Digital No.10 unacceptable
A report that hit front pages last week deserves careful study. The report Digital Nation published by the Australia-based AlphaBeta had disappointing news for the military government. It ranked Thailand No.10 among selected Asian countries that have successfully adopted a digital policy. But the report, showing how effective current policies are for investment and growth, carried far worse news than that.
The first depressing fact is that Thailand's ranking tenth was out of just 11 countries studied. It did not include, for example, China. In four sub-categories -- financial, product development, human capital and community -- the very highest rank Thailand attained was eighth out of 11, in financial capital. In digital products under development, the country came lowest. In addition to Thailand they were, in order of overall ranking, Singapore, Australia, South Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Taiwan, Malaysia, India, Indonesia and Vietnam. In other words, Thailand was being judged against both more advanced countries and its peers.
AlphaBeta and the Asia Internet Coalition which gathered the data for the report offered strong criticism of Thailand. The current policies aimed at making a "digital economy" are on the wrong path. Instead, the government should immediately ditch this strategy and switch to a "digital nation". AlphaBeta's Fraser Thompson stressed that point in person last week at a seminar held by the Thammasat Consulting, Networking and Coaching Centre.
Mr Thompson, an AlphaBeta co-founder based in Singapore, makes a strong case. The current government policy to create a digital economy is passive and essentially non-productive. By aiming primarily to encourage digital literacy, it will produce at best a country that hopes investors will come. National broadband with universal access would ensure all Thais get on the internet, but there need to be programmes or opportunities for what should come next.
A digital nation, on the other hand, aims to upgrade student and worker skills by improving internet access among the population. By creating a digital nation, the government would be automatically supporting startups. It would attract the interest of international companies and investors, and prepare Thais for positions with digital-savvy companies inside and outside the country.
While every study and research programme is going to come up with slightly different results depending on the questions asked, the AlphaBeta research is clear. Thailand is currently behind not just the advanced countries the regime hopes to join; it has not distinguished itself from regional competitors and peers. The most optimistic way to look at the rankings is that Thailand is roughly equal to Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam.
The reasons for Thailand's low rankings are clear enough. In a word, current policies are inconsistent. The shambolic and never-ending show by the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) is indicative. After many months of statements and dead-end policy announcements, investors haven't a clue about digital tax collection. The regulation and censorship of internet streaming is uncertain.
As the NBTC battles with itself, there is no sign the government will step in to a situation where adult supervision is clearly required. The country and investors await guidance on how health will be folded into the digital age. While India and Google are developing a national programme of free WiFi at every railway station, Thailand has no significant partnership with any foreign company.
The "digital Thailand" policies obviously need upgrading and honing. Last week's report is an excellent place to start. Clear policy and regulation must be brought to this all-important field where confusion, inconsistency and downright agency incompetence seems to rule.
Bangkok Post editorial column
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