Bridging the Digital Divide in Southeast Asia: Pilot Agencies and Policy Implementation in Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines

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This article emerges from a broader study of the role of information and communications technology (ICT) solutions in the economic and social development of Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. (1) These are four very diverse countries, but all have announced policy initiatives and created new agencies to lead their efforts to implement ICT solutions. The common features suggest an opportunity to revisit the idea of the developmental state, and in particular to inquire whether the new agencies can play the role of pilot agencies leading development in the new global situation. The structures and policies of the four case study countries are set in a comparative framework utilizing China as one end of a spectrum of size and development, and Singapore as the other. China is important in its own right because of its significance in the region, but also because it is still a developing country offering a wide range of experiences among regions and agencies. Singapore is not only an example of clearly focused policy and its implementation, but it also plays a crucial direct role as a regional commercial hub. Both yield insights into the conditions in countries more towards the middle of the spectrum.

The approach is phenomenological, building from the aims, strategies, and implementation initiatives announced via policy statements on the one hand, and examination of the systems in operation on the other. Policies and programmes to address the digital divide remain no more than gestures unless they are reflected in the actual performance of the websites maintained by the responsible agencies. The study applies the "duck test" to implementation--if it does not waddle and quack, it is not a duck. Each government's website has been accessed to test for functionality and service. If the answer to any question regarding availability of a service is negative, then announced policy is a hope for the future, and has not been supported by implemented solutions. Finally, but perhaps most important, even the best designed website and the most advanced back office solutions will not deliver services if the majority of the population does not have access to the system. The statistics on infrastructure availability, therefore, are an additional test of successful implementation.

I. Background: The Threat and the Opportunity of the Digital Divide

The digital divide separates those who are connected from those who are not. On one side, wealthy countries, progressive firms, and affluent individuals enjoy easy access to the Internet. They benefit from the instant availability of information, convenient contact with individuals and organizations, and efficient delivery of services. On the other side, less fortunate countries, slow-moving firms, and the poor and disadvantaged across the world are switched off. Without entree to the electronic world they are cut off from sources of information, unable to connect with those who might offer them assistance, and deprived of services.

Use of the Internet continues to increase exponentially. The World Wide Web was created in 1991, and the first web browser in 1993. In late 2000, one estimate placed 332 million people online, and another forecast a billion users by 2004. But, of all these computers connected to the Internet, only 5 per cent were in the developing world. The disparity reflects average levels of income, high in the developed world and low in the developing world, and also the distribution of income, relatively equal in the developed world and relatively unequal in the developing world. It also reflects the availability of physical infrastructure. One of the key measures of telecommunications access is "teledensity", the number of main telephone lines per 100 people. In the developed world, on average, there are nearly 50 phone lines per 100 people, but in low income countries, there are only 1.4 phone lines per 100 people. (2)

Poverty is an age-old problem, but the revolution in ICT seems to present it in new and pressing forms. …