E-Asia: Can regional online collaboration deliver?

The majority of countries in Asia have embarked on formal IT and Internet drives to modernize their economies, and turn themselves into electronic nations.

During the Asia-Pacific IT forum organized by International Data Corp. (IDC) here this week, delegates discussed the progress of these plans as well as the further step of creating e-regions and even, perhaps, an electronic trading bloc covering the whole continent -- e-Asia.

That is over-ambitious and unnecessary, according to James Hall, managing partner, technology business solutions, for consulting company Accenture Inc. The larger the area and greater the population, the harder it is to create a seamless electronic environment, Hall believes.

"I have to say I am somewhat cynical about these kinds of projects," he said during a presentation at the forum. "I can see an e-Singapore succeeding but not an e-Asia or an e-Europe."

By most measures, e-Singapore already exists. Internet penetration is above 60 percent, and initiatives stemming from the government's 1998 E-Commerce Masterplan have gone a long way towards achieving the country's goal of becoming a secure and trusted electronic communications and trading hub for the region. Government and other public-sector services are largely accessible online.

But Singapore, as an almost totally export-oriented economy, needs the participation of other countries in the region. It is thus, through its newly formed National E-Commerce Action Committee, an enthusiastic supporter of e-ASEAN, a plan to promote e-commerce across the 10 member nations of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).

Lim Swee Say, Singapore's minister of state for communications and information technology, told the forum: "In time to come, we will see member nations of ASEAN working together to harmonize our cyber-rules and regulations, develop infocomm manpower and undertake cross-border networking of e-government, e-business and e-community initiatives."

Really? The goals of e-ASEAN are worthy, and some may even be achievable. But they are certainly challenging.

For example, the ASEAN Information Infrastructure (AII) initiative envisages an integrated broadband network spanning the region, delivering applications which enrich the lives of ordinary people as well as facilitating more efficient business and government processes.

"Our ... strategy is to bridge the digital divide through e-ASEAN," said Lim. "Even though the 10 members of ASEAN are at various stages of economic development, ASEAN recognizes the need to strengthen regional collaboration so that member nations will have a greater collective presence in cyberspace."

It sounds good, but means little, according to Accenture's Hall.

"It is often difficult to turn this kind of bold talk into reality," he said.

Analysts at the Harvard Information Infrastructure Project (HIIP) agree with Hall.

"The e-ASEAN initiative has yet to articulate a clear vision for the initiative as well as formulate its action plan. Even when the action plan is crafted, implementation is likely to be very difficult given the lack of funding resources and structural integration as well as the gaping intra-regional economic, political, and technological disparities," an HIIP analyst wrote in a report late last year.

To the northeast of ASEAN, Korea is delivering the reality of a wired country, according to Seol Jeong Seon, director general of South Korea's Institute of Information Technology Assessment.

Already, 28 percent of South Korean households have broadband Internet access at speeds of more than 1M bps (bits per second), and 41 percent of the country's total population use the Internet, Seol said at the forum. In the next phase of its e-Korea plan, the government will spend US$1 billion to improve that infrastructure further, so that by the end of 2001, 40 percent of households will have broadband access and 85 percent by 2005.

South Korea sees itself being part of a north Asian e-region along with China and Japan. For future developments in IT, mobile telephony and the Internet, South Korea plans to work with China and Japan to develop standards that will be used across the three north Asian powerhouse economies, Seol said.

So far, most of the tangible successes in Asian collaboration have come from small grass-roots projects reflecting actual needs, rather than from following the high-flown rhetoric of governments or the ASEAN secretariat.

Singapore and Malaysia -- which has its own thriving Multimedia Super Corridor high-tech project -- are piloting a scheme to introduce smartcard-based e-passports for citizens of the two countries. Vietnam is now sending several hundred programmers to India each year for training and work experience.

But there seems to be a push -- very possibly inappropriate -- for an overarching e-masterplan for the region, rather than allowing the organic development of small focused projects. Some Asian governments, it seems, are captivated by a mythic vision of rural basket-weaving women selling their wares over the Internet to high-priced buyers in Paris and New York, a kind of public sector dot-com fever.

Can e-regionalism be brought about by this kind of formal approach? Singapore not only thinks it can, but that it must.

Yeo Cheow Tong, Singapore's minister for communications and information technology said last month that an Asian IT Belt, linking all the major IT hubs in Asia, would help to attract global companies and retain Asia's pool of talented IT professionals. If Asia cannot achieve this, economic growth in the region will be affected, according to Yeo.

"Asian regionalism is crucial to our continuing development," Yeo said. "Asia comprises distinct and segregated countries, but problems are becoming regional in nature. Quite simply put, regional problems require regional solutions."

But the various countries have their own priorities, particularly with regard to e-ASEAN, according to HIIP analysts.

"At this stage, e-ASEAN seems to stand for various things in the minds of its proponents, ranging from a common infrastructure, free trade area, investment destination, e-ASEAN community, to a portfolio of various profitable Web projects," HIIP analysts wrote in the report. "It will be very difficult for the organization to proceed unless it prioritizes its goals, defines its focus, and confines the scope of the initiative."

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