovation.


Ming was previously Managing Director of IPOS International, part of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore, which supports Singapore’s future growth as a global innovation hub for intellectual property creation, commercialisation and management. Prior to joining the public sector, she was Head of Stewardship of the COMO Group and the founding Executive Director of COMO Foundation, a grantmaker focused on gender equity that has served over 47 million women and girls since 2003.


As a company director, she lends brand and strategic guidance to several companies within the COMO Group. Ming also serves as a Council Member of the Council for Board Diversity, on the boards of COMO Foundation and Singapore Network Information Centre (SGNIC), and on the Digital and Technology Advisory Panel for Esplanade–Theatres on the Bay, Singapore’s national performing arts centre.


In the non-profit, educational and government spheres, Ming is a director of COMO Foundation and Singapore Network Information Centre (SGNIC) and chairs the Asia Advisory board for Swiss hospitality business and management school EHL. She also serves on  the Council for Board Diversity and the Digital and Technology Advisory Panel for Esplanade–Theatres on the Bay, Singapore’s national performing arts centre.


Ming was educated in Singapore, the United States, and England. She obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford University and her doctorate from Oxford.