Mr Mah Bow Tan, Minister for Communications Speech - Asia Pacific Telecom 97 Forum and Exhibition

Mr Mah Bow Tan, Minister for Communications
Speech - Asia Pacific Telecom 97 Forum and Exhibition
Singapore, 1 December 1997

Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is an honour for me to be present here today to address this distinguished forum. I have been asked to speak on the topic, Asian Initiatives Towards the Global Information Society.

This is a timely and important topic. Asian countries, many of whom are just beginning to cope with the new demands of a global economy, are now faced with an increasingly competitive, knowledge-based environment. Rapid developments in telecommunication, computing and broadcasting, are accelerating the process of globalisation across virtually all industry sectors. Markets are becoming more integrated and interdependent. Ready or not, we are being drawn into the global information economy. Our success will depend on how well we manage to maximise the benefits and opportunities of the Information Age, while minimising the threats that will surely come about.

Much has been said and written about the potential of the Information Society - greater efficiency, new growth opportunities, enhanced consumer choice, improved quality of life and greater social and cultural understanding. All this is true. But there may also be less rosy dynamics at work. Let me elaborate.

Rapid advances in IT and network technologies, while significantly improving productivity and competitiveness, have the effect of accelerating the commoditisation of goods and services. In no industry is this more clearly seen than in the communications and IT industry. Intense competition and the rapid pace of innovation has led to shortened product life cycles and shrinking profit margins. Just when a new pentium chip hits the market, work has already begun on the next upgrade. Software developers now give away their applications for free as part of a larger strategy to grab global market share, set global standards and sell other goods and services. It has been said that the challenge is to invent items faster than they are commoditised. This trend will happen at different rates for different industries -- depending on how IT-sensitive they are.

We will have to adjust to these changes. As industries globalise and move towards IT-intensive work practices, labour-intensive jobs will become marginalised. We in the Asia-Pacific region will have to ensure that our workforce is equipped with the skills to participate meaningfully in the information economy. We will also have to address cultural and linguistic issues related to the adoption of new technologies. We must find ways to promote local acceptance of new ways of communicating, working, living and conducting business. Our nimbleness and our ability to innovate and adapt quickly will be key to maintaining competitiveness in the global information era.

Conventional wisdom has it that it is necessary to break the market dominance of large, government-owned monopoly PTTs and to introduce more players offering a wider range of services. Yet, in the US and Europe, we have seen signs of large-scale mergers and acquisitions, an actual re-convergence of the industry, to consolidate expertise and to strengthen and expand market reach and market share. Witness the recent BT and WorldCom bids for MCI. What will be the impact of this re-convergence on us in Asia? What will be the impact of having the key sources of content creation and content distribution channels concentrated in the hands of a few? Rupert Mudoch's News Corp for example, distributes a significant portion of the world's broadcast media. In an era where access to information is becoming the crucial factor to maintaining competitiveness, these developments can give cause for concern. Increasingly, large companies will be in a position to control access to information as well as the content of information we access. This will have profound implications on Asia's voice and influence in the emerging global information society.

Faced with the challenges of the information era, some of which I have outlined just now, how should Asia position itself in the global information society? I shall not be so presumptuous as to claim to speak on behalf of all Asian countries, but I would submit that the following three broad goals are common to most countries in the region:

Firstly, Asia would want to be competitive and thrive in the emerging global information economy, reflecting adequately our combined economic might and potential.

Secondly, Asia would want to ensure that cultural and linguistic diversity of the global information infrastructure is upheld.

Thirdly, Asia would want to ensure that it exerts influence in international deliberations on policies for the development of this global society.

These goals open a Pandora's Box of possible initiatives. The diversity of contexts and circumstances within Asia precludes the existence of a neat set of prescriptions for achieving these goals. But I think it is possible to consider a number of common principles that could guide us in our journey forward.

i. Value Self-Reliance

My first proposed principle is to value self reliance. In many Asian countries, including India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand, a local info-communication industry is thriving. Local entrepreneurs are doing good business. This is a heartening reflection of the continued value we must place on self reliance and on the development of our indigenous info-communications industries.

We should properly equip our societies for the information age in a manner that will ultimately strengthen local capabilities. The various existing and planned Asian-owned, national satellite systems are a case in point. These initiatives will ensure that Asian countries are not solely dependent on foreign-owned carriers for their global connectivity. It will also ensure that Asian countries have control over the channels of content distribution and hence, retain a say in the kinds of content that run over these media.

To some extent, this principle of self reliance can be applied by governments to on-going efforts to develop their national information infrastructures. Broadband infrastructure development is still considered a risky affair by commercial operators. With the multimedia industry still at a fledgling stage, there are concerns whether investors are putting in capacity ahead of demand. This is a classic chicken-and-egg situation of infrastructure providers waiting for sufficient applications and applications developers waiting for the appropriate infrastructure.

In Singapore, the government decided to break this quandary by taking a leading role in investing in the core backbone infrastructure. This commitment was an effort to boost industry confidence in the Singapore ONE project. It encouraged private sector participation in the provision of network enhancing capabilities and middleware, and in a variety of content services and applications. As private sector confidence in the project grows, the government will continue to hive off its shareholding in the network consortium to private sector interests.

This initiative that many Asian countries have shown should also motivate us to step up co-operation to build an Asian Internet backbone. This means we do no need to route our Internet traffic through North America, which is currently the case, even if for example, an Indonesian wants to access a site in or send a message to Thailand! There are already efforts to move in that direction. Initiatives such as the Asia Pacific Advanced Network (APAN) and the Asian Internet Interconnection Initiatives are commendable cases in point.

ii. Stay Flexible

My second suggested principle is to maintain flexibility. We need to remain open to technological change and exploit leap-frogging opportunities to meet our goals. New technologies are becoming increasingly affordable. The advent of wireless systems, for instance, has provided long-term, cost-effective and quick solutions to network deployment in rural areas. Soon, a myriad of GMPCS systems will come into the market, promising remote areas immediate access to advanced communication services.

Developing Asian countries should exploit these technological benefits to address the specific developmental problems they face, and do so on terms that suit their national regulatory and policy frameworks. Quite a few developing Asian countries have deployed newer digital networks which are better equipped to handle broadband capabilities than the older analogue networks in many developed countries. This could be one reason why Asia is currently ahead of the US in the deployment of ADSL technology which allows subscribers to access broadband services through existing copper telephone lines.

iii. Make IT Relevant to Our Needs

Thirdly, I want to emphasise the principle of relevance. There is a need to remain pragmatic and to develop capabilities based on our own realities. Our immediate efforts should be relevant to the local context. We should focus on finding applications that enhance competitiveness in our key sectors, be they agriculture, manufacturing, tourism, or financial services. This gives our citizens and business communities the incentive to be better and smarter users of technology in a way that is meaningful to them.

In response to a need in our legal community, the Singapore Attorney-General's Chambers and Information Technology Institute (ITI) jointly developed an on-line database, LawNet, which gives the legal community ready access to legislation, case law and legal research material. Our courts now encourage the electronic submission of documents. These efforts harness IT in a manner that encourages law firms in Singapore improve their work processes. MediNet and TradeNet serve similar purposes for the medical community and for import/export companies respectively.

Overcoming cultural and linguistic barriers to using information technology is difficult. Efforts should be made to develop local language based applications and content -- either through tapping the resources of the local R&D community or by working in collaboration with other countries to Asianise existing applications and content. There is already some exciting work going on in several Asian research institutes to develop multi-lingual Internet search engines and translation software. More such efforts should be encouraged. In the long run, efforts to promote society's assimilation of and competence in IT usage must start with an investment in education. Children are great assimilators of technology and they will be the ones who will form the IT-savvy workforce of the future.

iv. Encourage Entrepreneurship

My fourth point is that efforts should be made to encourage an entrepreneurial spirit. The system of franchised telecom shops (wartels) here in Indonesia provides an excellent example. This system aims to improve public access to telecom services through the setting up of one-stop shops in city centres, towns and villages. What is particularly interesting about this model is its reliance on small private investors. Wartels have proven to be highly profitable investments. This system could well be expanded to provide access to other communication services, such as the Internet, and might be something that Asian countries with relatively low Internet penetration rates could explore.

I have been intrigued by some of the initiatives that the World Bank has supported in order to help developing economies realise the benefits of the Information Economy. One initiative under its 'Information for Development program is a project which allows local artisans in Latin America, Asia and Africa to use digital camera images of their handiwork to market their products globally over the Internet. It's a modest example, but it illustrates the importance of ensuring that the technologies adopted are relevant and serve a real need.

v. Engage In International Policy Discussions on the GII

Finally, I would like to make a pitch for Asia to be engaged with the international community in policy discussions on the GII. Asia must be involved in shaping and defining the policy and regulatory framework for the global information society. Thus far, only the G7 and OECD countries have discussed these issues in any depth. These organisations have made preliminary recommendations on how e-commerce should be governed and how harmful Internet content should be regulated.

It is possible that, somewhat by default, these recommendations could be promoted as equally applicable to other countries and regions. It is certainly true that we should build on the thoughtful and sound policy frameworks other organisations and groupings have evolved. There is no need to reinvent the wheel! Nonetheless, rather than accept these recommendations as the global norm, Asia must add its own unique perspective on these issues. Policy contexts in the OECD and in Asia differ widely and we must collectively evolve global policy directions that are applicable to Asia's realities, as well as to the unique realities of other regions of the world. Regional efforts should not be seen as competing with or detracting from setting a global framework. Rather, they should be regarded as integral building blocks upon which a meaningful and relevant global framework can be established.

Global engagement might prove difficult for some of us, given that our policies in many of these areas are still evolving. Nevertheless, we should make a start. We could perhaps begin by articulating broad areas of agreement, such as our common interest in ensuring universal access to these new systems and services, as well as the importance of promoting diversity of content. Asia should participate in on-going multilateral discussions, such as those led by the ITU and APEC, to develop and agree upon standards and policies to govern the global information infrastructure. As our domestic policies develop, we will be able to add our perspectives to the evolving policy, legal and technical frameworks that will govern transactions in the Information Age. In particular, we should begin to add our voice to discussions on how to facilitate electronic commerce and cross-border flows of digitised information -- including addressing intellectual property rights, censorship, personal privacy, data security issues and so on.

APEC is a particularly useful forum at which to begin regional discussions on these issues. Asian economies should take advantage of the consultative and consensus-seeking nature of APEC activities to start the process of collaboration and confidence-building. APEC provides Asian member economies a forum at which to foster a better understanding of the policy contexts in which we all operate, and to discuss the constraints and concerns faced by developing economies to equip themselves for the information age.

I see great potential for the APEC Telecommunications Working Group, or TEL, as it is known, to lead the way in these policy discussions. TEL has already made commendable progress in developing the technologies and applications for the Asia Pacific Information Infrastructure (APII), APEC's vision for a seamless network electronically linking all 18, and soon 21, member economies. These collaborative projects underscore APEC's belief that the fruits of economic cooperation and development can be more equitably shared if information and technology flows seamlessly between developed and developing economies alike. It would be timely for TEL to leverage on its keen understanding of member economies' needs and propose some key policy directions APEC economies should take to facilitate this seamless flow of information across our borders.

Next year, Singapore will host the Third APEC Ministerial Meeting on the Telecommunications and Information Industry (TELMIN3). It is my hope that APEC Telecommunication Ministers will seize the opportunity to address some the new policy issues which technological convergence has brought about. We could use the Singapore Ministerial to make firm headway towards setting policy frameworks for governing transactions over the information superhighway, again within a context that recognises and reflects the needs of the Asia-Pacific region.

In closing, let me reiterate that Asian countries are, and will continue to be, key stakeholders in the global information society. Making the successful transition into the information age will prove to be an exciting challenge to us all. I have suggested several principles to guide this transition:

self-reliance -- to ensure we control and chart our own development;

flexibility -- to learn from, adapt to and benefit from new opportunities;

relevance -- to harness IT to suit our own realities and needs;

entrepreneurship -- to value and nurture local initiative; and

global engagement -- to ensure our views are heard, understood and respected.

There is much that Asian countries can contribute in terms of their culture, spirit of innovation, industriousness and sheer human talent. These are the energies we will draw upon to add to and to immeasurably enrich the vibrancy of the emerging global information society.

Let me wish all of you fruitful discussions at this Forum. Thank you.