Mr Mah Bow Tan, Minister for Communications Opening Address - Asia Telecom 97 Forum

Mr Mah Bow Tan, Minister for Communications
Opening Address - Asia Telecom 97 Forum
Singapore, 9 June 1997

Dr Pekka Tarjanne, Secretary-General of ITU, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.

On behalf of the Singapore government, it is my pleasure to welcome all of you to Singapore and to this Asia Telecom 97 Forum.

1. This is the fourth time Singapore is honoured to host Asia Telecom. It is the largest exhibition and forum so far, and like Dr Tarjanne, I hope it will be the best ever. Indeed, the ingredients are already evident.

We meet in the most dynamic region in the world, to discuss developments in the most dynamic industry in the world. This is an exciting time in the history of telecommunication, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. Dr Tarjanne has painted a picture of a region full of promise and dynamism, where new markets abound for new players and new media.

2. Four years have passed since we last met in Asia Telecom. If we look back on the telecommunication scene in 1993 and compare it with the situation today, you will be immediately struck by the changes that have taken place since then. Last December, the WTO held its first Ministerial Conference in Singapore.

It was by all accounts a success, and laid the groundwork for the landmark pact at the GBT negotiations in February this year. Many countries are now allowing foreign participation in their telecommunications sector as they privatise state-owned entities and liberalise their markets.

3. Everywhere in Asia, governments are opening up their markets, welcoming new players both local and foreign and embracing new technology, which in turn drive down prices, boost service levels and generate new demand. Here in Singapore, we have liberalised our cellular mobile telephone and paging services. A new cellular mobile phone operator and three new paging operators launched their services in April this year. We have also announced our intention to liberalise our fixed line network by year 2000.

4. The changes in the telecommunications scene since 1993 have been dramatic. Let me share with you some figures. The penetration rate for fixed line increased from 44% in 1993 to 52% today. More remarkable is the increase in subscribers of mobile phones. In 1993, the penetration rates for mobile phone services was only 6%. Today it is 16%. In 1993, the subscriber rate for pagers was 22 %, today it is 37 %, ie. more than one in three Singaporeans own a pager. More spectacular is the increase in Internet subscribers. In 1993, the Internet was only used for research and academic purposes. Today the penetration rate among all Singaporeans is close to 11 %.

5. Advances in technology have also brought about the advent of broad-band multi-media services and networks.

Various countries in Asia have announced plans to develop their own National Information Infrastructure or N.I.I. in short, and be part of the Global Information Superhighway. Malaysia has launched its Multi-media Super-Corridor while Philippines is developing the Subic City Development. Singapore began its NII development in 1992 through the launch of its IT2000 initiatives. More recently, we have consolidated our efforts through our Singapore ONE network which will provide the entire nation with high speed broad-band multi-media access to the information superhighway. Singapore ONE was launched by PM Goh this morning.

6. With all these developments, the theme of the Forum, "Asian Routes to the Global Information Society," is an appropriate one.

It is particularly so because the Asia Pacific region has realised the importance of such developments and is the forefront of world efforts to realise the concept of a global information society.

7. In the early days, the Silk Route across Central Asia served as an effective conduit for trade between the Far East and Europe. Merchants, missionaries and travellers in search of new supplies, new converts and new frontiers braved the treacherous unknown to traverse the Silk Route. Via the Silk Route flowed a rich cross-cultural exchange, an exchange of goods, information, ideas and culture between East and West.

8. In a similar way today, we must explore and establish new Silk Routes, which will pave the way for a rich exchange of new ideas and new technologies between Asia and the rest of the world, and contribute to the realisation of the Global Information Society.

9. With growing economic strength and liberalised telecommunications markets, the Asia-Pacific region is a superb test-bed for new technologies and new ideas. The different stages of development and the diverse cultures and consumer preferences in the region can provide developers and innovators with immense opportunities to test a variety of technologies and products. Unlike the Silk Route travellers of the past who had to contend with hostile tribes and rough climatic conditions, investors and innovators in Asia today will generally find friendly governments and conducive business conditions.

Technologies, applications and services that have been successful on trial in Asia in its diverse markets can be transferred to the rest of the world, and help create the Global Information Society.

10. However, the road to a Global Information Society is a long one. While the prospects for it are bright, it is not about to happen overnight. Challenges lie ahead.

11. Diversity in the region is a strength. It is also a limitation. As countries are in different stages of infrastructure development, not all of them can roll-out telecommunication services as quickly as one would like. The development gap in the region could worsen if due account is not paid to the specific needs of developing countries and their place in the new information society.

12. The realisation of the Global Information Infrastructure hinges on a co-ordinated approach for the development of National Information Infrastructures (NII) in individual countries. Harmonisation of NIIs will be crucial for smooth communications and transmission of content. ASEAN and APEC have recognised the importance of this issue and have begun discussions to harmonise the respective telecommunication and information superstructures between member countries and economies.

13. For the NIIs to take off, one of the challenges ahead is to cultivate a generation of people who are comfortable with information technology, to fully exploit the potential of IT for a better quality of life. The young should be educated to be versatile and conversant with new technologies.

14. As PM Goh mentioned this morning, Singapore recognises the importance of preparing our young for the new world of Info-communications. The Singapore Government has allocated $2 billion to provide computer facilities for our students. Besides the young, it is also critical to assist the older generation who have grown up before the IT age, to accept and embrace the advantages that technology brings to our lives. The Singapore ONE network that was launched this morning is not meant to be a new toy for computer wizards. It is for the man in the street to experience the conveniences that such a network can offer. Singapore recently set a target of one PC for every two households in 5 years' time. Eventually, we hope to see a PC in every household.

15. The Government can play an important role to rally the people's support for a NII.

More importantly we need the close co-operation of governments, manufacturers, service providers, and end users for a sustainable and viable network. Forum and exhibitions like Asia Telecom 97 play a crucial role to facilitate a constant exchange of ideas and information between various interest groups. For example, the Strategies and the Technology Summit at Asia Telecom 97 will present a good opportunity for government and industry to share and exchange views on the various regulatory and technology issues of today.

16. As we stand two and a half short years away from a new millennium, the future has never looked more promising. The world has been at its most peaceful for a long time. Countries have begun to believe more and more in trade and peaceful co-existence.

New technologies are empowering countries, big and small, to find niches for themselves in the new global order, in particular, the Global Information Society of the future. In pursuing it, the world and Asia in particular, will undergo a fundamental transformation in the way we work and live our lives. We all have to start preparing for it.

17. What will it be like when we next meet at Asia Telecom in 4 years time? By then Singapore ONE will be fully implemented. Singapore will have three Public Basic Telecom Service providers and up to four cellular phone service providers. Singaporeans will enjoy a proliferation of new services, some of which we can only dream of today. Beyond this, who can tell? Perhaps our next speaker, Mr Bill Gates, may have some insights.

One thing is for sure. The pace of change in the telecommunication industry does not look like slowing down. Indeed, it may even pick up speed. In this respect, no other industry can compare.

18. In closing, may I say that those of us who are involved in one way or another in shaping and deciding the course of this industry must surely count ourselves most fortunate. I take this opportunity to wish all of you who are taking part in these deliberations a very successful and rewarding Forum.

Thank you.