Saturday, April 25, 2009

Article: Jumpstart Asian Economies with ICT

Here's a recent article in Enterprise Innovation based on an interview with me ...

Jumpstart Asian Economies with ICT

By Allan Tan

The buzzword within the economic and political circles of Asia is “economic stimulus package.” Indeed when economies are tumbling citizens and businesses turn to the government to provide the impetus to drive economies forward. Just how much is Asia planning to spend to get the local economies out of the sinkhole we are in today?

Over US$656 Billion has been earmarked by Asia’s governments as stimulus package for 2009. All are hoping the packages which consist of public spending on infrastructure, creating new jobs through training and education, creating environments conducive to new business and industries, tax cuts, government-secured loans to private sector businesses, all aim to stop the downward spiral.

But when you realize that many of Asia’s economies depend on the US market for business opportunities, you suddenly realize that local efforts may be futile unless one of two things happen: (1) the US gets its act together; or (2) the Asia region turn inward to support each other. But this is just my observation.

James SL Yong, Director of Public Sector Programs (ASEAN) for Cisco Systems has a very interesting chart on how the economic stimulus package would work. It reminds me of spaghetti with meatballs.

It takes a crisis to focus the mind

According to Yong, government priorities have always been around economic competitiveness, providing effective public service, public safety and security, and governance. “The global economic slump has not diverted attention from these priorities but added the extra focus on getting local economies out of the recession,” Yong adds.

“A crisis is too good to waste,” Franko Roma, Stanford University economics professor. “You shouldn’t waste a crisis because that’s where things actually happen if you play your cards right.”

People, and governments, can do great things given the proper incentive. And the global economic crisis is a very good incentive.

Where ICT sits in the economic recovery

Yong divides government infrastructure spending into two areas: physical and smart infrastructure. Physical infrastructure consists of water and electricity, roads, bridges, railways, telecommunications and ports. Governments are throwing money here to create jobs. Unfortunately most physical infrastructure projects are finite in nature. Jobs are created throughout the course of each project but once the work is completed, you won’t need the same amount of people to maintain these projects.

Smart infrastructure projects, which include national broadband networks, wireless hotspots, and rural connectivity, provides employment opportunities not only at the onset of the project but even after the work has been laid-out. “You will need skilled people to not only build these networks but maintain them as well. These infrastructure projects not only help uplift the skill levels of people, but have the potential to create new industries,” comments Yong.

Crafted well, some of these smart infrastructure projects have spawned new industries in themselves. Yong cites the case of South Korea’s national fibre optic broadband network project. While originally meant to offer nationwide broadband to every home and office, the project has spawned new industries like online gaming and digital animation.

Yong suggests that governments take a balanced approach to infrastructure investments that cover both physical and smart infrastructure projects.

Dual role of ICT

- John F. Kennedy, President, United States of America, January 20, 1961.

If you look at the way most government agencies are built today, they are built around delivering a service - in a way that best suits how a government department works. For instance, it takes 15 steps and 52 days to register a business in the Philippines. Compare this to Singapore’s 4 steps in 4 days approach. How? Singapore has successfully merged ICT with process to shorten the time and improve productivity

ICT is an enabler for many governments. Properly planned, built, and maintained, ICT solutions can greatly help government departments improve service delivery to the citizenry and businesses.

“Government 2.0” is widely viewed as addressing the shortcomings of present-day public service delivery and enable government departments to work better.

The idea is that the government is created to serve the citizenry, to make it easier for citizens and businesses to access public information and transact with specific government departments.

“In many cities and many organizations, ICT is enabler of more effective working, more productive workforce and more creativity,” says Yong.

As the single largest consumer of ICT, the current economic crisis is forcing government departments to do more with less, with the help of ICT. Visit any government department in Asia, and you will find independent departments with their own applications databases, data centers and networks. Yet, if you like at the core of these systems, they are all built around delivering service to the people.

Taking their cue from the private sector, some governments are now looking at pooling together infrastructure and resources to deliver the same or even better services at a much lower cost of building and supporting these new heterogeneous networks. The airline industry has been doing this for years.

ICT is also an industry. Asia’s low cost manufacturing base and large labor and talent pool has spawned an industry that serves not only the needs of the local market but the rest of the world as well.

“The skill base that you build from your people, the experiences that they have gotten, and the infrastructures they built can be repackaged together and sold to other organizations or countries that are embarking on the same journey,” suggests Yong.
Singapore’s national ICT infrastructure and policies, Malaysia’s multimedia super corridor, Taiwan’s ICT manufacturing base, and South Korea’s heavy investments in national broadband are prime examples of ICT-based industries that have spawned new industries in and around themselves.
Governments need to be cognizant of the changing lifestyle of its citizens. “People today don’t
always work in offices. They are very mobile. So governments need to build systems that are flexible and take into account the mobility of employees,” advises Yong.
If there is anything that Al Gore will be remembered by is his championing the education of the masses on the potential threat that climate change. Governments have, within them, the power to affect climate change policies in a positive way. But they have to lead by example.
Learning from the private sector, governments can implement systems and processes that have smaller carbon footprint, are more eco-friendly. ICT can help here.
The magazine can be found at


PengYou said...

More than one person has said this, "a crisis is too valuable to waste"

flightstick said...

To extend James's line of thought, the recent move by Singapore's Infocomm Development Authority to export the country's e-government expertise is indeed timely. Knowledge-export is also another way to diversify our economy.

James Yong said...

Thanks PengYou. Indeed more than one person said those words. I guess I just happened to hear it from the Stanford chap.

James Yong said...

Hi flightstick, yes I noticed the setting up of IDA International. Also IE Singapore has for sometime regarded Singapore's national ICT / eGov expertise as an industry that can be exported.