Catalysed by the pandemic, Southeast Asia continues its rapid digital transformation. The region has 75% of its population online, with 350 million ‘digital consumers’ – users who have purchased at least one online service. In particular, the SEA-6 countries (comprising Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, and Thailand) grew at a compounded annual growth rate of 27% from 2015 to 2020.
Malaysia, seeking to capitalise on its growing digital economy, has invested in digital technologies to modernise its processes. As a result, Malaysians are now amongst the most digitally connected in the world, according to the World Bank.
Yet this rapid evolution designed to enable access to the internet and close the digital divide has meant that “much of the initial focus was really about building infrastructure”, says Dr. Rachel Gong, who heads digital policy research at the Khazanah Research Institute (KRI). She notes that there are several policy issues Malaysia can focus on to drive a holistic approach to digitalisation and digital inclusion.
Gong, in KRI’s recent publication #NetworkedNation, argues for an approach that also includes multidimensional aspects of meaningful connectivity. Infrastructure and providing digital access is just the first step. Moving forward, there should be conversations on social issues such as addressing “social inequality, rethinking social norms and behaviours, and thinking proactively about the societal implications of digitalisation, including education, healthcare, and social cohesion.”
Part of what will be needed are discussions on making internet access a public utility in Malaysia, providing subsidies for devices, and access to gender-disaggregated metrics to also examine the digital gender gap in the country. Furthermore, a digitally inclusive policy should include programmes that focus on the fundamental areas of digital literacy, digital skills, and digital services provision.
Robust digital governance goes hand-in-hand with the broader picture of digital inclusion. Gong identifies data protection, security of critical infrastructure, and artificial intelligence (AI) governance as essential elements in Malaysia’s efforts in this area.
On data protection, users in Malaysia expressed willingness to pay for a safer broadband connection. Furthermore, 60.9% of Malaysians consider online privacy to be “extremely important”. Gong highlights the need to balance between businesses having access to data to further innovation, and maintaining individuals’ right to privacy and security. Currently, the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) of 2010 governs the use of data in the country, but improvements are being sought including mandatory appointment of data protection officers and mandatory breach reporting guidelines.
A second area of focus is the security of critical information infrastructure, such as the electricity grid, water supply systems, and healthcare systems, Gong notes. Such public infrastructure is increasingly connected to and reliant on digital technologies and consequently could come under attack, without the requisite protections.
Finally, there should be a concerted effort for balanced governance of AI, especially with the rise of everyday algorithmic decision-making. “You’re relying on people who write the algorithms, and then you’re relying on the data that’s used to train the algorithms – and both of those are inherently biased.” The government’s 2021 AI Roadmap has articulated strategies to better understand such biases and remedy unintended consequences, helping to reduce discrimination against marginalised groups and the creation of insular filter bubbles.
Bottom-up approach for inclusion
For Malaysia’s digital transformation to be inclusive, Gong highlights the importance of understanding citizens’ needs. Consultations with a diverse set of stakeholders would help inform policy moving forward. Often, technology is not designed with the needs of marginalised groups in mind, and consequently, their experiences might differ from those in the mainstream. “In my opinion, we now have a lot of technical experts and industry experts at the table. But what we may need is more public interest, digital rights, human rights, or voices for marginalised groups being heard.”
By taking a bottom-up, user-centric approach, governments will be able to better identify and address gaps to realise the promise of digital transformation.