As it stands out in global digital indices, Singapore is in a position to play a useful role in helping its Asean partners realise the revolutionary possibilities of e-commerce. It is natural, therefore, for the city-state to wish to drive that new form of business and other wings of the digital economy within the region, when it assumes the chairmanship of Asean next year. The drive would form part of a larger push to help companies in the region expand, as Minister for Trade and Industry (Trade) Lim Hng Kiang remarked recently.
The road to a digital future holds exciting prospects, but there are also considerable obstacles. The report on the Asean Digital Revolution, by the global management consulting firm A.T. Kearney, notes that Asean as a single community lags behind its global peers in the digital economy. However, the region has the potential to enter the top five digital economies in the world by 2025, adds the report, if all partners commit to the effort. Indeed, the implementation of a radical digital agenda could add US$1 trillion (S$1.4 trillion) to the region's GDP over a decade.
To realise that future, Asean must increase broadband access; accelerate innovation in mobile financial services, e-commerce and connected cities; enhance trust in the digital economy; strengthen local digital economies; and foster digital innovation within the region. That might sound like a tall order, but other regions, notably Europe, have embarked on that path.
Unlike protocols of foreign investment and technology transfer, which are often subject to bilateral political and strategic constraints, the digital universe is a fairly democratic one. All regions have a workable chance of benefiting from its opportunities, should they decide to do so.
Unfortunately, the national priorities of Asean members do not always converge. Some nations need to provide for the basic material needs of an expanding population. Others are concerned about state sovereignty and protectionism. For some, nation-building is undermined by insurgent or outright separatist groups. Yet others are worried by power conflicts playing out near their shores. The diversity of challenges facing Asean's members makes it difficult to prioritise digital development as a common goal for the region.
However, this is what Singapore must strive to do when it is in the chair. A digital economy can deliver tangible economic benefits which will have a rippleeffect on other areas of national life. E-commerce,of course, cannot resolve intransigent issues of security within and between nations, any more than traditional business can. But it could play a supportive role by creating a platform for their primary goal of providing a better life for citizens. In spite of the divergence that marks Asean, the evolving technology of commerce offers its partners a common horizon.